A temporary shelter, managed by His Majesty’s Kidu Office, is home to 23 drifters

Yangyel Lhaden

It is 12:45pm at the Rinchen Kuenphen Primary School (RKPS), temporary home to 23 people who were found in different parts of Thimphu, with apparently nowhere to go during the lockdown. It is lunchtime and the motley group, neatly dressed and wearing face masks, are lined up for lunch at the assembly ground which serves as their dining space and entertainment centre while the rest of Thimphu is under lockdown.

A lively Aum Karma barges into the line, gets her food, and calls out “laso! kadrinchey.” Someone exclaims that the soup is tasty. Aum Karma replies, “Why wouldn’t it be tasty? It’s bamboo shoot!”

Most of them go for a second helping. One man gets his food after everyone else and eats quietly in a corner. He has not spoken a word since he came here.

After lunch, the group sits in the sun chatting. Someone turns on the television and they all watch a Bhutanese film.

At a glance, this group of people with nowhere to call home, have bonded in their temporary shelter. They watch Bhutanese films, sit in groups to chat or walk around the campus. There is a general, if unusual, sense of camaraderie among a group of completely disconnected people.

This “home” is under the care of His Majesty The King’s kidu programme, organised by the Office of the Gyalpoi Zimpon. Patrolling teams of the police and De-Suup picked them up as they wandered around, unaware of the lockdown or the Covid-19 situation.

De-Suup Ugyen Pem with His Majesty Secretariat (HMS) said the temporary shelter was started upon the Royal Command after the first few people were found outside in Thimphu after the lockdown was announced. The first batch of seven moved to the shelter on August 14. Before the shelter was ready, they stayed at the police station ground for a few days.

The Officer in Command of Thimphu Police Station, Major Gembo Penjor, said that the patrolling team happened to come across these people during odd hours and when asked about their relatives or homes, they had no answer. 

“That’s how we came to know they had nowhere to go,” he said.

The group is a mix of daily wage workers, doma sellers, construction workers, some doing odd jobs, people seeking alms, or working for other families. Their stories are as varied as the range of disabilities many suffer from. Most are chronic alcoholics and have experienced different stages of detox treatment. They were brought to the shelter in a much worse condition than they are now. They were washed, some reluctantly, and given clothes and kept clean by two De-Suups who are caring for them at the shelter.

The group

Karma Dorji, 28, has an intellectual disability. The bus stop was his home before the lockdown. He was picked up on the first day of the lockdown by the police patrolling team when he was visiting a public toilet near where he lived. He said that he woke up to the most pleasant morning and wondered why the premise was surprisingly quiet and empty. He wanted to take this opportunity to take a bath. “I requested the police to let me at least take a shower or they bear the dirty smell,” said Karma, who is a daily wage worker.

Devi Maya Sunar, her husband, and two children were asked to leave a makeshift home where they lived by the proprietor’s brother during the lockdown. They met the police patrolling team in Hejo.

Khotsa is deaf. He ran away from an apple orchard where he was a gardener. He was found walking near Zilukha during lockdown, and refused to go back to his employer.

There is an elderly man who is deaf. The De-Suups refer to him as Patient One, because he couldn’t tell them his name when he was taken for Covid-19 test to hospital. All of them were first tested for Covid-19 before being brought to RKPS. Patient One was initially extremely unresponsive. He did not allow anyone to come near him or touch him. The De-Suups had a difficult time giving him a bath and helping him dress. Patient One normally walks around Thimphu barefoot, carrying a backpack and stick, and sleeps on the Thimphu streets. He depended on hotels and shops for food. His bag still had a few fizzy drinks and mouldy bread when he was brought to the shelter. He did not have any clothes. Now, he has around five sets.

Aum Karma lives in a makeshift home in the city, and sells doma. She keeps saying, “keep distance or else you will get cooperation (coronavirus)”. She has heard De-Suups and volunteers saying this around town.

Namgay, 43, is an alcoholic and also has an intellectual disability. He is a daily wage earner at a construction site, and was sleeping on the streets. Namgay has an uncle in Thimphu who, he says, does not take care of him.

Khando, 53 used to be a messenger at one of the corporate offices in Thimphu. He is a religious man and goes to religious ceremonies where he gets some money. He has some relatives with whom he stays occasionally, but that is not always easy as he is an alcoholic. He is mostly not welcomed. He usually sleeps at the bus station.

Chimi Dorji, 28, started living in a temporary shelter behind one of the 5-star hotels in Thimphu after his landlord locked him out when he could not pay rent. During the lockdown, without a movement card, he sneaked out to buy essentials. “I don’t have enough money and I used to go to sleep hungry most nights,” he said.

Life at RKPS

The De-Suups on duty get along well with the large family. Aum Karma and Karma Dorji are the entertainers. They all crack up when Aum Karma speaks. Karma Dorji on the other hand is a very jolly person. He moves around, jokes with every person, especially with the two De-Suups on duty, but he gets agitated whenever someone asks him about his family.

Aum Karma and Patient One do not get along. Patient One is sensitive to Aum Karma’s teasing and they are seen chasing each other around the school buildings. Aum Karma, folding Patient One’s clothes, says that she feels sorry for him. Karma Dorji says he is exercising to become a police officer. He runs around the football ground every day. He seems to annoy all the others but they don’t seem to mind.

The two children of Devi Maya Sunar play goti (a stone game). Sometimes their mother joins them.

Dorji and Namgay met at the police station. The police requested Dorji to be Namgay’s attendant when Namgay was taken for detox. Dorji has accompanied Namgay to RKPS. His job is to make sure Namgay does not stray away from the campus.

What next?

The group is totally impervious to the lockdown. What will happen after the lockdown? They survived in Thimphu, unnoticed by the city’s residents who are busy with their daily lives, and came into focus only because the city shut down. Most of them are not worried what happens next because they do not think about it.

Patient One could not even walk properly when he first came to the shelter. Now he can run. The person who wouldn’t let anyone come near him is now an entertainer of the group. He communicates enthusiastically with hand gestures and broad grin on his face. He signs to the De-Suups to take him for a ride because he enjoyed the car ride to the hospital when he was taken for the Covid-19 test.

Aum Karma is stable now, but she still feels like she is in a prison. She does not understand the lockdown, no matter how much the De-Suups try to explain it to her. She does not crave for alcohol, and says that she will quit and use her savings to find a proper home. What she misses the most, she says, is her doma business.

Khotsa was lost after running away from his employer. At RKPS, he has found people he can trust. He wants them to help him find a new life.