COVER STORY: From this side of Norbugang (Dholpani) in Sarpang, the whole expanse of Gelephu spreads like a vast green carpet emblazoned with myriad little white dwellings. Far beyond the richly fulvous fields that extend until a long line of thick, tall and dark forest, farmers are winding their farm work. To the west, the aureate sun is turning red and sinking behind the cold dark mountains.
Hari Kumar Karki, 45, is looking down from a window. I can see just half his face. And he is gone.
It was a pleasant night, December 16. Hari Kumar and his brother’s son, Dilip Chettri, were waiting at their field at Jampelling for people across the border, the Indians, to come and get their share of rice harvest. For a long time this has been the practice – Indians worked in the Bhutanese fields and came to get their share of harvest every year.
It was 11 PM. Hari and Dilip were asleep. That’s when six men showed up and tied them up. The men had guns. They had their face covered. They gagged both Dilip and Hari. Hari struggled and one of the men kicked him hard on his stomach. Hari fell and was unconscious. He was dragged a little way down and was left to die. That happened 17 days ago. In the border towns, especially in Sarpang and Gelephu, people are disappearing. What you know and hear next is ransom, a call from kidnappers.
Hari has dark-blue bruises on his face, one nasty mark on his forehead. He doesn’t know how he got it. His wrists have marks that are festering. He can barely walk. When he gained consciousness, it was past 12, and Hari ran to his sister. She informed the police.
By then, Dilip, who will turn 20 this month, was already deep in the border forest. He is still there, with faceless captors.
On December 17, day after Dilip was kidnapped, the kidnappers called Dilip’s parents asking for Nu 10 million ransom. Two days later, one December 19, they called again asking for Nu 10 million. The kidnappers called again on December 26 to say that they are willing to settle for Nu 500,000. Dilip’s parents have not heard from the kidnappers since.
“It’s my son speaking on the phone. He says he is cold and hungry. It breaks my heart,” says Dilip’s mother. “I can’t bear this. I don’t know whether he is alive or not. I can’t sleep. But we are doing what we are told to do by the police. It is my child today, it could be someone else’s tomorrow.”
And then on December 27, 11 days after Dilip disappeared, a taxi driver was killed and the police promptly arrested the 24-year-old passenger from Drametse in Mongar.
But the people here, in Gelephu, say these things are normal being at the border. At night, kids are loitering along the roads. They are not afraid. And many people are coming to the town every day.
What is interesting is the rumour. Travellers create it and stories reach far and wide corners of the country.
A woman is sitting on a culvert at the junction of Tsirang-Dagana highway. She tells me that some 85 people have been massacred and a certain Indian tribe is seeking shelter at Bhutanese army camp.
There is a problem at the other side of border. Security has to be tight. That’s why Bhutanese army is there at times and the police are alert. And the police are spread too, far and wide, to make sure that the people are safe.
On December 26, Dilip called his father, who is a teacher at Norbuling Middle Secondary School: “Are you really coming, father? I am really cold and hungry. Get me out of this place.” Dilips parents told the kidnappers that they are ready to give NU 200,000. The answer they got had them worried.
“A person’s life we thought was worth more than Nu 200,000,” said the kidnappers. The caller did not sound like a Bhutanese speaking Nepali.
“I am a mother. I can’t bare this. Whenever there is a call. I just close my ears with my hands. I go crazy,” says Dilip’s mother.
The border between Bhutan and India is a vast jungle. And the Indian can use Bhutanese mobile network.
“This is one of the main factors. We are very concerned. People from across the border, from south-west to south-east are using Bhutanese sim,” said SP Tshering Dorji. “We have problem here because of porous border. But people are creating rumours. That’s not right, to frighten people with baseless rumours.”
The sun is going down the mountain and darkness is setting in. Military trucks are rushing into the forests, leaving behind a trail of heavy dust. Security is the top priority here.
“We are in full cooperation with our counterparts across the border. Almost all the perpetrators of crimes have been identified and we are following up with the authorities,” said SP Tshering Dorji. “We have given our mobile numbers to people to inform us if they see anything suspicious.”
In Sarpang, at Sherpa Restaurant & Bar, a young boy, Kiran Chhetri, goes around taking orders. He is 20. He doesn’t come straight to talk to people. He keeps his distance. Any new face could be that of a kidnapper. That’s his idea of new faces in Sarpang town.
It was 11 PM in January 2012. Kiran walked in to get milk. There was no one in the restaurant. Suddenly two heavily bearded men showed up and started asking for beer. Kiran told them that it is not 1PM yet and can’t give them beer. And he walked towards the counter.
The two men looked at each other and one of them gestured, asking Kiran to come near. And there was a gun, right on his forehead. They took him away from the back door.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” says Kiran. His mother stares at the wall. There is silence. A DCM truck speeds past the restaurant and leaves a trail of thick dust behind.
But people in Gelephu are taking things normally. There is nothing wrong. And they know what to do when night comes. Doors are shut and parents make sure that children do not go beyond the borders.
By Jigme Wangchuk, Gelephu