By Pratap Chakravarty
Dharamsala, July 7 - After weeks of arduous trekking across the roof of the world, dodging Chinese troops and risking jail in Nepal, the 56 Tibetan refugees finally arrived in India and the home of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
"All my troubles are now forgotten," whispered 22-year-old Tsering Dolma, one of the 56 who spent three weeks walking from Tibet to neighbouring Nepal, where she was jailed for 20 days before Indian and UN officials helped her to reach Dharamsala for Dalai Lama's 70th birthday on Wednesday.
"I have left behind my mother and a sister but I will not return as I want to study," said Dolma, 22. She paid a Nepalese guide 2,300 yuan ($277) for the journey, but he stole her remaining 500 yuan when she reached the Nepalese capital Kathmandu.
Ringed by the Himalayas and home to the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1959, Dharamsala also hosts the Tibetan Reception Centre, the largest of three in India handling refugees like Dolma.
"The younger ones on arrival go to schools we run and the nuns and monks are dispatched to monasteries," said centre director Dorjee. The centre annually receives 3,000 refugees from Tibet.
"It is difficult to find jobs for refugees above 30 years of age so we give them financial aid as a start-up in a new life," said Dorjee's deputy, Mingyur Youdon, dealing with a throng of Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Dorjee is one of Dalai Lama's busiest executives, pestering Indian diplomats in Kathmandu and officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to herd the flow of Tibetans across three volatile borders to Dharamsala.
"Most of them come through Nepal and they sleep during daytime and trek at night." Dorjee's job became tougher after Nepal in January closed two offices in Kathmandu associated with the Dalai Lama.
China had frequently lodged strong protests with the Nepalese government for permitting the Tibetan offices to operate in the name of the Dalai Lama. Nepal, which is careful not to antagonise its giant neighbour, recognises Beijing's rule over Tibet.
The refugees who do make it from Nepal and other locations to Dharamsala are initially put up in the two-storey centre building that has 40 tiny cubicles or in larger nearby dormitories. It was bursting at the seams with 220 fresh arrivals in recent days.
The centre relies on donations from abroad to fund the refugee programme, including the Tibetan's Children's Village, which is educating 14,500 refugees at schools across India, Dorjee said.
Human rights groups, including London-based Human Rights Watch, say Beijing has routinely arrested political protestors in Tibet and imposed censorship of Internet sites and publications on the Dalai Lama.
Bhutuk took three months to reach Dharamsala after he fled his eastern Tibetan hometown of Garze in Sichuan province. He said he was arrested in 1990 and jailed for 14 years, including eight years in solitary confinement, for unfurling a Tibetan flag.
"I was given electric shocks or hung upside down with a fire-pot under my head and beaten regularly," the 51-year-old Bhutuk said. He said his father and brother died and his wife deserted him during his imprisonment.
The helpers at the centre, many of who are refugees as well, treat the new arrivals as heroes. "These men have suffered for their country and they must be given a life of dignity and honour," said Pasang Yangkyi, a 17-year-old Buddhist nun, who herself trekked 20 days from the central Tibetan city of Shigatse to arrive here last week.
"I came for the blessings of the Dalai Lama which will make me stronger and study further which will make me wiser," the saffron-robed teenage nun said.