‘Even After 10 Years, I Can’t Return Home’: The Journey Of A Tibetan Refugee

Posted by Sumantra Mukherjee in My Story
August 3, 2017

As told to the author by a Tibetan refugee who wishes to stay anonymous:

The grief of losing Tenzin Choeying, a young man who set himself ablaze to show his dissent against China’s illegal occupation of Tibet, had barely been forgotten when we received news of the 160th incident of immolation from the majestic Dharamshala. The victim was Passang Dhondup, a wood painter who helped us in a wood painting workshop at Norbulingka Institute on June 29, 2017. I can still remember his smiling face and enthusiasm.

The previous month had been a month of sadness for all Tibetans. This was primarily because we witnessed the demise of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Laureate of People’s Republic of China, who was serving an 11-year jail sentence for demanding an end to the one-party rule. In 1996, he was sentenced to three years in a labour camp for writing a joint letter to China’s then President, Jiang Zemin, supporting Tibetan self-determination and calling for a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. In fact, he is believed to be the first Chinese person to be sentenced for speaking up for Tibet.

The current situation in Tibet is totally different from the time I spent there. When I was in the country, the Chinese didn’t commit too many atrocities neither were they as harsh as what we are currently witnessing. Nowadays, there is Chinese police everywhere – and if they suspect anybody, they’ll thrash or detain them. Back then, there was social discrimination, – but it wasn’t as visible as it is now.

Tibetans in Dharamsala protesting against China’s policy towards Tibet (Photo by Shyam Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In 2008, there was a massive protest from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, which spread across the three provinces of Amdo, Kham and Tsang. A large number of people came out of their houses to voice their dissent against the Chinese regime and calling for freedom. They started marching with Tibetan flags. Before that day, I had never seen a Tibetan flag, as it had been apparently banned under the Chinese regime.

The Chinese government was shocked by this massive unrest and started to send large numbers of army personnel and police to show their strength in the Tibetan territory. CCTV cameras were installed everywhere to spy on every action of the Tibetans.

When I was in Tibet, there weren’t many restrictions on travelling to Amdo. We used to go to Lhasa for pilgrimage, as it was home to many monasteries and important places. But after the 2008 movement, there were restrictions imposed even for travelling from one district to another. We always had to take permission from the police, which was very irritating.

A monk wishing to pursue studies in another monastery also needed to gain the approval of the police.In most cases, the police are reluctant to grant permission. Also, if the Chinese authorities suspect writers, they will most likely raid their houses for books, diaries or other ‘objectionable’ items. There’s no room for privacy and fundamental rights. They’ll also check emails, browsing history and phone records – and if they suspect anything, they’ll probably imprison the person anywhere between three to 10 years, according to their wishes.

They also started this ‘shoot-at-sight’ policy. There are photos and even videos, captured by foreign mountaineers on their way through the Himalayas, of the Chinese army mercilessly shooting refugees. They saw many people walking on glaciers and Chinese guards started shooting at them from some distance. You can see the spine-chilling video of the Nangpa La shooting incident (in 2006), where a group of unarmed refugees who attempted to flee Tibet via the Nangpa La pass were fired upon by Chinese border guards. Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old nun, was killed and many were injured in the incident.

Here in India, we can hire lawyers (or the court appoints one) for the suspect. But in China, there is no such thing. Everything is decided by the police. On television, they show that they take the suspect to court, there is a lawyer and that there are arguments. But it is all a well-rehearsed scripted act and a complete fake. In fact, it’s intended for propaganda.

In reality, there is no democracy. They show what they want us to see. Even if you do nothing, they will probably label you as a ‘separatist’. If you are a follower of Dalai Lama, you are a ‘separatist’ in their eyes. You are a threat to the sovereignty, unity and security of the ‘nation’ and therefore you will be sentenced to prison. Even if you find yourself in a labour camp, don’t be too surprised because it has been home to numerous political prisoners including Liu Xiaobo.

