16 June, 2004

TRAPPED IN THE HIMALAYAS

Nation Weekly magazine, Sushma Joshi

Firas Al-Bakwa, a 29 year old Iraqi refugee, has been in Nepal for the last four years. He left Baghdad in 1999. The police fired into a large crowd that was demonstrating against the assassination of Ayatollah Al-Sadar, a Shia leader. Firas, who carried a wounded friend to safety, fled after he heard Saddam’s police were gunning for him. After Firas Al-Bakwa spending some time in Jordan, Firas was on his way to New Zealand when the immigration authorities in Hongkong detected his fake passport, and sent him back to his last port of arrival, Kathmandu. Firas has UNHCR status as a refugee but is unable to leave because the Nepali government insists he must pay the monthly $180 visitor visa fee that has accumulated for four years, along with fines. Firas talked with Sushma Joshi of the Nation Weekly magazine about his feelings of being unable to leave a country which has become his prison.

Why did you leave?
I was taking part in the protest against the killing of the Ayatollah. The Baathist party came and started to fire at the crowd. They killed so many people – 100 or more. There was blood everywhere. It was like the movies.

You fled to Jordan before coming here. Why did you not stay there?
In Jordan, its worse than here – they can always get you. They were always checking visas. They arrested so many Iraqi people with Jordanian intelligence and sent them back to Iraq.

How did you end up in Nepal?
I was going to go to New Zealand, where my brothers live. I had heard of Nepal, but I didn’t know where it was. Nobody knows about Nepal in the Middle East. My smuggler sent me here to make it appear like there were many steps so he could take a lot of money from me. That’s why I hate my smuggler.

How do you find this country?
Frankly, I find it the worst place to be. They don’t even recognize refugees that the UNHCR has recognized as refugees – they see me as illegal. I wanted to go to a country with dignity and rights, but instead I am here.

What happened after you were sent back from Hongkong?
They put me in prison for six months in Dillibazzar. It was the worst time. There were other Iraqis there, and they told me to apply for refugee status in UNHCR. They took two months to give that to me, after which I went in front of a judge, and he reduced my jailterm to four months and released me.

What was jail in Nepal like?
They cheated me. They told me wrong information about bail so I had to stay in jail for six months.

What has UNHCR done for you?
UNHCR is a very weak organization. It’s only for their employees, who make a good salary. There are 20 million refugees in the world, and they are able to take out only 3 per year from Nepal.

Is your family back in Iraq?
My father, my mother, my two brothers and two sisters are all back there. They want me to come back. Well, they want, and they don’t. Being a young man is risky in Iraq. My brother’s car was hit by an American patrol and they beat him up, so its not safe.

Do you want to go back?
Now that Saddam is gone, I would go back to Iraq, even illegally. But now the UN claims that they need permission from the Coalition Forces for me to go back to my own country.

What’s most oppressive about being in Nepal?
I have no family, no work. I take violin lessons, and computer lessons. But without work, its not easy. I was a student of agriculture in Iraq. I tried to enroll in Rampur College in Chitwan, and they told me I had to pay $20,000. I asked them: is this Cambridge University I am applying to?

How have you tried to leave Nepal?
I waited 18 months to hear about my visa application to Australia. They rejected my application. They said I was not a refugee, and that I am not living outside my country. Should a country torture somebody in this way? Keeping a human being who wants to learn, to work, in this state is torture. Not physical torture, like Saddam, but still torture.

What’s next for you?
I have been waiting to hear of my application from New Zealand for sixteen months. How much time do I have? That was a year and a half of my life.

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