By Justin Huggler
When a group of climbers described seeing Chinese border guards shooting defenceless Tibetan refugees, the world was shocked. But only now, as the survivors speak out, are the full details of a tragic story emerging.
A few minutes of jerky video footage shot by a Romanian cameraman on a mountaineering trip brought the plight of Tibetans under Chinese rule into Western living rooms this month. For once, the world was able to watch the cruelty of occupation as it played out. In the video, a Chinese border guard calmly opens fire from a mountain ridge on a group of unarmed, defenceless Tibetans below, as they struggled through the snow to escape from occupied Tibet. Two figures drop to the ground.
"They're shooting them like, like dogs," says an incredulous voice, one of the other mountaineers standing beside the cameraman. And then the camera trains on the dead body of one of the Tibetans in the distance.
It was a moment that changed the way the world looks at China. In recent years, all the talk has been of a liberalised China, the world's fastest-growing economy that has put the worst excesses of its totalitarian past behind it. But this was a rare glimpse of another China, and of a modern-day Iron Curtain. And for once, there were witnesses.
Now the full story of what happened that day in the Himalayas has emerged. The accounts of survivors, now safely in Delhi, can be pieced together with those of the mountaineers who witnessed the shooting.
The group, whose members were casually picked off by the Chinese border guard as they struggled through the snow, had already been walking for 17 days. They had waded through deep snow and struggled over ice and rock. They had gone without food or sleep, and they were exhausted - all to escape the Chinese occupation of their homeland. It is a journey made by thousands of Tibetans every year.
"There was no warning of any kind," Thubten Tsering, a Buddhist monk who was one of the group of refugees that day, told reporters in Delhi this week. "The bullets were so close I could hear them whizzing past. We scattered and ran." There were 75 of them in the group when they left. Only 41 made it across the border into Nepal, and on to India. Two are believed to have died. There are 32 others still unaccounted for. "We don't know where they are or what happened to them," said Mr Thubten.
The body in the footage is that of Kelsang Nortso, a 25-year-old Buddhist nun. She was on her way to India with her friend, Dolma Palkyid, a 15-year-old novice. "I had walked ahead and we got separated," said Ms Dolma. "Then the shooting took place and we fled. It was four days later that I heard Nortso was the one who was shot." Another witness, who did not want to be identified, said: "We were walking in line. Before the shooting we knew the soldiers were after us so we started to walk quickly. They warned us to stop, and then they started shooting. We were running. The bullets were landing near us. The nun who died was 100 metres ahead of me. I saw her fall down. I was lucky. A bullet tore my trousers, but it missed me." She and some of the other refugees had to run past Nortso's body as it lay in the bloodstained snow.
There were children among the group when the Chinese border guard opened fire on them. Nortso, the dead nun, was looking after a group of children who had been sent with the party by their parents to be educated in exile. There are reports that a 13-year-old boy was killed.
And there are also nine children among the missing. They have been seen - by a British police officer on a mountaineering trip who witnessed them being led terrified through the advance base camp at Cho Oyu peak, where he was staying. The place where it happened, Nangpa La, is a soaring mountain pass almost 19,000 feet above sea level. It witnesses hundreds of similar crossings every year by Tibetans. In all, between 2,500 and 4,000 Tibetans flee across the border into Nepal every year - one of the toughest borders in the world to cross, since it runs along the line of several of the highest mountains on earth, including Mount Everest. They cross at Nangpa La and a few other passes, following in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama who made his own escape through the Himalayas in 1957. Most follow him from Nepal into India.
The crossings at Nangpa La are generally made during the night to avoid Chinese border patrols, but the one that was attacked was attempting to cross in the morning - possibly because of the large number of children in the group. As to why Tibetans are prepared to take such risks, it says a lot about the degree of repression that continues there. Most have to pay guides around 5,000 yuan (£340) to guide them through the mountain passes - serious money in rural Tibet.
"Most know they are taking a big risk to come to India," said Urgen Tenzin, of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. "There are threats from Chinese guards, but also the extreme freezing conditions and the dangers of climbing steep mountains to get to Nepal."
