Atul Sethi, June 10, 2012. (The Times of India)
Every year dozens of Tibetans risk their lives as they trudge hundreds of kilometres through snow-capped mountains, all the while averting arrest by the Chinese police, to reach Dharamsala. A batch of newly arrived refugees tell Sunday Times what it means to escape from their beloved but now bewildering homeland
She whispers something in her friend’s ears, as both break out into giggles. “She’s saying Indians have such big eyes,” informs the interpreter with a smile. The ice is broken, as Sonam and Lobsang settle down to tell their story. The two teenagers recently arrived at the Tibetan Reception Centre on the outskirts of McLeodganj after an arduous onemonth journey from Kham province in Tibet. Both were part of a group of 40 people who braved icy blizzards, treacherous mountain passes and the ever-looming danger of being caught by Chinese police. Hundreds of Tibetans make this risky journey every year, fuelled by the promise of a better life in a country where their leader, the Dalai Lama, has beeing living in exile in McLeodganj since 1959.
Many of these refugees are children like Sonam and Lobsang, whose parents arrange for their escape so that they can have a good education, especially in the Tibetan language – something which is not possible if they stay on in their country . In fact, both Sonam and Lobsang studied in Chinese schools for a few years – before dropping out due to the high fees of 4000 yuan per year (1 yuan = Rs 6) . “My family could not afford it,” says Sonam, who is 14 years old and gregarious like other girls of her age. But the mention of her family clouds her eyes. “My father is a farmer and does not have much money. But he was determined to send me to India. He told me it’s for my own good and that I have to be brave and do the family proud,” she says.
Lobsang nods in agreement. He is a year older to Sonam and comes from the same village as her. He recalls that before they set out for India, his father had told him about the dangers involved in the journey. “He told me that it would involve days of walking in uninhabited mountainous regions in one of the world’s most difficult mountainous terrain – the Himalayas,” he says. “Often, people fall into crevices, go snow blind or get frostbite , losing their feet or fingers. But these are nothing, he told me, compared to what would happen if we were to fall into Chinese hands. A few years back, one of my relatives was caught while he was making the journey. He was beaten so much that he was half-dead by the time they finished with him. Then, they threw him into prison.”
Despite the dangers, Lobsang recalls his father saying, the journey would be a great adventure and give him the courage to face the life ahead. “Are you scared or are you ready?, he asked me. I felt scared but I told him that I was ready.”
It was amidst this fear and optimism that the two teenagers and their families started making preparations for the journey . A month before they left their village, provisions were bought – often surreptitiously , so as not to raise suspicions that they were planning a long voyage. “We collected a lot of barley. My mother used it to make tsampa (roasted barley flour). She said we were to take a few spoonfuls at regular intervals, as it would help in boosting our energy,” recalls Sonam. Then, there was the task of raising funds for the trip. Going to India would require the services of a guide, who charged between 10,000 to 50,000 yuan per person. Lobsang says his father sold off a piece of his land to pay for the journey. “One of my uncles got in touch with an agent in Lhasa, who had organized the escape of another group of Tibetans a year back. He wanted 30,000 yuan per head to arrange a guide who will escort us out of Tibet, but finally settled for 22,000. However , he said the guide will go with us only till Nepal. If the Nepali police caught us, we were on our own.”
Finally, the time to leave arrived. It was a moonless night, says Lobsang. “We chanted a prayer – Ki ki so so lha gyalo (May the gods of Tibet be victorious). And then, we were off.” Besides Sonam and Lobsang, there were a few others from their province, like Nawang, a 26-year old, whose motivation for making the journey was to fulfill his dream of becoming a monk. Sitting in the courtyard of the Tibetan Reception Centre, the summer sun shining on his bald pate, he looks a picture of equanimity. But he says it’s hard to forget the sense of fear that was looming over their head throughout the journey. “We were taken in trucks, hiding alongside goods, sometimes cattle, till the border. My heart was in my mouth whenever the truck stopped. I was afraid that a Chinese policeman would poke me in the ribs and lead me out. But the gods saved me.”
In retrospect though, riding in trucks was perhaps the more comfortable part of their journey. The tough part started when the group began the slow and painful trudge up the mountainous passes and through the snowline. “All that I can remember is that we walked and walked,” says Sonam. “It was like I was walking in a dream. Many times, my legs just gave away, and I sank into the snow. But the others pushed me and told me to keep walking, otherwise I would get frostbite.”
They walked during night and hid in caves during the day. Once, while walking , the guide who was leading the group suddenly froze in his tracks, recalls Nawang . “He told us to immediately turn back and take cover. He had seen flashing lights and suspected that it might be Chinese forces looking out for groups like us through long distance night vision cameras .”
The group spent two days hiding in a cave. “None of us could sleep,” says Nawang . “I remembered that a few years back, security forces near the Nangpa La pass had fired at a group of Tibetans who were crossing over and two nuns had been killed. We prayed fervently that we are able to reach our destination safely.”
Their prayers were answered when they reached the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu, which co-ordinated with the Indian embassy to facilitate their onward travel to Dharamsala . Now, more than three months after they left their home, Sonam, Lobsang and the others in their group are geared up for their new life ahead. Both the children have been enrolled in a Tibetan school, while Nawang is preparing to go to a monastery in South India.
For members of this group, a harrowing journey might have ended and a fresh beginning made. But as Nawang puts it, this is not the end of the story. “There will be fresh groups who would continue to make the journey in order to flee from oppression . This story will end, only when we achieve freedom. Till then, we are forced to escape from our own country.”