KATHMANDU – The streets are dark in the Tibetan refugee ghetto in Jawalakhel as Tsering Phuntsok and I step out of the taxi. The deal with the driver is that he’ll wait for an hour and then drive me back to the hotel. I should’ve known an hour couldn’t possibly be enough to hear the story I am here for.
Phuntsok leads me through the obscure alleys of a haphazard complex built mostly through donations and the help of NGOs. A British NGO financed the old folks’ home we first visit. Ten elderly Tibetans are slowly sipping soup to chase away the humidity of a late monsoon that doesn’t seem to want to leave Kathmandu this September. As I peer into the dining room I see smiling faces, someone feints a mild bow in salutation to the stranger, and intelligent eyes seem to try to read me. We don’t stay long, this is not where the story is. We march on and Phuntsok tells me of the 20,000 refugees who are here, and how in the last 20 years the Nepal Government has stopped issuing new Refugee Cards, thus making it impossible for new exiles, who risk their lives crossing the Himalayas to get here, not only to integrate, but also to move on to Dharamsala, in India, or to the U.S. or Europe.
Why? Hard to tell, everyone says here. “The Chinese don’t like dialogue. They only like giving orders,” says Phuntsok. “Maybe it’s to discourage people from leaving Tibet. Maybe it’s to avoid feeding the Tibetan diaspora around the world with new people, who’d thicken the street protests and make the Free Tibet movement stronger.”
In our stroll through Jawalakhel, we now reach a square, still shrouded in semi-darkness. Some people walk by, glancing at us, as we quietly speak of this strange limbo, in which so many young Tibetans are caught.
“So who do you want to talk to?”
“Anyone who’s made it over here from Tibet,” I answer.
We see a light down the alley. A little convenience store is still open. Two people sitting on a low bench.
One of them gets up. Strong build, shining smile, square shoulders. He tells us to follow him. “He’s been kind enough to invite us into his house,” Phuntsok translates.
We sit on one of the three beds surrounding a low table of this bedroom/kitchen/dining two-room apartment. On the windowsill a car battery is haphazardly tied to two wires that climb up the wall of the room and are plugged into a portable electric torch, which functions as a chandelier. He tells us his name, but asks me not to write it down for this interview. We will call him R. It is almost impossible to squeeze in questions or queries as this 30-something smiling and energetic man tells me one of the most incredible tales I’ve ever heard in decades of reportage around the world:
“It took me one month to get from Eastern Tibet to Lhasa. It was 1998. We were 48 when we started out and we were guided by a leader with experience of the journey. Once in Lhasa we headed for the mountains. We marched for a week, only at night and early in the morning, hiding in the daytime. It was December when we finally reached a very large river. It could’ve been the Brahmaputra, I’m not sure. It took one and a half hours to cross this half-frozen river, as we would stop and climb over rocks in between, to warm up again and not freeze. We’d stand there, jump up and down, get the blood flowing again and then crawl back to the freezing water, dodging blocks of ice flowing downstream.
After reaching land I heard screams in the darkness. Chinese guards. They started shooting at us and towards some of our companions who were still in the water. I hid for cover as they apprehended 15 children and elderly Tibetans who were travelling with us.
I was hiding with a friend under a bush when a Chinese patrolman found us. He pointed the rifle at me. But I was desperate and I fought back. I was only 19 years old at the time so I was quick and acted without thinking. That’s how I was able to grab the his gun. He started shouting for help. ‘They got my gun!’ he was yelling. Furious. The other agents will leave our friends alone, I thought. Let’s keep him yelling. So we let the Chinese policeman escape, I threw away the rifle, and my friend and I hid under the bushes. I heard soldiers looking for us. We were right underneath their feet. I was afraid that my heartbeat would be so loud they would hear it. But we managed to escape.
We reached the top of a hill and we looked down towards a well-lit area. Our friends who had been arrested were being kept in cages there. We could see them, we could recognize them, that’s how close we were. The cages were lit with electric lighting as it was still night. So we decided to climb uphill, and we walked all night. At the top of the hill we heard some noises. ‘Chinese,’ I asked. ‘No, it’s someone from our group,’ my friend said. So we very slowly got closer to where we heard the voices. And somehow they also were coming close to us, until we rejoined 3 members of our original group. At about 7 in the morning the sun started rising and we thought we’d be spotted so by 9 we decided to stop and hide, without moving. On the distant horizon we saw people marching and they kept marching all day until they reached us at sunset. Seven more people from our group.
We had no money, no food, no luggage. But we were determined to reach Nepal. And to do so we had to cross another river. But in the distance, patrolling the river banks, we saw the jeeps and motorcycles of the Chinese police. We were scared and immediately decided to lie on the ground and cover ourselves with rocks, lying perfectly still. It was very cold. Four more of our people came to the top of the hill where we were hiding. But we realized that we were about to be surrounded because there were groups of agents moving on both sides of our hill, heading towards us. So we moved 3 kilometres away and, sure enough, we saw the police raiding the place where we’d been a few minutes before.
