Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Flight from Tibet

March 22, 2008

By Tali Heruti-Sover

NEPAL - "Show them, show them," the old woman in a colorful apron urges
the bald boy. The boy hesitates for a moment, then removes his red robe,
bends down and carefully removes the girls' sport shoes he is wearing.
Silence descends on the large kitchen. The boy shows a black, twisted
foot, the toes swollen, toenails missing. It's a repulsive sight. "This
is what happens when you are ready to cross the Himalayas in the winter,
even if you have no shoes," the old woman says, sighing.

Ani Choedon has seen many sights like this, and worse: amputated limbs,
gunshot wounds, hunger and fear and sickness. Since her arrival from
Tibet 25 years ago, her home in this small village on the Nepalese side
of the Himalayas has become a stopover haven for Tibetan refugees
fleeing Chinese occupation across the world's highest border, in search
of freedom. She was particularly touched by the story of young Pema.
"For weeks he walked hand in hand with his little brother from the
village where they lived to the border," she relates. "They evaded the
Chinese patrols, crossed the frozen plateau and reached the Nepalese
side. They wore only plastic bags on their feet. They kept walking in
the terrible Himalayan winter until they collapsed. A nun who found them
was shocked at the sight and knocked on my door, crying. Could I say no?"

Choedon smiles even when describing horrors. She speaks in a torrent of
words and doesn't rest for a moment. Now she adds logs to the stove, now
she pours more salty tea into glasses. Tsezin, the diligent interpreter,
tries to keep pace. In the meantime, Pema puts his shoes back on and
limps to another room. "A Tibetan tragedy happens every day in the
mountains around us," Choedon whispers and removes another large pot
from the fire. "And the world? Busy getting happily ready for the
Olympics, and silent."

That conversation took place less than a month ago. Last week, hundreds
of Tibetans in India set out on a "peace march" to the Tibetan border,
but were stopped by the Indian police. In Tibet itself, monks staged a
protest procession to mark the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising
against the Chinese occupiers. They were dispersed with force by the
authorities. The protest spread, and dozens of Tibetan demonstrators
were killed in clashes with the Chinese security forces.

Not for the view

Tibetan-born Tsezin, 25, who speaks excellent English, lives in the
community of McLeod Gang, in northern India, and works at the Center for
Himalaya Method Massage. He was born, he says, in a small village in
Amdo, one of the provinces that formerly comprised Tibet. At the age of
18 he decided to become a proud Tibetan. "For 58 years the Chinese have
done everything to prevent us from being a free people in our country,"
he says. "They are killing us and contaminating our country, rewriting
history and damaging freedom of religion. It is impossible to be a
Tibetan in Tibet nowadays. That is why we are escaping. Six years ago I
joined a group that crossed the Himalayas, and since then I have been here."

In addition to his personal experience, Tsezin has compiled information
about the difficulties Tibetans encounter on the road to freedom. An
average trek into exile lasts 28 days and is undertaken by some 3,000
people a year. They make the climb by night - men, women, children -
with only the clothes on their back and a blanket to wrap themselves in
against the bitter cold. The Chinese hunt them from helicopters,
shooting to kill; snow slides bury them; their food often runs out on
the way; and when they finally cross the border into Nepal the local
police are often abusive and hand them over to the Chinese authorities,
who jail them.

Our journey began in Lukla, in northeast Nepal. This colorful town is
reached from Katmandu by a light plane that seems about to be hurled
against the mountainside by every gust of wind. After 25 minutes of
terror, we land at an elevation of 2,600 meters above sea level. The sky
is blue, the sun is shining, the cold is savage. Tsezin and I set out
with small knapsacks on our backs.

