This is the Tibetan refugee camp in the village of Bridim, one of several in Nepal.
Tibetans have been forced to call these camps home for the past 60 years, desperately trying to retain their culture after escaping their homeland when the Chinese authorities invaded and overran Tibet in the Fifties.
Bridim, with its 120 often inter- related inhabitants is a bleak place but at least they are free.
Nangsa Lama, 63, escaped from Tibet rather than accept Chinese rule just after the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetans, fled to India in 1959. She lost her father crossing a mountain when he was swept away by a river. She lived in Bridim until she met and married a Nepalese of Tibetan origin and had six children.
Bridim village in the Langtang mountains is little more than a semi -circle of stone and wood houses, with a corn-grinding water mill, serried fields of fresh vegetables, an ancient monastery, water-run prayer wheels and multicoloured prayer flags releasing Buddhist scriptures the wind takes to the gods.
The Tibetans of Nepal, whether they live in towns or villages, are a forgotten people, with few rights, unless, like Nangsa Lama’s sons and daughters, they have a Nepalese father and so become Nepali citizens.
Tamdin Dorje Tuladhar, the chief co-ordinator for the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office, said that before the Tibetan uprisings in China in 2008, many Tibetans felt at home in Nepal, contributing to the economy by making carpets and handicrafts. Now, he said: “When they arrive in Nepal, they are arrested by the Nepali police. Since the uprisings in China the situation has got worse. The Chinese government is getting more and more suspicious of Tibetans living in Nepal.”
His office’s research showed in 2010 that 13,000 to 14,000 Tibetan refugees are in Nepal. At least 9,000 do not have refugee status or any identity, says Tamdin. He said: “Tibetans here are dehumanised. They cannot work, go to college, get a driving licence; travel outside Nepal, get admission to a professional institution; they can’t open a bank account.”
He finds fewer arrivals nowadays from Tibet. From the thousands, it has dropped to 16 to 20 a month fleeing across the border due to increased surveillance on both the Chinese and Nepalese sides and an improved cross-border intelligence sharing network between China and Nepal.
The Tibetan issue is a delicate one for Nepal, a country of only 30 million people, but in need of infrastructure and foreign aid. Last year China gave Nepal a £80million grant, and approved a £1.1billion hydropower project.
It is building roads and “Friendship Bridges” which will help trade and business but will also enable tanks and military hardware to roll down from the Chinese border to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
Some Tibetans are saved by sponsorship thanks to the adventurous trekkers, climbers and wildlife enthusiasts Nepal has always attracted. Tim Gocher, a British investment banker, set up a British charity, the Dolma Development Fund, 10 years ago to provide schooling.
He said: “Education has the most impact. The economic future of a child is transformed – it helps future generations too.”
One of Nangsa Lama’s sons, Tsering, was sponsored by a Swiss couple when he was eight and went to boarding school in Kathmandu, a long trek down to the bottom of his mountain and then a six-hour drive away. Education changed his life, and having observed trekking tourists in the mountains he resolved to develop eco tourism in the area.
He formed a partnership with Gocher and is CEO of Dolma Eco-Tours.
Thirty per cent of most of his income goes to supporting children helped by the Fund. Visitors embed with the village community, sleep in Tibetan lodges, eat organically grown food, and immerse in Bridim culture.Tsering has plans for an upmarket eco-lodge complex to bring permanent, rather than seasonal work, to local Tibetans.
However, the 36-year-old, sporting smart trekking gear and Ray Bans, told me Bridim’s population is declining as young people go to school, graduate and then only return for festivals and weddings. “I want to bring young people back to the villages. So many fields are lying abandoned.”
At the foot of the mountain, in the Syabru Bensi refugee camp, Tsering’s relative, 40-year-old Lhakpa Tsering, talks with his Sikkimese wife Tashi and nine-month-old baby girl at his side. He said: “I work as co-ordinator, looking after four refugee camps. I can’t buy land; I can’t even buy a motorcycle. I travel eight hours to Kathmandu to pick up my stipend from the Tibetan government in exile. If we get sick we have to pay lots of money and go to a private hospital. It’s very difficult to survive in Nepal.
“Because the young can’t work, they take drugs. Since my wife and I don’t have citizenship, my baby can’t get it. I don’t know what the future holds.”
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