The third night we decided to cross the river. Dogs were barking and the police were patrolling so we had to change plans and walked until we reached a village where we finally were able to buy some food, some tsampa. We had no food or extra clothes but we did have all our money with us to buy food along the way. That had been the plan. Also, one of the two girls in the group had hidden away, inside her waistcoat, a ball of tea. So we prepared an improvised meal with which we were able to feed all 11 of us. After the food we were able to walk 10 kilometres without stopping. But then the morning would come and we’d have to stop again. We finally reached the river. Now we were ready to cross it. But we couldn’t do it in total darkness or we might lose our bearings and drown. So we decided to cross at dawn, right before 7. It was very deep and the water rose above our necks.
There were many blocks of ice floating on the water, and we were getting cut on the cheeks. The water was full of pink clouds of blood around us, as we began to see in the first light of dawn. We realized that two people we had seen on the river bank before crossing were now shouting to call the police. They were Tibetan spies for the Chinese. The police were waiting for us on the other side, now.
Somehow we managed to escape them and we headed for the highest mountains we could see. The situation began to get much worse. No more police behind us, but it was clear why. There was no food, we were entering uninhabitable mountain reaches. We had to sleep in the snow.”
At this point, R.’s mother arrives and sits on the bed next to him as he feverishly tells his tale. She brings out a bead necklace that she starts to finger through with her left hand, while in her right hand she holds a baton with a prayer wheel attached to the top and a little bead on a string that whirls along with the prayer wheel as she spins it. “Oh, yes,” she says, “I also came here by that trail, I remember. But it was a few years before my boy, and it was a little easier.”
R. smiles and continues. “We were starving and decided to start eating the mud we’d melt in our hands.We were getting so good at it we could now tell which mud tasted acceptable and which was just impossible to swallow. But things got worse for me.
I don’t know if it was the mud or the freezing cold, but I woke up one morning and realized that I could not move my body. My mind continued to think, but my body refused to answer to my commands and stayed still on the ground. I was the one in the worst condition in the whole group now. I saw the two elders in the group going to check the pulse of another in our group and I remember that I was screaming at them, begging them to come to me, that I needed help. But they seemed to ignore my voice, to pretend not to hear me. Only then I realized that I was not screaming. I wanted to, I thought I was, but my body was not answering to my commands.
That’s when I got really scared because I was sure I was dying. Finally the elders reached me and checked my pulse. They found some cow dung and were able to burn it. They massaged it onto my back and stomach and were thus able to revive me. The day after I was able to walk again.
There was a lama in our group. I’m convinced somehow he always knew what was about to happen to us. That’s why we’d been able to avoid the police ambushes, twice already. We were with him when we finally reached a mountain hut where a Tibetan family lived. They had a whole sheep hanging in a cold room. It was food for their whole winter and they refused to sell it to us. But finally they caved in and we ate the whole animal. A patrol came by the hut, but the police had an agreement with the man of the family. If he walked out of the house upon hearing their jeep they would stop for tea. If he didn’t come out they’d just drive through.
We started our trek again in the snow. The lama was very sick. He was vegetarian and had been forced to eat the sheep. He was coughing up blood. He said: ‘Leave me here, and send someone to get me once you’ve reached the other side of the mountain.’ But many in our group did not want to abandon the lama. So we spent a whole day debating what to do with him. In the end we had to leave him behind and we continued our trek, higher and higher in the Himalayas, for another three days.
Finally, from up high on the mountain we saw some campfires, down in the distance. We were unsure what to do, whether we should walk down or not. Finally we did and discovered two mountain guides who knew the pass between Nepal and Tibet well. They decided to leave and go get the lama, while pointing us towards the final climb. ‘Reach the top of the glacier before 9 in the morning,’ they warned us, ‘or everything will begin to slide under your feet as the ice melts in the morning sun.’
We started to climb vertically on the snow and the ice. But we had to scuttle up fast, because as we had been told, it began to slide downhill by 9. By noon it was melting and going downhill fast!
So we reached the top of the pass and started descending towards a greener area, a jungle of sorts. We saw some signs and then animals, tiger cubs, or large cats, I’m now sure. And as we descended, we found ourselves suddenly on the tarmac of a small airport. Dishevelled, dirty, stinking and tired we found ourselves surrounded by police who came over on jeep and on foot. Nepali police!”
The lama lived, R. tells us. He never made it to Nepal, but stayed behind in Tibet and was now a respected lama in a Tibetan monastery. R., on the other hand, has been in Nepal ever since. No papers, no chance to work legally outside of Jawalakhel.
“There are so many stories like mine,” he says. “So many who don’t make it, so many killed by the police at the border, like that nun in Nanga Parbat not too long ago. And we don’t hear about it. There’s no one to report these things to, no one who can report them, once the expedition fails and is stopped by guns or by freezing weather or by starvation. We were the lucky ones. But people keep dying every month on that trail.”
This is the author’s translation of an account published in Italian in the national newspaper il Garantista.