It's lovely in Sagarmatha National Park. The way to the base camp from
which expeditions to Mount Everest set out draws tens of thousands of
hardy tourists every year, who embark on days-long walks through the
stunning scenery: the snow-capped roof of the world, the frozen
waterfalls that adorn the slopes, the cascading blue rivers, the cordial
Sherpa people. It is this postcard landscape that the Tibetan refugees
reach, drained and exhausted, after walking for 10 days or more and
crossing the border in a nerve-wracking experience. They have not
exactly come for the view. Their only desire is to keep going, elude the
police posts that dot their path, find reasonable places to bed down at
night and reach - after two more weeks of trekking - the village of
Jiri. There they will get a bus to the Tibetan absorption center in the
capital, Katmandu.

Across the entire region, for hundreds of kilometers, walking is the
only mode of transportation. On the way, we meet many Nepalese porters
laden with cargo of different kinds, ranging from food to doors and
metal rods for construction work. We walk slowly, keeping a constant
vigil, and Tsezin starts to identify the route he himself followed. "We
slept here one night," he says, pointing excitedly at a cave with a
blackened ceiling. "In this house good people gave us tea."

We stop for the night at a small guest house in the village of Phakding.
Yes, the proprietor is well acquainted with the Tibetan refugees who
pass through the village quickly. They saw a group of them a month or
two ago. None since. The next morning we set out early. Our destination,
Namche Bazaar, is 3,860 meters above sea level. This is the main village
at which, according to the residents, the Tibetans come to rest.

The road is breathtaking - metaphorically and physically. We climb
slowly, taking in the natural beauty. In one village a group of six
young men passes us by. Tsezin abruptly whirls around. "It's them," he
says, and runs to the group. Hearing Tibetan, the six stop. They are
somewhat taken aback by his request, but after a brief consultation
agree to be interviewed.

"First we eat," I say to Tsezin, who invites all six to a full lunch. At
first they eat politely, but soon loosen up and gobble down everything
set before them. From our knapsacks we take out all our cookies, fruit
and energy bars and put them on the table. In short order nothing is
left. They are hungry. Slowly they start to break into smiles. Now they
can tell us why they are here.

Five refugees and a guide

The group consists of five monks and a guide. Average age: 20. They set
out 10 days ago, after stuffing warm clothes and a little food into two
small knapsacks. Two of them paid the guide 4,000 yuan (about $560).
Three paid nothing; maybe they will pay in the future. Dugpa, 20, who
has been a monk since the age of 13 at Drepung Monastery, outside Lhasa,
opens: "I decided to run away because monks are disappearing all the
time, and no one knows where to or when they will return. For example,
one of my friends hung a picture of the Dalai Lama in his room, and next
to it a Tibetan flag. Someone must have informed on him: soldiers came,
entered the monastery in the middle of the night and took him away - no
one knows to where."

The Chinese are unsparing in their punishment for every "improper" step.
Last October, the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal in a
ceremony held in Washington. "We painted the walls of the monastery
white as a mark of esteem for His Holiness," Dugpa said. "The Chinese
told us to stop. When we refused, they placed us under siege. Three
rings of soldiers stood around the monastery with rifles at the ready
and did not allow anyone to enter or leave for a whole month. We are
talking about hundreds of monks. I decided that enough was enough. I
want to be free."

The Chinese employ divide-and-rule tactics between Tibetans who live in
the "Tibet Autonomous Region" and those who live outside, in the Amdo
and Kham provinces, which in the past were part of Tibet. "The Chinese
allow only people from U-Tsang [part of the Tibet Autonomous Region] to
live in the monastery, not people from Amdo or Kham," Dugpa says. "What
monk who has come to learn can afford to rent an apartment outside? He
will go home bitter and angry, both at the Chinese and at the monks who
received authorization [to stay in the monastery]."

Dawa, another monk of 20, has a somewhat different story. In the past
year he violated the Chinese ban on the dissemination of books by the
Dalai Lama. He and a friend, he says, wandered across the country and
distributed 4,000 copies of four different books, which were printed in
the underground. When he returned to his monastery, he received a
message from his family: the Chinese police had visited their home. "I
had to decide whether I wanted to enter a Chinese prison," Dawa says.
"The Chinese do not want us to tell what really happened in Tibet and
are doing all they can to make people stay there."

