How an unexpected encounter with a group of gunmen in a foreign land unfolded
By Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)
THE air was crackling cold as Dorji Tshering made his way to the Samdrupjongkhar bus station in the dark with his luggage in tow. A large crowd had already gathered there, stranded travelers like him from the previous day. The state of Assam in India through which their path lay to their next stop, Phuentsholing Bhutan, had been closed to traffic the day before and they were anxious to get started. Dorji was anxious to get home.
It was December 20 and the year was 2000 and Dorji was heading home for his first winter break as a teacher from Rangjung High School in Trashigang where he had started on the job only six months ago. Dorji was 25 and it was his first job. The idea was to get to Phuentsholing first and from there to Gomtu, a small border town under Samtse Dzongkhag, where his parents lived.
Upon reaching the station, Dorji was told they’d be moving in a convoy of four Bhutan Post buses. He was made to board the second last bus along with two of his associates from the school including one of their sisters a student, who sat near the window. Dorji took the seat on the aisle on the third row.
The tide of daylight was beginning to wash over the sleepy town just as the four buses carrying 216 mostly Bhutanese citizens rolled out of it. They were immediately greeted by the potholed riddled roads of the infamous Assam Highway.
As the bus rattled and clattered through the tempestuous road, Dorji knew sleep was impossible. The bus’s interior smelled of rusty steel and petroleum fumes. Rain streaks and crushed insects blurred the passenger windows of which, Dorji noticed, one was shattered in a galactic bursting-star pattern.
Outside, a herd of cows roamed the roads. Two half naked boys astride a scrawny buffalo shouted their delight when the bus passed, burying them in a plume of dust.
The bus made regular stops on the way to squeeze in stray local commuters and Dorji, as he was on the aisle, found the going turn from bad to worse.
The gray morning was ripening towards noon and Dorji was famished. All the rising and dipping and curving of the bus had depleted his energy.
At long last, the buses stopped for lunch. His legs had gone numb from sitting so long in one position, and it tingled bloodlessly as he got up and limped out of the bus. The sun was locked in a tomb of clouds.
Lunch break was over in one hour. Dorji had just sat himself down when a commotion arose inside the bus. Some passengers had got on the bus without tickets and Bhutan Post bus officials were having none of it. Heated words flew. One of the troubled passengers, vexation souring his face, cast a yearning glance around the bus for moral support but got nothing. Impatient and drowsy with food, the rest of the passengers wanted to leave. The first two buses had long since left them.
Finally, after more than half-an-hour of delay, the bus sputtered to life. The rest of the day melted in a dream. As the bus hummed and weaved, the passengers quickly fell to sleep. Arms crossed, legs crumpled, lips vaguely parted— they looked as if sleep had struck them with a blow. Dorji trained his eyes on the road beyond the windshield, but the lights in his eyes were dimming out as shadows do in the dark. It wasn’t long before Dorji was fast asleep.
‘Someone is firing at us’
Dorji was jolted out of his slumber by a loud clatter. He felt the bus lurch forward and then stop. He thought it was a flat tyre. But the noise persisted— rapid bursts of crackling and snapping sound similar to that of an electric short circuit. Suddenly, a panicked voice from behind the bus rang out: “Someone is firing at us. Get down!”
In an instant, the whole bus erupted in terror and confusion as people screamed and crouched for safety under the seats and on the deck.
Dorji threw his body on the floor. His heart was lodged somewhere in his throat. He liked action movies and had watched such scenes unfold on the screen many times. But he had never, in his wildest imagination, though he would actually be in one. It was as surreal as it was terrifying.
As Dorji and his co-passengers lay on the ground and stared at one another in utter fear and disbelief and as the bullets rained down on the bus, a scene from an action movie played out in Dorji’s mind, that of the hooded gunmen entering the bus and spraying the occupants with bullets. Dorji thought of his parents and what would happen to them if he were to die. All around him, people were praying and bawling and sinking into despair.
Then just as suddenly the shooting stopped and everything went silent. Dread gripped Dorji at the root of his throat. He waited for the hooded gunmen. For the shuffle of footsteps on the doorway. But they never came. Then someone from the back of the bus shouted: “The gunmen are leaving!”
Quaking like a leaf, Dorji stood up and through the bullet shattered window saw about four men with assault rifles disappearing into the tall bushes from whence, he figured, they had waited in ambush for their Bhutan Post bus.
Dorji’s trembling hands probed his body and was relieved to find he was unscathed. Many others were also safe, and who were now tumbling out of the bus like dazed zombies.
But a young girl who was seated behind Dorji with her mother was not so lucky. She lay covered in blood in her mother’s arms who was hoarse with anguish and screaming for help. As Dorji stood near the distraught mother amid the shattered windows and scattered glass pieces on the seats and floor, he tried to imagine what he might say to the mother to lift her morale.
To Dorji, it remained one of the most ineradicable images in the frantic moments that ensued after the gunmen had left the bus. As Dorji lumbered out of the bus, he saw their bus driver lying down on the floor as a pool of blood formed around his face.
Dorji would find out later that the reason the shooting had abruptly stopped on his bus was because the fourth Bhutan Post bus, which was trailing behind them, had just driven into view causing the gunmen to empty the rest of their bullets upon the unsuspecting vehicle, killing two on the spot including the driver.
‘Sorry, she is gone’
The tragedy had unfolded in just minutes, and for hours and hours and hours it remained too fantastical and senseless to believe. For what followed unravelled very much like a scene from another horrifying movie.
Dorji and his associate from the school, after discovering that the young girl inside the bus lying on her mother’s lap was still breathing, managed to persuade an Indian with a Tata Sumo car to take them to a nearby hospital. As the car raced towards the hospital, Dorji found out the mother was also hit by the bullet, on one of her thighs, and she was bleeding. But the distressed mother’s only worry was her daughter. Fourteen-years-old, she had just passed class nine.
This is what Dorji wrote in his journal: “As we neared the hospital, the girl started breathing heavily and shaking violently. The mother started crying out ‘Oh god, please save my daughter, she is dying, please!’ We reached the hospital and immediately took the girl out on the stretcher and yelled for help. The medics in uniform rushed towards the girl. The doctor checked her pulse, and said: ‘Sorry. She is gone!’ The poor mother broke down and cried profusely. It was unbearable to watch. I walked to a corner and cried my heart out, for a long time.”
A total of 14 Bhutanese would be ambushed and murdered on that day and the next day— December 20 and 21— with 19 injured and several missing in what were the biggest coordinated attacks on the Bhutanese vehicles and citizens plying through the Assam roads by the Bodo militants. Three years later, on December 15, 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army would launch ‘Operation All Clear’ to drive out all the Indian militants hiding inside the southern foothills of the country including the Bodo armed group.
Dorji is 45 today and lives in Thimphu as the wellness and spiritual chief program officer at the traditional medicine division of the Ministry of Health.
The writer is a former editor of Kuensel and can be reached at @bonzk on Instagram
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