Tibetans, Westerners Describe Deadly Shooting at China-Nepal Border

2006-10-13
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Mount Everest in the Himalayas shown in a 1996 photo. Photo: AFP

KATHMANDU—Members of a group of 43 Tibetans have described their terrifying flight to Nepal under deadly fire from Chinese border guards who took several dozen other Tibetans into custody.

Witnesses said at least one person was killed and at least one wounded by gunfire Sept. 30 near the Himalayan pass at Nangpa La in the Mount Everest region. Others set the death toll higher. Another 36 or 37 Tibetans were detained, witnesses told RFA’s Tibetan service.

I felt bullets whizzing past my ears. In fact I felt about five bullets pass by me and luckily they missed me. I was so frightened that I crawled in the snow using my hands and feet. The snow was about knee-deep.

The group, which originally numbered around 80 Tibetans, began their journey out of Chinese-controlled Tibet on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, according to members of the group—41 asylum-seekers and two Tibetan escorts—who arrived in Kathmandu on Oct. 10.

“When the Chinese fired at us, I was so tense and frightened. It is still difficult for me to explain what happened,” one man said in an interview after arriving at the Tibetan Reception Center in Kathmandu.

“It was so tense and confusing that I just thought of staying alive and escaping. I couldn't think of anything else or help the others.”

“I think the Chinese fired for about 15 minutes. I felt bullets whizzing past my ears. In fact I felt about five bullets pass by me and luckily they missed me. I was so frightened that I crawled in the snow using my hands and feet. The snow was about knee-deep,” he said.

The man, who asked not to be named, said the group initially thought the gunshots were fireworks, because there were many Western visitors who had come to climb the mountains in the area.

“I thought they were playing with fireworks. But then we realized it was gunshots and about 30 to 40 rounds were fired. In the confusion, we split into two groups. Those of us who were in the front managed to escape and the later group of about 30 or more Tibetans could not escape,” he said.

Tibetans dispute Chinese claim

Members of the group at the Tibetan Reception Center in Kathmandu disputed Chinese assertions that the border troops had fired in self-defense. China's official Xinhua news agency said the Tibetans had ignored an order to stop and then attacked the guards.

The report, quoting an unnamed official, said two Tibetans were wounded in the incident and one later died of altitude sickness. The other wounded Tibetan was being well treated.

“There was no one who fought with the Chinese soldiers. I saw everything and in fact I am only Tibetan who saw everything. I threw my bag on the side of road and entered in the camp of the Western climbers,” said one man, who said he had hidden in a toilet at a mountain-climbing camp.

“I concealed my other stuff behind the tent and put on a cap and stood in the midst of the Western climbers. I saw Chinese [troops] shooting at the Tibetans. All were running as fast as they could in the snow and no body tried to fight back.”

On this matter, we are not very clear. We don’t know about it. I have never heard of it. I can tell you nothing.

“To fight back we would need some weapons, but we had none. We had nothing to fight with the Chinese soldiers who were carrying weapons,” said another man, who like the other Tibetans asked not to be named. “We just had our hand and fists. There was no chance for us to fight back against those soldiers, who were well armed.”

Another Tibetan from the group, a woman, said: “Nobody fought with the Chinese soldiers. I saw no Tibetan fighting. No chance.”

Western account

“We were trying run and escape as fast as we could,” said a fourth person, a man. “The Chinese soldiers were firing from behind us. There was no chance for us to fight with them.”

Another Tibetan, who hid in the mountains for two nights before crossing into Nepal, said: “I saw a small child…There was another young boy who was shot in the foot and an old man. They were detained in the area until late afternoon and then the Chinese police took them away.”

“Those who escaped later saw the body of the nun who was killed. She was Kalsang Namtso, 17 years old from Ngachu Dri-ru (in Chinese, Biru Xian) county. They gave a local yak herder 100 yuan and asked him to take body away but we heard that he didn’t do it. So we don’t know what happened later,” the second man said.

A Western climber who witnessed the incident told RFA’s Tibetan service that two others in his group had been contacted by the Chinese Embassy in Nepal and asked to attend a meeting there.

“They have since left Nepal and gone home” without visiting the Chinese Embassy, the climber said.

Residents' account

“We heard five shots very, very quickly,” the climber said. “We saw a line of refugees making their way up the pass and obviously the Chinese army coming with guns.”

Tibetans working as cooks at the climbers’ base camp reported that seven people had been killed and their bodies left in a crevasse, the climber said, although this information couldn’t be confirmed.

Residents in the mountainous area of Solokhubum, on the Nepal side of the border, confirmed the shootings had occurred.

“There were about 77 Tibetans who escaped in a group, and the Chinese police shot at them on Sept. 30,” one resident said in an interview.

“Forty of them managed to escape and about 37 were arrested by the Chinese police. Among them seven were either injured or killed. Again on Oct. 1, three more Tibetans crossed the same pass and the Chinese again fired at them but they managed to escape unhurt. There were about eight or nine armed Chinese police who fired on the escaping Tibetans.”

The resident said escape across the mountains was becoming more difficult as what were previously Tibetan border guards were gradually being replaced with Han Chinese.

Thousands cross into Nepal

“Chinese officials recruit Tibetans who are paid to spy and inform on the escapees. Spies in the area are paid 300 yuan a month, and they get a special bonus for tracking and informing on Tibetan escapees,” the resident said.

An official at the Tibet Autonomous Region’s Foreign Liaison Office declined to comment on the incident when contacted by RFA’s Mandarin service.

“On this matter, we are not very clear. We don’t know about it. I have never heard of it,” the official said. “I can tell you nothing,” he said, before hanging up.

Phone calls on Wednesday by RFA’s Cantonese service to both the external affairs office of the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala and the Chinese Embassy in Nepal went unanswered.

In recent years, thousands of Tibetans have risked the illegal border crossing into Nepal and India in search of better educational opportunities and religious freedom.

Many end up in Dharmasala, a town in northern India where their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, has lived since 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. More than 20,000 Tibetan refugees currently live in Nepal, although those who arrive now are required to travel on to neighboring India.

Original reporting by RFA's Tibetan service. Director: Jigme Ngapo. Translated and edited by Karma Dorjee. Additional reporting by Lillian Cheung of RFA’s Cantonese service, Xin Yu and Xi Wang of RFA’s Mandarin service, and Richard Finney. Produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Tibetan

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