And if they catch you?

"That will be very bad," the guide, Thupthen says. He will accompany
them to a safe haven and then return to Tibet to take out the next
group. "They will get a vicious beating, be tortured with electric prods
and be thrown into jail for an indefinite time. The Chinese are
particularly ruthless in their treatment of monks who try to flee: they
know they are listened to in the West."

No one would know you are monks - your heads are not shaven and you are
not wearing robes.

Thangzin "Monks in Tibet are permitted to grow hair in the winter,
because of the cold. During the three months before we set out, we did
not shave our hair. As for the robe, it is impossible to walk in the
mountains with it and it also attracts attention. We got some of our
clothes and shoes from friends, and we bought some things in Lhasa
before we left. It feels strange to be in these clothes, but there is no

They know they will not be able to return to their country anytime soon,
if ever. A few of them left with their family's blessing, and the others
say their families did not know about their plan to flee.

Why do you make the journey in winter?

"Because the Chinese are less vigilant and go down to the villages from
the mountains, and also because the snow is packed and easier to walk on."

They started to climb in the dark, walked for hours in the wicked cold
and managed to evade the Chinese guards, but when they crossed the
border they encountered Nepalese soldiers. Tsezin translates, and is
visibly moved, recalling his story. He was already on a bus on the way
to Katmandu when he was seized by the Nepalese police, thrown into jail
and then handed over to the Chinese. After a few weeks of incarceration,
he took advantage of his guards' laxness and escaped - and had to repeat
his trek across the Himalayas.

The group of monks we met were somewhat better off: they had money.
First of all, they related, the Nepalese soldiers beat them, then
body-searched them and went through their belongings, robbing them of
all their remaining funds - 11,000 Nepalese rupees (nearly $200). They
then divested the group of the cellular phones they had bought before
setting out. "We did not resist, so they robbed us - and released us."

Many refugees who manage to reach Katmandu tell similar stories about
the police and the army. A large portion of the Sherpa people have
Tibetan roots, hence there is much sympathy for the refugees, but the
security forces view the fugitives mainly as an extra source of income.
Still, the moment the refugees arrive in Katmandu, they feel absolutely
safe. The government's representatives, they say, only abuse them along
the way.

Rescue and aid network

Notwithstanding the ongoing Chinese repression, the Tibetan informers,
the Nepalese army and the forces of nature, the path of the Tibetan
refugees is also studded with good people - a network of aid without
which they would hardly be able to complete the journey. In a town in
the far north, which the refugees reach after several days of walking in
Nepal, an unusual guest house has been operating for years. Its
proprietor asked us not to photograph it or reveal its identity, for
obvious reasons. By education he is a social worker. His grandparents
are Tibetans, like many of the Sherpa people. When refugees arrive, worn
out and hungry, often in the middle of the night, he gives them a good
meal and offers them rooms to sleep in. "Whoever can, pays," he says,
"and whoever can't, doesn't."

The refugees stop there for a few days of rest. Sleeping in a bed in a
closed room, hot meals and the chance to do laundry are a true gift in
the middle of the journey. The owner's mother looks after the children,
particularly those who arrive without parents. "I see them and my heart
cries," she says. "They have such a long, dangerous road ahead, and it
is important for them to gather their strength."

The refugees also get money for the road; in some cases small amounts to
buy food along the way, or perhaps a loan, such as the proprietor of the
guest house gave "our" group of monks, in the hope of one day being
repaid. "Our problem is not the money but the informers," he says. "The
Tibetans stay in the rooms and do not go out, but there are people in
the village who tell the police about their arrival. Sometimes the
police give them money, sometimes they do it from sheer wickedness."

What happens then?

