A Nepali man’s odyssey from Dang to San DiegoHow a man from the town of Tulsipur set his sights on the United States, risking his life and millions of rupees, only to return home with nothing.
Narendra Basnet had only just finished with his high school exams when an acquaintance approached him with an offer.
Top Bahadur GC was from the same district—Dang—and the same village as Basnet’s mother, Maya Sen Oli. So when Basnet and Oli heard what GC was offering, they trusted him.
“You’re already a learned man. You should grab this opportunity,” GC told the 19-year-old Basnet.
If Basnet so desired, GC would arrange everything to send him off to the United States.
“Once there, you can earn as much as 5,000 dollars a month and can easily get a green card,” GC told Basnet. “Now is the best time because once the wall across the Mexico border is erected, entering the US will be impossible.”
It sounded like a good idea, and Basnet and Oli both agreed to GC’s proposal. In return for his help, GC demanded Rs 70 lakhs in total (about 63,000 US dollars), an amount that they could pay in installments. It wouldn’t be an illegal trip, he assured Oli. It would be easy—straight to Mexico and then on to the US.
Oli sold her jewellery and raised Rs 15 lakh 97 thousand for GC’s first payment. Then, they paid him another Rs 5 lakh. Before even leaving the country, the family had already paid GC nearly Rs 20 lakh.
Neither mother nor son knew of the perilous journey that awaited Basnet, a journey that would take him across the world to three continents and nearly a dozen countries, through dense jungles and mafia-controlled territories. Basnet would get embroiled in a human trafficking network spread out across the world, one of hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking entrance to the US. Most don’t make it to America unscathed—or even alive.
In November 2016, Basnet left Tulsipur with Tek Bahadur Bhandari, also from Dang, who’d heard the same offer from GC. Their first stop was Delhi—the Hotel Milan Continental in Paharganj.
“We were assured that the [paper]work would be completed soon,” Basnet recalled in an interview with the Post earlier this month. “Many weeks passed but nothing happened.”
In Delhi, Basnet fell sick and began to lose hope. He told GC that if there was any more delay he would rather go back home. But GC insisted that they stay and wait it out—they’d soon be making the trip to the US.
After four months, GC managed to get both Basnet and Bhandari a tourist visa to Bolivia. They left duly, transiting through Russia and Spain before arriving in the South American country. At the airport in Bolivia, a Bengali man came to pick them up and took them to a house. He ushered them into a room and locked the door from the outside.
“We were completely oblivious of where we were,” said Basnet.
Inside this locked room in Bolivia, there was no running water. Agents would sometimes arrive with cooked food, other times with rice and vegetables that they had to cook in a tiny kitchenette. There was not enough drinking water and the toilet often didn’t work.
“We spent weeks without taking a shower. We stank of sweat,” said Basnet.
After a month, the Bengali agent took them on a 20-hour-long bus ride to Lima, the capital city of Peru. From Lima, they boarded another bus for an 11-hour ride to Sullana, a Peruvian city near the border with Ecuador. They stayed in a cottage in that city for a day.
The next day, a “microbus-like” vehicle took them overnight to the Ecuadorian border, Basnet recalled. With the help of another agent, they crossed the Ecuadorian border and drove through Quito to Colombia.
“After we gave them some dollars, agents took us through a river on a horse across the Ecuador-Colombia border,” Basnet said. The agents kept them at a house in Colombia’s Cali, famed for its salsa dance. According to Basnet, the house had about 25 men, half of them Nepalis and others from India, Bangladesh and parts of Africa.
The migrants lived in Cali for around a month and a half. They weren’t allowed to leave the room, as they risked being detained by police. Basnet recalls several other Nepalis coming and going in the time he lived in Cali. The house was a hotspot for people aspiring to get into the US.
From Cali, an agent took Basnet and Bhandari to Medellin, another Colombian city. But they didn’t stay there long. From Medellin, they left for the port city of Turbo, about 340km away.
The route from Turbo to the US border is one well-travelled by migrants. From Turbo, migrants travel through the rural, coastal village of Capurgana, 90km away. From Capurgana, the route gets rougher as they hike through the dense forests of the Darien Gap, which borders Colombia and Panama. It is in the Darien Gap that most migrants burn their passports and identifying documents, so it is more difficult for them to be deported if caught.
After a three-hour boat ride, Bhandari and Basnet came to the Darien Gap, where they too burned their passports and documents on the orders of agents.
