Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tibetan refugees who survived shooting by Chinese police tell their story

26 October, 2006
Tibetan refugees who survived shooting by Chinese police tell their story

Now that they are safe in India, the refugees speak about travelling at night in the snow to avoid the police and escape to Nepal. More than 120,000 Tibetans are in exile so as not to lose their culture and religion and escape the poverty in which they are held.

Dharamsala (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The 41 Tibetan refugees who had a close call with Chinese border police are telling their story. On September 30 they were shot at as they tried to make their way across the Nangpa La Pass at 5,800 m. near Mount Everest, on the border with Nepal. Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old Tibetan nun, did not make it; she was killed. A 23-year-old man, who died in hospital from gunshot wounds, is the second official victim, according to human rights activists.

The incident, which sparked an international outcry, was caught on videotape by Western tourists. But for human rights activists, such incidents are frequent and border police regularly fire at would-be escapees.

Every year an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 Tibetans try to reach India every year via Nepal, paying smugglers because obtaining the necessary travel permits and a passport are almost impossible.

In India they can maintain their culture and see their spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, whose residence, along with that of Tibet's government-in-exile, is in Dharamsala.

“Our aim only was to get the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” said Tenzin Wangmo, a 24-year-old nun. “We were planning to go back afterwards but now it won't be possible after the trouble in the pass. If we go back to Tibet, the Chinese will definitely arrest us.”

Namtso, the nun killed by Chinese patrolmen, also wanted to see the Dalai Lama, said Dolma Palkyi, her 16-year-old friend, also a nun and from the same small farming village of 40 homes. The two friends had been planning the journey for the past four years and paid smugglers some 5,000 yuan, a small fortune in poverty-stricken Tibet.

The two nuns set off from Lhasa on a lorry. After two days on the road they hid on a mountain side to wait for the night. Altogether they were 77, including the two smugglers, and for the next 17 days they walked mostly at night and slept during the day, braving high winds and chest-deep snow.

“For the last three days we had no food,” said Thupten Tsering, 36, a monk who fled because he refused to denounce the Dalai Lama and swear their allegiance to China.

When they reached the Nangpa La Pass early in the morning of September 30, they had been walking a few hours when they began to hear shooting. They said they never saw the Chinese patrolmen, but only heard the sounds of their guns with bullets making a zinging sound as they passed by her ears.

When the shooting started they dropped all their supplies—sleeping mats and what little extra clothing they had carried on their backs—and ran towards the peak and over the top.

When Namtso was struck she fell on the snow. She cried out that she had been hit and asked for help, but the nuns around her were weak with cold, fatigue and hunger.

That night, without food and blankets, they huddled together for warmth. The next day they walked until they encountered a small group of nomads with three tents who agreed to sell them provisions. From there they eventually made it to the Tibetan reception centre in Kathmandu where they received free food, lodging and transport.

The group had to wait for paperwork to be processed by the UN's refugee agency and the Indian Embassy before travelling to India. According to Tibet's government-in-exile, there are 120,120 Tibetan refugees living in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

At least half of those making the perilous journey from Tibet are children, sent by parents who want their children to grow up with a strong Tibetan identity, and who often cannot afford school fees at home.

Among the group of 41 Tibetans arriving in India who had accompanied the slain nun, the youngest was a seven-year-old girl, who came without her parents.

Most Tibetan refugees prefer to make the journey in winter, when the chances of being caught by Chinese border patrols are greatly diminished. The International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that 80 per cent of refugees attempt to cross between October and April, when the mountain glaciers are frozen over.

According to human rights groups, it is impossible to know how many refugees die along the way each year, but they say a significant number fall into crevasses, die of hunger or are caught by the police and disappear.

Namtso’s plight is known only because some Western tourists happen to see the police shoot at the refugees “like dogs”, as one tourist put it.

The incident sparked an international outcry when the official mainland news agency Xinhua claimed that border police fired after the refugees attacked them.

The US and the European Union condemned the shooting. But so far it is Canada that has delivered the harshest rebuke, when on October 18 Canada's Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said that “Canada strongly condemns this act of violence against unarmed civilians as an egregious violation of human rights”.

Mr Norgay of the Tibetan Centre wondered whether this would lead to different governments pressuring China to improve its human rights record. “I fear it might be another event come and gone. Public memory is very short.” (PB)

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