"When the police arrive, I hustle them all into my room and tell the
policemen: Go ahead and search, but not in my room - respect my privacy.
So far the police have agreed to this condition, and sometimes it is
enough simply for me to invite them to search to make them believe that
there is no one here. It's scary sometimes, but there is no choice other
than to protect them. Otherwise they will be taken to jail, or worse -
be sent back to China."

You are placing yourself and your business in great danger.

"I have learned to live with that. I want to tell you one thing:
business is not everything. These are human beings. They arrive in the
winter, in the great cold. I cannot leave them outside. We act out of
compassion. It is nothing special."

The hospital in the village of Khunde follows the same principles.
Mingma Temba Sherpa has been working here for 27 years as a medical
assistant and has met hundreds of fleeing Tibetans. "We do not allow the
police to enter here," he says, "not even if the refugees are
hospitalized for two-three months." To reach the hospital, the refugees
have to deviate from their route, but sometimes there is no choice.
"They arrive with pneumonia, serious cold burns on hands and feet,
injured organs, and problems of the respiratory and digestive systems,"
Sherpa says. "Children from the age of five, all the way to aged people,
hungry, sick, exhausted. They are dressed so wretchedly. Their clothes
are simple and their shoes are worthless, and they encounter terrible
snowstorms. It is hard to see them like this, and we treat them all."

Treatment in this hospital is, in principle, given in return for
payment. "We ask for money from all the others, but not from them,"
Sherpa says. "Even if we should ask, usually they just would have
nothing to pay with. They receive medicines and aid and, if needed, also
clothing and shoes. The food is provided by village residents and by the
local monastery. Occasionally we get payment from the absorption center
in Katmandu."

When did you get the last payment?

"In 1998."

He remembers Pema, the young monk, vividly. "Ani Choedon, who became a
legend in the area, brought him to us, and we were able to save his
feet," he relates, and asks, "What ever happened to his little brother?"

"I dressed him in a small monk's robe and hooked him up with a monk who
was on the way to Katmandu," says Choedon, the Number 1 friend of the
Tibetan refugees, with a broad smile. "We smuggled him in under the
mustaches of the Nepalese soldiers. He is already in India, in a
boarding school for Tibetan children. I hope he has a successful future."

The journey of the younger brother cost Choedon a fortune in local
terms. No one will pay her back, nor does she expect reimbursement.
"Compassion," she says. "How can one see what is happening and not help?"

At the end of an eight-day trek, we returned from the mountains by the
same route - on a light plane from Lukla. At Katmandu airport, we hired
a taxi that took us directly to the absorption center. "Our" monks were
there. They had arrived that morning, more or less safely. A little
before Jiri, they told us, they discovered that large numbers of police
were posted in the region, and they had to execute another night
flanking maneuver. Thangzin is limping, one of his toes appears to be
gangrenous, but he says he will be all right.

Where did you sleep all those nights?

They smile: "We walked until we could not walk anymore, and that is
where we stopped to sleep. In some places they let us sleep with the
animals. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but at least it was not on the

Now they are sitting on beds in the large absorption center after having
showered for the first time in almost a month. They are still bone
weary, and trying not to think about the future.

Also here is Tashi, who for some years has made secret trips back to
Tibet in order to take one family at a time to freedom. This time he
took his younger sister, "because she deserves to learn something, not
just follow the herd. The Chinese want us to remain ignorant." In the
center's wide but empty yard five small children, orphans, are playing.
They made the journey with their 12-year-old sister. No, they do not
want to talk about the trip or about their parents. Yes, they would like
sweets. When there are enough refug ees to fill a bus, they will all be
sent to McLeod Gang in India. After a tearful meeting with the Dalai
Lama, the children will be sent to Tibetan boarding schools and the
adults will make their independent way.

"Maybe Israel will stand by us and boycott the Olympic Games?" Thangzin
asks just before we say our farewells.W
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank