New Internationalist

A Cause For Courage

Issue 274

[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 274


The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist

The Great Escape

What on earth is inducing ordinary Tibetans to cross - on foot and at night - the highest, bleakest, most perilous mountain paths in the world ? Vanessa Baird begins her investigations in Nepal.

It's monsoon time in Kathmandu. Heat and torrential rain alternate, mud and dust just compete. I'm heading for Ichango village. So, over the years, have many thousands of refugees who have escaped Tibet since the Chinese invaded their country in 1950. They approach it from a different direction and in a rather different way though - over the highest mountain range in the world.

At Ichango is the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre, a collection of ramshackle buildings which have sprung up in the midst of the brilliant green paddyfields that lie between the city and the mountains. I have just heard that 31 escapees from Tibet arrived the previous day.

For six weeks they trekked across the mountains, moving by night to avoid detection. They arrived exhausted, wet, hungry, dirty, with swollen feet and covered in insect bites. To add to their misery they had been beaten and robbed by Nepalese border guards - an increasingly common occurrence.

I'm sitting in the clinic with Sonam, a Tibetan nurse who looks after 'new arrivals'. Four small boys - aged six to eleven - suddenly appear. Sonam gives them a pair of nail-clippers and they set about attending to each other's toes.

'Are these refugees?'
'Yes.'
'Did they come with their parents?'
'Oh no, their parents sent them off by themselves.'

I hadn't expected this. How can presumably loving parents send their tiny children alone on such a perilous journey? 'It's quite common,' says Sonam. 'I had a four-month-old baby arrive last year. The mother just gave him to the guide and asked him to take him to the Dalai Lama. The parents think they are doing the best thing for their children, for their future.'

I start to interview the boys, one by one. 'Six,' replies Wangdu to my second question. He's a skinny, fidgety, big-eyed, mousey little fellow, with a heart-wrenchingly small husky voice.

How was the journey? 'It was difficult,' he replies. 'There was so little food. Sometimes we didn't get any for two days. And it was difficult trying to keep up with the others.' It is not uncommon for guides to abandon 'stragglers'.

Wangdu comes from a fairly poor background. His mother washes dishes in a restaurant in Lhasa, his father is unemployed. Wangdu goes to school but it is a Chinese school, he says, and the Chinese teacher ignores the Tibetan pupils. That is why his parents have decided that the best thing for him is to come over to India.

Wangdu's situation is typical. The other boys have also come 'for their education'.

The journey sounds hair-raising. For seven-year-old Tsering the worst thing was when he nearly fell off the mountainside while they were walking at night. I ask the eldest boy, who like the nurse is called Sonam (Tibetan names are not gender specific), how it felt to get over the border into Nepal at last. He says he felt nothing. 'The guide had lied to us so many times before, saying we were nearly in Nepal, that I just thought he was lying again.'

Sonam, who seems to look after the younger boys, is the only one who allows himself to shed a few tears as he is talking. Only when a nurse is bandaging little Wangdu's wound - sustained during a police beating - does he look as if he might cry but he quickly stops himself. It makes me wonder what psychological damage has been done in the past six weeks.

Clipped toe-nails and a safe haven for Dawa (8), Sonam (11), Wangdu (6), and Tsering (7). Clipped toe nails and a safe haven for Dawa (8), Sonam (11), Wangdu (6) and Tsering (7). (right)

The nurse and I cross the fields and make our way to the dormitory to find some of the other refugees. On the way we meet a group of them who are heading for the nearest stupa - a Buddhist dome-shaped structure with a peaked top. One of them - a nun - has been badly beaten by border guards. But they seem otherwise to be relaxed and in good spirits.

We arrive at the dormitory, a simple barrack-like building, quite inadequate for the needs of all the refugees who turn up here. They stay for about a week, during which time they are interviewed by officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and are given food, clothing and medical treatment. Many arrive suffering from frostbite, and have to have toes amputated. They are then bussed off to the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Conditions in the camp may be spartan, but compared with nights near Everest it probably feels like a five-star hotel.

None of the new arrivals are overtly political refugees. Most have left to pursue their education - this often means their Buddhist education and so it counts for asylum purposes as an escape from religious oppression. We find 17-year-old Khatup Tso sitting smiling on the grass with her 14-year-old friend. They are wearing clean clothes - the yak skins and other heavy garments that protected them on the journey are lying drying on the grass nearby.

