We left Lhasa at night and headed for the mountains. We walked for 17 days,’ Kelsang Dolma, sitting in her small rain-battered room in Dharamsala, tells me her story. ‘The snow was deep and my shoes kept slipping. We had to help each other walk. Nights were so cold and the days so long. We had to cross a high pass because the Chinese soldiers wouldn’t go that way. On the pass we found a body of another Tibetan in the snow. That terrified me. But we were lucky, we made it to the border.’ Kelsang’s village is in eastern Tibet. When she got to Lhasa, she had to find an ‘agent’ who would take her across the border into Nepal. The agent was looking for other Tibetans who wanted to flee, so Kelsang had to wait around for a month. ‘That was a nervous time,’ she says. ‘Whenever I stepped outside I felt like the Public Security Bureau officers could tell what I was planning to do.’
Kelsang’s trials did not end at the border. Her Nepali guide took Kelsang and the others to his house. But when he had gone out, the Nepali border police found them. ‘They made us lie down at gunpoint – I thought they would kill us,’ she recalls. ‘They left in the evening to get reinforcements, maybe even to find Chinese border guards to hand us over. But our guide came back and we sneaked out of the back window. He dressed us as Nepalis and we made our way on foot to Kathmandu like that. Every night the police scanned the hillsides with giant torches to find us. I thought my heart would burst.’ Eventually the group made it to Boudha, on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley, the centre of the Tibetan community in Nepal.
‘Tenzing Palden’ (not his real name), now a film editor in London, made the same journey that Kelsang undertook. When he and the friend he was travelling with arrived in Lhasa from their home in eastern Tibet, the first thing they did was to find a guide, who they paid 900 yuan (about USD 140). After buying blankets, they had just 10 yuan left to buy food to last until Nepal. ‘Will I be able to make it?’ Tenzing kept asking himself. Thereafter, for eight days and nights on the road, Tenzing huddled together with 75 others on the back of a truck, standing periodically to let some of his compatriots get some sleep.
When they reached Saga, a garrison town nearing the Nepal frontier, they left the truck and began walking towards the Dargye Tsangpo River. It was starting to freeze. ‘When the soft ice over the river hit your thigh, it cut,’ he recalls. A young monk was taken by the river’s current. ‘We buried his body in a sand dune and continued our journey.’ The group walked at night and slept during the day. One day they ran out of food, just before they started to cross the Himalaya. ‘Hunger, tiredness and thick snow – they almost took us,’ he says. ‘Sometimes we met yak traders from whom we could buy an apple or banana, but it was really expensive. Most of the time we ate snow, which kept us on our feet. We saw dead bodies, people who had not made it across the pass. I kept thinking that could have been me.’
The word refugee instantly conjures movement, evoking images of frightened peoples fleeing their homelands as a result of conflict or extreme discrimination. The international definition has it that such flight will take people across national boundaries into places of safety in other countries. So, becoming a refugee starts with a journey.
Nurul Amin was just seven years old in 1991, when his family left Burma after years of abuse meted out to the Muslim minority Rohingya community by the authorities. The police arrested his two elder brothers, accusing them of being involved in the 1990 student movement, and his father. ‘They tied them to a tree for a month,’ he says. ‘They only took them down when we sold our land and paid enough money.’ When they recovered, the family set out for Bangladesh, a route taken by many Rohingya in recent decades. They had to hide for five days in the jungle because of the frequent police patrols that blocked the border. ‘We had nothing to eat and I caught a fever,’ Amin recalls. ‘At night we could hear wild animals, and we had to light fires to scare them away.’
On the fifth night, they crossed into Bangladesh. But those who make it across the border must find somewhere to go. In 1991 on the Teknaf peninsula, like with most other refugee crises around world, it was the local communities to whom the Rohingya refugees first turned. But the refugee numbers grew to a quarter-million, not something an impoverished local population can deal with, and it was not long before the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, had signed an agreement with the Dhaka government to provide assistance to the Rohingya. Over 20 camps were erected down the length of the peninsula, emergency shelters were constructed and rations of rice were shipped in. The Rohingya moved into their temporary accommodation, queued for their food and waited for the world to change.