Every refugee has their own reason. For many, it is the Dalai Lama. "The Chinese government has started a patriotic campaign where they are forcing us to denounce his holiness, the Dalai Lama," Mr Thubten, the monk, said. "But we cannot do this. It bears heavily on our conscience, so I had no alternative but to leave." Most will end up living in Dharamsala in India, where the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile is based, or among other Tibetan communitiesacross India. Almost all of those living in India say they want to return to Tibet - but not to the Chinese occupation, at least in its current form.
The Romanian video footage was not the first the world heard of the incident. The first accounts emerged from Western mountaineers who were in the area, and who, like the Romanian cameraman, witnessed the killings. Two Tibets had collided - the one where Tibetans still live under repression from the Chinese authorities, and the one that has been opened up to Western tourists and mountaineers. These days, it is cheaper to climb Mount Everest from the Tibetan side than from Nepal. But the Chinese authorities had not reckoned on mountaineers making a nuisance of themselves by telling the world that they had seen a border guard open fire on unarmed refugees.
The story did not emerge immediately, and it is believed fears over the safety of Western mountaineers still in Tibet, and fears the Chinese may clamp down on mountaineering expeditions, made some of the witnesses hesitate in coming forward at first.
The Chinese authorities reacted by issuing a statement through the Xinhua news agency that claimed the border guards only opened fire after they were "attacked" by a group of some 70 Tibetan refugees who refused an order to go back to Tibet. That version of events does not stand up against the video footage, which clearly shows the refugees as defenceless. It is also contradicted by every witness statement - such as that of a British climber who described "Chinese soldiers quite close to advance base camp kneeling, taking aim and shooting, again and again, at the group, who were completely defenceless".
In an apparent attempt to link the refugees to gangs who smuggle illegal immigrants from China to Western countries to work, the Xinhua report claimed that "the initial investigation showed it is a premeditated case of large-scale human smuggling organised by snakeheads".
But the official Chinese report did eventually shed more light on what happened: it confirmed that a second Tibetan had died. It said he was wounded in the shooting and died of lack of oxygen at the altitude. It is believed this was a 13-year-old boy, although the Xinhua report does not identify him. Another Tibetan was wounded, the report said, adding that he was being "properly taken care of", quoting the local authorities in Tibet.
Pressed on the incident, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said: "If the report is accurate, the Chinese authorities will investigate the matter. As to whether it is a policy for border police to open fire on people, I think the border police and army's responsibility is to safeguard the peace and security of the Chinese border."
The mountaineers have not come out of the story free from controversy. "Did it make anyone turn away and go home? Not one," said an American climber who asked not to be identified. "People are climbing right in front of you to escape persecution while you are trying to climb a mountain. It's insane." Questions have been asked over why none of the mountaineers tried to intervene when the Chinese military brought some of the captured Tibetans through the advance base camp at Cho Oyu peak, although it is hardly fair to expect unarmed mountaineers to do much against the Chinese army. The military moved into the camp in force after the incident.
And the Chinese authorities have not shied away from confronting the witnesses. Steve Lawes, a British policeman who was on a climbing expedition at the time of the incident, found himself summoned to the Chinese embassy for an interview when he reached the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, at the end of his trip. Mr Lawes had come forward to say he saw several of the Tibetan children who had been taken prisoner being led through the Cho Oyu camp. He said there was already an "intimidating" atmosphere after the Chinese military "took over" the camp. "The children were in single file, about six feet away from me," he said. "They didn't see us - they weren't looking around the way kids normally would, they were too frightened. By that time, advance base camp was crawling with soldiers. We were doing our best not to do anything that might spark off more violence."
After the incident, the refugees who had escaped capture regrouped in the mountains, and headed down into the lowlands of Nepal. It took them another eight days. In total, they walked for 25 days across some of the highest mountain passes on earth. They were shot at. They watched their companions captured and killed, and had to run past the body of one. But, this time, there were witnesses.