It doesn't take long to realize that Khatup Tso is a very determined young woman. This is her second attempt to get out of Tibet. Her first ended in failure a few months ago, when she was sent back and had a spell in a Lhasa prison. Once released she worked, saved and tried again. She comes not from Lhasa but from the Eastern province of Amdo. Why is she so determined to leave Tibet?

'Because I want to learn English.'
'Why?'
'Because once I learn English I can go back to Tibet and I can do anything.'
'Where did you get this idea from? Do you know anyone who has done this?'
'No. I don't know anyone. It's my idea.'
'And what does your family say?'
'They say, 'Go and study well'.'

I'm thinking there might be easier ways of getting English lessons. I am also wondering if this meets the conditions for seeking asylum. But this girl's decision is indicative of at least one of the forms of oppression Tibetans are experiencing in their own country.

One of the most common complaints is that there are no opportunities for Tibetans in their country. Education and employment are tilted in favour of Chinese migrants - now reckoned to outnumber Tibetans. I wonder what is going to happen when Khatup realizes that things are not as she thinks, that life is not hunky dory for Tibetans in exile; and that knowing English may not be the key that opens all those closed doors when she gets back. Then I think of the setbacks she has already experienced and how she has coped with them. I fancy her drive and energy may change direction, but it's not going to go up in a puff of despair.

photo by TIM NUNN 'Tibetans are very determined people,' comments Sonam. A couple days later I make a return trip to the camp and find more of the refugees washing their clothes and relaxing. This time my interpreter is Tashi, a former Tibetan resistance fighter who now co-runs the Potala Tourist Home in Kathmandu. He's a warm man with a big smile and a wicked sense of humour.

Lying under a tree is Rinchen Dolma. From a distance she looks like a daydreaming teenager, elbows on the grass, her chin cupped in her hands.

She sits up to greet us as we get nearer. I realize that in fact she is an elderly woman and the lines of her face tell a story that is hardly the stuff of daydreams.

Born into a fairly well-to-do rural family 60 years ago, she became an obvious target of Chinese Communist 're-education'. She was sent to various labour camps for a total of 20 years, and was eventually released 10 years ago. Her parents died in Chinese jails. Both in the labour camps and in her village the Chinese authorities vilified her as a 'class enemy'.

After her release she was not allowed to leave her village, but was eventually granted a visa to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, one of Tibet's holy mountains. As this mountain is not far from the border with Nepal she - together with her husband and son - took the opportunity to join a group of escapees. Once over the border she was arrested, beaten and stripped by Nepalese guards, who took all her money. She finally arrived here five days ago, having walked through 25 nights.

She tells her story without anger or bitterness. But she is very certain of one thing: she doesn't want to go back to Tibet. 'I don't want to die under the Chinese.' To a Buddhist this is more than just a turn of phrase. The conditions under which you die can affect your reincarnation.

We leave them there, crossing the sweet-smelling basmati ricefields. This place feels like a welcome haven, a pause for the refugees before the long bus ride to Dharamsala, where they will get a blessing from the Dalai Lama. 'That will make everything all right,' says 17-year-old Khatup.

These refugees are the lucky ones. No- one knows how many are being turned back at the border - some even get as far as the immigration centre at Kathmandu before being turned back.

This is not meant to happen. Since April this year border guards - and sometimes the police - have been sending back refugees or physically handing them over to the Chinese in exchange for 'gifts'. This goes against Nepalese Government policy - and its understanding with UNHCR, according to whom 227 refugees were deported in the first half of this year. These are only the reported ones: the real figure is likely to be much higher.

I talk with Tashi Namjyal, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile's representative in Nepal. He's particularly worried about two former political prisoners who were sent back. Both were imprisoned for their part in the 1987 demonstrations in Lhasa - one is a 70-year-old tailor called Tsewang and the other is Thuptren Tsering, a 63-year-old monk from Sera monastery who was also imprisoned between 1959 and 1979.

There is mounting pressure on the Nepalese Government - especially from the US and the Netherlands - to control its border guards. But Nepal is also under pressure from China, not just a powerful neighbour but a major investor and donor of aid.

The UNHCR is offering practical help to Nepal, including training for border officials on how to treat refugees. Listening to the refugees' stories it sounds as if they could do with it.

Leaving the camp I wonder whether I shall see any of these refugees in Dharamsala, at the end of my own journey. What will have happened to them?

'They don't begin to realize the difficulties of exile,' Tashi sighs. 'But they are enjoying their first taste of freedom now. I don't want to spoil it for them.'

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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