Waiting can also be a time of flux. Many of the first Tibetan refugees who came to India in the early 1960s formed work camps that built roads in the Himalaya, including the route between Manali and Leh. This was literally a life on the road, the workers shifting their camps as the tarmac slowly progressed. For the encamped Rohingya, a huge number endured years of being shifted between camps as a result of government policies that the refugees believe were designed to push them into returning to Burma. This culminated in a 1992 agreement between Burma and Bangladesh wherein the majority of the Rohingya refugees were repatriated. But the situation in Burma’s northern Rakhine state had not changed. It is widely believed that most of those repatriated repeated their initial flight to Bangladesh within a year, to live as undocumented migrants alongside their camp-dwelling relatives. Twenty years after their initial exodus, the camp-based Rohingya refugees are still living in emergency-style shelters.
Where does the refugee journey end? The trend of lives lived in limbo is not specific to Southasia. Across the world in the 1990s and 2000s, as each refugee crisis became increasingly drawn out, supposedly temporary spaces came to be officially referred to as ‘protracted’ refugee situations. With camps and settlements defined as temporary and the concept of longer-term solutions inferring a final destination, refugees cannot help but feel constantly in transit. And this, inevitably, has a knock-on effect to how they live their lives.
In his essay ‘My Kind of Exile’, the Tibetan writer and poet Tenzin Tsundue describes how when his family was eventually given a house and some land in South India, his father was loathe to renovate it, saying instead ‘Soon we will go back to Tibet. There we have our own home.’ In fact, whether official or not, secondary migrations are prevalent among refugee populations. Many refugees who made a first base in Southasia have undertaken a further journey, often on visas that do not recognise them as refugees, joining the melee of undocumented global migrants in the West for education, opportunities and, for some, a shot at getting closer to home. As one Tibetan refugee said, ‘If I cannot live in Tibet, I do not have a home. So I might as well try and live in a country where I will have most opportunities.’
And what about when that day finally comes, and an opportunity to resettle elsewhere – permanently – finally appears? Nijam Uddin, resettled since December 2008 in Bradford, UK, from the Kutapalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, says that his departure from the camp was ‘a happy journey – we felt we were leaving a prison and heading towards freedom.’ Since arriving in the UK, Nijam has opened a Bangladeshi restaurant, his clientele oblivious to the fact that the person taking their order had had to queue for rations of plain rice for most of his life. Nijam’s is perhaps a success story. But for him, the journey is not over. ‘I am here but my family members and country people in Burma are not safe. Third-country resettlement is not a solution if one person alone has happiness.’
Relatives, compatriots and the land itself left behind are constant pulls for those who have migrated, contributing to a feeling of being out of place and on the road. Indeed, this feeling is sustained and can be passed down generations through collective narratives of both exile and the homeland. Collective narratives of events such as flight and exile are repeated until they become common, amounting to the ‘social imagination’ of exile.
So Tenam, a Tibetan based in Paris, has a ‘longing for Tibet’, a country he has never seen, which is ‘partly due to stories that I heard from my parents and the elders’. Music, writing and poetry bring the lost homeland alive with their imagery of snow lands, parents and the Potala Palace. In Dharamsala, it is common to hear ‘Ama’ (Mother), a song by the well-known singer Yardong, giving voice to inner longings. One knows that in every house there are people who feel that pain of separation – whether firsthand or as part of a collective yearning to return. Tenzin Tsundue writes for many in the diaspora today when he says, ‘We live in India, but our hearts are in Tibet.’
For second and third generations, the transit period of being refugees can thus be more mental than physical, but certainly no less real. ‘Uncertainty is the baggage of the exile-born,’ says Nyima Choden, raised in Nepal and India and now based in Delhi. ‘We put down roots, but we live in transit between the borrowed memories and the idea that we might have to uproot again if Tibet was free. I want that to happen, and I would go there; but for we who have lived half a life somewhere else, wouldn’t that be another kind of exile?’
It is the answer to this question that Pema Yoko wants to find out, but her hopes of doing so are frustrated by current political realities. Born and brought up in the UK, the inability to assess whether she feels a sense of belonging in Tibet keeps her in transit. She loves London, the city her parents adopted, but it has rarely felt like home. ‘It hurts me and my family deeply to be denied the chance to see the country of my origin,’ she says. ‘I want the choice to know whether Tibet is or could be my home. I want that right.’