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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

A white scarf from a troubled land

November 4, 2007

International Herald Tribune
By Helen Schary Motro
November 1, 2007


TEL AVIV: Visiting Tibet in September, I spent several sleepless hours tossing in my hotel bed wondering whether Chinese authorities would intercept the e-mail
impressions of the country I had transmitted from the hotel's computer to my daughter in America: ". . . gentle people, a sense of sadness, a sense of oppression, of
two races: the conquerors and the indigenous conquered. . ."

Would I find someone waiting to confront me at breakfast?

Of course nobody was waiting in the morning except Tibetan waiters pouring green tea and substituting smiles for the English they didn't know. It isn't tourist
opinions the Chinese are committed to controlling.

The Chinese military presence in the Tibet Autonomous Region is felt behind the scenes, more sensed than seen, a sort of ominous hawk waiting behind a cloud to
pounce in case somebody steps out of line.

The indigenous drab mud-brick villages contrast with sparkling Chinese military buildings enclosed by impenetrable fences. But aside from ramrod straight sentries,
hardly a soldier to be seen. Armed police on patrol, however, are never far from view.

On the surface all looked calm in a never-never land I met filled with spinning prayer wheels, red-robed monks, vast mountain ranges, an ice-blue glacial lake and
thousands upon thousands of local pilgrims at Buddhist shrines adorned with exquisite designs in bright primary colors.

We reached altitudes of over 14,500 feet, but in the place known as the "roof of the world" I was breathless as much from beauty as from want of oxygen.

Upon arrival I, as many tourists, was presented with a long white nylon scarf, symbolizing welcome. Donning it out of politeness, I looked askance at its flimsy
material. But over the next few days those ubiquitous white scarves greeted me everywhere - wrapped reverently around temple columns, laid at the feet of Buddha
statues, draped on poles in the open air to dance in the wind racing across the plateau from the Himalayas. By the time I left Tibet, something kept me from leaving
the scarf behind.

Tibetans are second-class guests in their own country, which was overrun after Chinese invaded in 1950. Every person I encountered in a managerial post was
Chinese; manual laborers were Tibetan. All signs were written in bold Chinese characters; small Tibetan letters were repeated like an afterthought.

The Chinese in Lhasa live in spanking new neighborhoods, shop in modern stores with neon signs, eat in glass-enclosed restaurants, travel on wide new roads - all
next to run-down sections housing Tibetans.

Tibetans I met were reluctant to speak out, looking around as in an old spy movie before hesitantly responding. Phones are bugged, they confided, and mail
intercepted. There is no freedom of movement, and escape over the mountains to Nepal is at the risk of one's life.

Excited about the upcoming Olympics next year in China? The answer was just an incredulous shrug. Smiles were belied by sadness in the eyes.

I carried with me to Tibet the first page of a newspaper I had bought in early September in Manhattan. It featured a color photograph of an annual festival at Lhasa's
Drepung Monastery. I visited that monastery, founded in 1416, but now much reduced from what it was before "liberation" by the "Motherland," when it had been
home to over 10,000 monks.

Before I left, I pressed my American newspaper clipping into the hands of a Tibetan acquaintance. He cupped the paper, evidence that he and his imprisoned
country are not forgotten by the world. "I will show this to all my friends," he whispered.

Suddenly last week there were fragmentary reports leaking out of Tibet that there have been violent disturbances at the Drepung Monastery. Three thousand armed
police are said to have confronted monks who sought to celebrate the honor accorded the Dalai Lama last month in Washington, where he was awarded the
Congressional Gold Medal. Number of casualties unknown. A wall of silence from Lhasa. The monastery did not answer its phones.

Half a world away I unfold my white Tibetan welcome scarf, recalling the mellifluous people gripped by an iron hand within a velvet glove.

Helen Schary Motro is an American attorney and writer teaching at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law.

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