Before 2008, many Tibetans used to come to India for pilgrimage – first to meet and seek the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then visit Bodh Gaya and other important Buddhist shrines. But after 2008, restrictions have been imposed on the same. If the people have to visit India – first, they have to go to Thailand, and then to Nepal, keep all their passports and other documents secret, and then cross over to India. The people of Tibet can go to other countries like Malaysia, Thailand, etc. But most of them face discrimination while getting their visas. Even after all this, they rarely get the permission to travel to India.

The Dalai Lama offers his blessings to a follower. (Photo by Waseem Andrabi /Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Despite all this, I wanted to visit India to receive the Dalai Lama’s blessings. Like many fellow Tibetans, I too believed that I would live and die peacefully and without regret if I received his blessings. However, I didn’t inform anyone in my family (parents, brothers or sisters) about my decision.

Most Tibetans come to India during summer, because in winter, it’s too cold. Some elders even said that they had seen people frozen in glaciers. But travelling in summer isn’t easy too, because the glaciers melt. So, while walking on glaciers, you have to pray that it can support your weight . Otherwise, it’s likely that you will go down into the freezing water. There are also cracks in the glacier which you need to be careful of. So, when we reach a glacier, we tie a long rope around our bodies and walk together. If one falls, the rest do not. I was 16 when I carried a 25 kilogram bag filled with food and clothes for about 28 days, before finally crossing the Himalayas. There were 18 people – and fortunately, nature was kind to us.

After I came to India, I got admitted to Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). The TCV is a boarding school run by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) for the children of Tibetan refugees and for orphans who lost their parents in Tibet.

Life at TCV was filled with challenges. In Tibet, the three provinces have their own dialects and I was not at all familiar with the dialects in central and eastern Tibet. Therefore, I couldn’t understand a word of what my teachers taught. I didn’t have many friends as there were hardly any students from my province. The only way to communicate was by writing, mainly because most Tibetans know how to write in the Pali script. So, due to the linguistic barrier, I was left with no option but to learn those dialects.

Despite all this, during all these years, I was solely dependent on TCV. We would be given three meals a day, and I would eat whatever they gave me. Many people, even foreigners, were generous enough to donate clothes and other items to TCV, which were, in turn, given to us. They even provided us with soaps and toothpastes.

Tibetan Children’s Village at Dharamshala (Image Source: Margaret Ann Davis/Facebook)

When I first came to TCV, there were 106 of us who stayed in one room. However, from 2009 onwards, the facilities at TCV started improving. More rooms were built, the quality of food improved and blankets also started being provided to us. Definitely, we faced a lot of challenges – but I feel fortunate and happy that I could spend time at TCV, facing those challenges. I don’t have any regrets and I am thoroughly satisfied.

Nowadays, everything is provided for the people who arrive here – blankets, food and other items of comfort. As a result, they do not get the ‘privilege’ to experience the challenges we faced. As a matter of fact, many of them even have passports!

The CTA also provides allowances to students who are refugees in India. When I came to India, I couldn’t contact my parents. However, with the CTA’s allowance, I finally called up my parents after three years. Due to the high calling rates, 500 rupees vanished in no time.

On a more serious note though, I realised that my family were not expecting to hear my voice at all. Perhaps, they were still mourning my sudden disappearance or had considered me to be long dead. Though my father put up a brave front, how could I console my mother who kept requesting me to return to Tibet?

In those days, communicating with my family was rare – maybe once or twice a year. However, with the arrival of WeChat, we can now talk regularly.

The one problem I have faced after leaving Tibet is that I haven’t met my family ever since. They are nomadic people who rear yaks and sheep,so, they don’t know about the country’s political affairs or foreign policies. They only know that China invaded Tibet. They keep on asking me why I can’t return to Tibet.

In Tibetan culture, we deeply respect our parents. Therefore, even if I am ill or facing problems in India, I hide it from them, as I do not want to add to their worries. After all, even though they want to come here to meet me, they can’t. All they can do is worry about me!

Still, they keep requesting me to return as it’s already been 10 years. I cannot return even if I wanted to. I even applied to the Chinese Embassy for permission to go back, but my pleas were rejected. I think there is no more hope for me to meet my family.


Images used for representative purposes only.

Image Source: China Photos/Getty Images