BY BIKASH SANGRAULA
HAPPILY HEADING FOR EXILE: Forty-one Tibetan survivors of the September 30 shooting at Nangpa La Pass board a bus taking them to Tribhuvan International Airport to catch a flight to New Delhi on Friday.
(Online Photo : BIKASH SANGRAULA )
KATHMANDU, October 21 - While bidding farewell to 41 Tibetan asylum seekers who flew to Delhi from Kathmandu on Friday, Kalsang Chung, chief of the Tibetan Reception Center here, was flooded by memories of his own escape from Tibet 47 years ago.
The 41 Tibetans, who arrived in Kathmandu on October 10, are survivors of the September 30 shooting by Chinese security personnel at Nangpa La Pass, that left one young Tibetan nun dead. Approximately 33 other Tibetans traveling with them were arrested by the Chinese.
A group of about 77 Tibetans fled Tibet in September 2006. Among them were nuns, children and ordinaryTibetans. On September 30, when the group was crossing the Nangpa La Pass, Chinese security personnel opened fire at them killing 17-year-old Kelsang Namtso. Mountaineers, who witnessed the shooting, have corroborated the incident. The Chinese authorities have conceded the death during the shooting, but have claimed that the security personnel opened fire in self-defence after being attacked by the Tibetans.Chung's story
Eight years after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951, a group of 71 Tibetans left their homeland and all their belongings, including houses and cattle, to embark on a perilous journey to Nepal where they hoped to live "better lives as refugees". Thousands before them had already fled Tibet with similar hopes.
The group chose the most common and longest route: the wide glaciated Nangpa La Pass that lies a few kilometers west of Mt. Cho Oyu. The Nangpa La Pass has served as a trade route between Tibet and Nepal for four centuries.
The month was September. The group traveled light to prevent suspicion. That meant carrying little food and no extra clothing to keep themselves warm in the freezing conditions at altitudes as high as 5,800 meters. They traveled at night and hid during the day. After each meal, there would be no more food for one-and-a-half days.
Only 11 of the group managed to arrive in Namche after 16 days of arduous trek. The rest were arrested by Chinese border security.
Among those who arrived in Namche was 11-year-old Kalsang Chung. Now 58 and a registered Tibetan refugee, Chung heads the Tibetan Reception Center that works for the welfare of Tibetans seeking asylum.
"We left everything behind in Tibet. Even the little that we carried was looted during the journey," Chung reminisced.
Chung arrived in Nepal with his father and elder brother. His mother and two elder sisters couldn't make it. They were among 60 individuals in the group arrested by Chinese security personnel. Fortunately, the three ladies managed to reunite with their family in their next attempt.
"We were lucky to arrive safe and sound and later reunited with all our family," he said. Not all have been as lucky.Nepal's policy change
Things changed for Tibetan asylum seekers when the government of Nepal in 1989 stopped granting them refugee status. Up till then, according to government figures, some 14,000 Tibetans had entered Nepal and were registered as refugees. However, according to the estimates of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nepal, there are 20,000 to 23,000 Tibetans living as registered refugees in various districts of Nepal.
According to UNHCR, 200 to 300 Tibetans arrive in Nepal every month. Those opting to make the journey during winter and the monsoon have a tough time. There have been cases of Tibetans suffering severe frost bite, sometimes requiring amputation. In the course of preparing this report, the Post came across Tibetan children, some as young as five years old, who followed their parents to Nepal. It was amazing how they made it.
After 1989, Tibetans entering Nepal have been allowed to stay here only for 15 days as people-in-transit. These people get in touch with the Tibetan Reception Center and through UNHCR's recommendation, get a special entry permit to India, where they are given some form of residential status.
"From then, they are basically supported by the Tibetan Agency in India," said Abraham Abraham, chief of the UNHCR office in Nepal. "For us, the most important thing is that they are supported in whatever manner (while they are in Nepal)," he added.
So far, the transit has been running smoothly, except for a period during the royal regime when the government stopped issuing exit permits to Tibetans in transit. During the period, the Tibetan Reception Center that has a capacity for accommodating 450 people, had to squeeze in as many as 900 as Tibetans kept arriving and there was no way to leave for India. The issuance of exit permits resumed in May, immediately after the reinstatement of democracy.