“The agents told us it was imperative to burn our passports. If not, we would run the risk of being misused by other agents,” said Basnet.
To help illegal migrants cross the Darien Gap, the agents take help from local agents, who are colloquially called “donkers”. Basnet and Bhandari too got mixed into the crowd of people aspiring to enter the US.
It was after this that the most arduous portion of their journey began, said Basnet.
“Since we were travelling through the forest, the agent had prepared for us a 25 kg bag with boots, a raincoat, food and pots to cook in,” he said. There were 10 to 15 other Nepalis with them during this leg of the trip.
The Darien Gap trail is considered one of the most dangerous in the world due to the risk of wild snakes and armed guerillas.
But human traffickers have been using this trail to get people from across the world, including Cuba, Somalia, Syria, Bangladesh and Nepal, to the US, according to the 2016 report Migration and Migrants: A Global Overview by the International Organization for Migration. The report calls this arduous trail the “Ghost Trail” as “Hundreds of migrants enter each year; many never emerge, killed or abandoned by coyotes (migrant smugglers) on ghost trails,” the report reads.
Basnet and Bhandari completed this trail in six days. The forests were ridden with leeches as they had to cross dozens of rivers and wetlands, Basnet recalls.
“It felt like I crossed the same river over a thousand times,” said Basnet.
Sometimes they walked all night, sometimes all day. It all depended on the whim of the agents, as they tried to get by armed rebels known for patrolling the jungles.
After crossing the jungle, they reached Panama City where they were placed into one of three camps for illegal migrants overseen by Panama’s government. Under a policy known as “controlled flow”, the government of Panama believes that it is easier to process migrants and transport them safely to other countries so that they don’t become a burden. In these camps, migrants are provided with a wristband with a number code, and they are able to sleep on the floor for just a dollar a night. Every few days, migrants are taken on a bus ride in instalments of about a hundred to the border with Costa Rica.
Basnet and Bhandari spent three days in one camp and two in another. Then, they paid $39 to board a bus for the Costa Rican border. With the help of more agents, the duo entered Costa Rica and again, ended up in a refugee camp. There were already 15 Nepalis there, in addition to the eight or so Nepalis their group brought with them.
Like Panama, the government of Costa Rica has the same policy regarding illegal immigrants. Basnet and Bhandari spent another three days in a Costa Rican camp, and then crossed into Nicaragua after a two-day walk through a jungle.
They were picked up by the police almost immediately upon entering Nicaragua. After interrogation, they were turned back to Costa Rica. But Bhandari and Basnet had not come this far to give up. They managed to pay another agent to help them sneak back into Nicaragua. But their troubles were only beginning, as they were robbed by local gangsters, who took all of their possessions—bags, shoes, trousers and a total of $50.
Without any money, Basnet was forced to turn to his family. He called his mother back in Tulsipur and asked her to arrange more money so he could continue paying off agents to help him cross borders. Basnet’s father Narendra, who worked in Saudi Arabia, managed some money to send to their son.
Since Basnet had already burned his documents, the money his father sent would come to the hotel he was staying at, which would take a sizeable cut before passing it on to Basnet.
“He would cry on the phone, saying the agents are demanding more money,” Oli recalled while speaking with the Post earlier this month. “I would manage some money and pay the agent.”
Oli ended up leasing out two patches of family land in Tulsipur for Rs 25 lakhs and Rs 15 lakhs each, as per ‘chhinuwa’—a local practice wherein land is lent out in exchange for money; the land is returned once the borrowed sum is paid back.
Oli would pay GC, who would in turn forward payment to agents from the trafficking network placed across South and Central America. Usually, along with the payment, a photo of the migrant would be sent on WhatsApp. That’s how migrants like Basnet were recognised by their traffickers.
Basnet and Bhandari’s next destination was Honduras, where they reached after a two-day walk and an eight-hour ride on a lorry.
In Honduras, they were arrested again, after police found them without documents. They were held in custody for 15 days, after which they were released. Basnet said they were let go once they said that their destination was the US, as asylum seekers. Once freed, they took a trip to their next destination—Guatemala.
The intrepid duo managed to cross into Guatemala without trouble and stayed in a hotel alongside three or four other Nepalis aspiring to enter the US. Agents assured them that they would be able to cross the Mexico border from Guatemala, and from there, on to the US. So far, Basnet had already spent about Rs 50 lakh.
In Guatemala, Basnet called up GC, asking for help, but after GC demanded more money, they ended up arguing. Basnet was now determined to not trust GC anymore and make it on his own.
