They waded through Himalayan snowdrifts and climbed ice-covered rocky terrain for 17 days, cold, hungry and exhausted. Then came the shooting.
As 75 Tibetan refugees were making a secret trek across the border into Nepal, moving in single file across a mountain slope near the 19,000-foot-high Nanpa La Pass, Chinese border guards opened fire.
One woman — a 25-year-old Buddhist nun — was killed immediately in the Sept. 30 shooting, group members said. Chinese officials, in a statement, have said a second person also died.
“There was no warning of any kind. The bullets were so close I could hear them whizzing past,” Thubten Tsering, a Tibetan monk, told journalists in New Delhi on Monday. “We scattered and ran.”
Thubten is among 41 refugees who managed to reach India after the shooting. The refugees said 32 others, including nine children, were taken into custody by the guards and they don’t what happened to them.
“We don’t know where they are or what happened to them,” said Thubten, his chapped cheeks and exhausted face still bearing the scars of the ordeal.
Thousands of Tibetans flee Chinese rule in Tibet every year. Unable to get passports, many trek over Himalayan passes to reach Nepal and then India, where the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, lives in exile. Reports of arrests and ill-treatment by Chinese authorities are common.
Evidence on film
What separates the Sept. 30 shooting is that international mountaineers, on an expedition, saw the gunfire and filmed it.
Footage of the incident, shot by a Romanian cameraman, has led to an international outcry.
The video, released by Romania’s Pro TV, shows a distant figure that its narrator says is a Chinese border guard firing a rifle and a separate scene of a person in a line of figures walking through the snow then falling to the ground. An unidentified man near the camera can be heard saying in English, “They are shooting them like, like dogs.”
The Chinese government, in a report released two weeks ago by the official Xinhua News Agency, said the border guards fired in self-defense after clashing with about 70 people trying to leave the country illegally. It said one person died in the shooting and another died later. The statement didn’t say whether those involved were Tibetans.
The activist group International Campaign for Tibet, in a written statement, said the video proves the Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed Tibetans and not in self-defense.
Frequently used route for escape
The pass is a common escape route for fleeing Tibetans. Thousands have left for Nepal since communist forces occupied their Himalayan homeland in 1951. Many make their way to the north Indian town of Dharmsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Every year more than 2,500 Tibetan refugees attempt the arduous trek, said Tenzing Norgay of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, which arranged the news conference Monday.
Asked about his life in a monastery in Tibet where the monks are under the constant watch of Chinese security forces and under pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama, Thubten said simply: “It was stifling.”
“Being a monk who has taken a vow to live by the faith, we were always under threat from the Chinese political authorities,” he said.
Dolma Palkyid, a 15-year-old novice nun, was a close friend of Kelsang Nortso, the nun who was killed.
Discovery dashes hopes
“I had walked ahead and we got separated. Then the shooting took place and we fled. It was four days later that I heard Kelsang was the one who was shot,” she said, speaking haltingly and tearfully, through an interpreter.
Once in India, the friends were hoping to join another Buddhist nunnery together, said the teenager, dressed in a traditional ankle-length gown.
The group of Tibetan refugees had each paid $625 to a guide to arrange the trip. They set off in mid-September, assured that the 10-day trek would deliver them to Nepal.
There have been instances of refugees being shot at by border guards in the past, but this was the first time in recent years that troops killed any, said Tenzing of the human rights group.
“This is the first time that the world has seen evidence of what Tibetans are subjected to by the Chinese,” he said.
“Kelsang’s death cannot go in vain. We will use this incident and the video footage to bring international pressure on China and press for Tibetan freedom.”