By Mark Scott-Nash
"This 'Free Tibet' thing is (expletive)."
It sounds like a statement made by a Boulder baiter, someone who would typically pre-pend any reference to our town with the tired cliché "The People's Republic of ... ." But no, it was said by Paul Rogers, a mountain guide in Tibet who was attempting to protect a lucrative guiding business by covering up a murder. The quote was written in the November issue of Men's Journal.
On September 30, 2006 75 Tibetan refugees, among them many young children, and their 2 guides were trying to enter Nepal illegally via the Himalayan Nangpa La pass. The video footage, taken by a Romanian cameraman show Chinese Border Security soldiers opened fire on the group and killed Kelsang Namtso, a 17 year old nun, just before the pass. Kunsang Namgyal, a 23 year old man, was hit in the leg twice, then taken away by the Chinese border police and is believed to have died later. Only 41 survivors reached the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu, Nepal. Two weeks later they arrived at their destination in Dharamsala, India. Click here to read Wikipedia’s full report
On the morning of Sept. 30, 2006, Chinese soldiers shot at unarmed, fleeing Tibetans as they were attempting to cross the Nangpa La, a snow-covered pass on the Tibet-Nepal border. Tibetans have been using this pass for thousands of years as a way to access the lowlands of Nepal. One of the Chinese bullets struck a 17-year-old girl named Kelsang, ripping through her back as she tried to flee. She knelt down and collapsed, dying alone on a frozen landscape.
It might have been an obscure incident told only through the incredible and uncorroborated tales of frightened refugees. But not this time. The shooting happened within sight of the crowded base camp of the most popular 8,000-meter peak in the world, Cho Oyu. Dozens of westerners, upon hearing gunshots, left their tents and witnessed the atrocity. Afterward, soldiers wandered the camp unconcerned, apparently lacking any hints of guilt or culpability.
The horrifying event went unreported for several days. Though remote, the camp was well connected with the world via satellite phones which transmitted daily voice and e-mail messages. The silence was understandable. Fear and self-preservation would be paramount in a remote, foreign land where soldiers displayed little value for human life and might be monitoring electronic communications. Might want to wait until you were on safer soil. So everyone kept quiet.
Then on Oct. 2, Boulder's Luis Benitez, who had grown increasingly disturbed by the silence, broke the news via an e-mail sent to an expedition news Web site. Luis, a mountain guide working for the commercial outfit Himalayan Experience, had watched the chilling event unfold days before. His began his e-mail with "The story not being told here in Tibet," and went on to describe the killing. Understandably, he asked his name not be used.
His e-mail was posted on the web site and the story spread fast. News organizations began e-mailing climbers in base camp asking about the shooting. Most continued their silence, but the world knew their dirty secret.
Eventually, some climbers were emboldened to tell their stories and release photos, but the honchos in the guide services were outraged. They feared the Chinese, sensitive to negative publicity — especially with the 2008 Olympics just around the corner — would kick them out of Tibet for good, shutting down the most profitable part of their businesses.
Benitez confided to fellow guide Paul Rogers that he was the one who broke the news. Rogers immediately informed their boss Russell Brice, owner of Himalayan Experience, of what Benitez had done.
Benitez claims Brice, Rogers and Henry Todd, a guide from another commercial outfit, angrily confronted him at base camp, provoking the aforementioned opinion about a "Free Tibet" from Rogers. Todd went so far as to make mafia-style threats.
"I think your name has been given to the Chinese," Todd told Luis, according to the Men's Journal article.
The official answer to Luis's accusations was that frontier soldiers wounded a Tibetan in self-defense after being attacked, and she later died in a hospital. This was a blatant lie told perhaps because the Chinese felt the remoteness of the Nangpa La would cover their tracks. They didn't take into account the high tech world of digital video, satellite phones and the Web, which quickly propagated the indisputable truth.
The Chinese fabrication was exposed when a shocking video taken by a Romanian climber was broadcast. It showed unarmed refugees trying to run up the pass as the sound of Chinese gunshots rang out, killing Kelsang. The incident escalated and soon the highest levels of Chinese government were feeling the heat as countries worldwide condemned their egregious action. This video can still be viewed on the Web at YouTube.
Commercial guides are one of the very few ways foreign visitors get access deep into the heart of Tibet. Now they've shown what they think of a "Free Tibet." Confronted with the choice of protecting business verses reporting human rights violations, they've chosen money. Ironically, the clients of these companies, who are generally very sympathetic to the culture of Tibet, are now unknowingly helping to destroy it.
In contrast, Benitez put his career on the line instead of selling his silence for blood money. Even if Benitez is allowed back into China, he's likely to be blacklisted by guiding companies, many of whom operate around the world. He has made some powerful enemies while trying to do the right thing.
By sacrificing part of his livelihood to tell the world of Kelsang's cold-blooded murder, Benitez has shown what he thinks of "this Free Tibet thing." The payoff wasn't worth his principles. Maybe more will learn from his example.Mark Scott-Nash is the author of "Playing for Real: Stories from Rocky Mountain Rescue". E-mail Mark at: firstname.lastname@example.org.Watch Exclusive footage of Chinese soldiers shooting at Tibetan pilgrims on Phayul's AUDIO & VIDEO sectionChinese soldiers shooting at Tibetan pilgrimsExclusive interview with the man who captured Tibetan's death on tape