Basnet and Bhandari spent a month in a dilapidated cottage near the border-crossing in Malacatan, Guatemala. A local agent helped them cross into Mexico on a rickety raft made up of old tyres. By the time they made it to the coastal Mexican city of Tapachula, they had no money left and had not eaten in several days.
The duo’s next stop was through Mexico City to Tijuana, a city bordering the US. They needed at least $500 to make the trip but Basnet had run out of cash. He asked his family but there was no more money to be had. Bhandari, his partner so far, received a loan from relatives in the US, and abandoned Basnet to go his own way.
Basnet was stranded and alone in a distant land. He asked for more loans from relatives and finally, they managed to gather together $400. Using ‘out-papers’ provided by Mexican officials in Tapachula, Basnet boarded a plane from Mexico City to the border city of Tijuana. Basnet had nothing with him anymore, except for the clothes on his back. He had lost a lot of weight.
In Tijuana, he was picked up by the police who interrogated him. He told them he had come to Tijuana for an “excursion”.
“But they didn’t believe me, probably because of the state I was in,” said Basnet.
He was kept in jail for four days, but as he didn’t have any documents with him, he was eventually let go.
Alone and on his own, Basnet didn’t know how to get to the US. As his luck would have it, while he was walking the streets, local gangs came upon him and captured him. He had nothing on him that they could take, so they held him for three days, torturing him, he said.
“These are cigarette burns,” said Basnet, displaying the scars on his hands.
Eventually, the gangsters let him go and locals helped him reach the Mexico-US border.
“I had heard many people enter the US by climbing a wall,” said Basnet. “But I headed straight to the gate of the immigration office.” If he could cross the gate, he would end up in San Diego, the US, he thought.
Immigration officials at the border held him and asked him where he was from. When Basnet replied that he was from Nepal, the officials didn’t believe him. After standing in the scorching heat for four hours, one border official asked him to sing Nepal’s national anthem. Basnet remembers the day he sang the national anthem. It was November 27, 2017, over a year since he had left his home in Tulsipur.
For the four months he was in Mexico, he had lost contact with his family.
“We didn’t know whether he was alive or dead,” said Oli. “We were absolutely heartbroken. I cried for days.”
She even reached out to Top Bahadur GC, the agent who had initially approached the family, to learn of her son’s whereabouts.
“The agent asked me for Rs 5 lakh to locate my missing son,” said Oli. “I paid him.”
Then, GC demanded Rs 20 lakh, telling her that the money would help free her son from immigration. Oli duly sent the money to the US.
Immigration officials took Basnet to a detention centre, from where he finally called home, letting the family know he was safe. Then, he started legal procedures to obtain a refugee certificate. Again, Oli sent her son Rs 5 lakh to find lawyers and obtain sponsorship.
Basnet had hoped that he would be let go while his refugee status was being processed. What he didn’t know was that he had arrived at a time when American officials, acting on the Donald Trump administration’s new measures, were clamping down on immigrants, persecuting them at every turn. Earlier, during the Barack Obama administration, he might’ve been allowed to go free while his application was under consideration. No longer.
He was held in detention for over a year. There, he learned that Bhandari, his travel companion, had managed to enter the US.
Then, he was informed that his refugee certificate had been denied. More than a year after he’d set foot on US soil, he was going to be deported. Basnet reached out to the Nepali Embassy, and on January 8, 2019, the Embassy prepared travel documents for Basnet to return home.
“It feels strange that I was 19 when I left the country and 21 when I returned,” said Basnet.
The long journey to the US had cost Basnet Rs 75 lakh 97 thousand (Rs 7.59 million or $68,000). And he had nothing to show for it except for the scars on his arms and a lifetime of psychological pain.
“Sometimes, I felt like there was no limit to the pain a person could feel,” said Basnet.
Upon his return, Basnet filed a complaint against Top Bahadur GC at the Nepal Police’s Central Investigation Bureau. GC was taken into custody and during interrogation, GC implicated the now-deceased member of the provincial assembly Uttam Kumar Oli as his partner-in-crime.
The police registered a case against GC at the Kathmandu District Court, as per the Human Trafficking Act, on June 10, 2019.
But after a hearing on June 20, GC was released on Rs 15 lakh bail. An official involved in the investigation said he was “surprised” by the court’s decision.
“I might eventually forget the trip I took, but my scars will never heal,” said Basnet. “I feel like I died and came back to life.”