A Tibetan refugee’s story

On Tuesday, January 14, 2014, in Recent, by Olivia Heffernan

Note: the following is an interview by Olivia Heffernan, a former intern at ICT’s Washington office, with a young Tibetan monk at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal in 2013.

butter lamps

(Photo: Olivia Heffernan)

The fluorescent lights flickered as the thunder rumbled. It was five PM; the time the rains came almost every afternoon in Nepal during rainy season. We sat on the carpet-covered benches in the enclosed dismal room in which the volunteers ate their meals. It was a muggy afternoon and the mosquitoes were relentless. I opened my notebook full of scribbles on what I had learned about Buddhism and travel tips and began to write down a story I never imagined hearing, the story of Kelsang (his name has been changed in this story for his protection).

It was one day as I was coming home from working in the fields that I noticed a stranger in my home. He was Tibetan but lived in Delhi, India. He sat in my house and told my parents he knew much about India and that this was a good time to go to receive an education. It was four days before I left that my mother told me I was leaving. I was eight and a half years old, or at least I think so. I don’t know the actual date of my birth. She told me, you are going to India to study hard and to become a good person and one day you will send me a letter of all that you have learned.

Kelsang’s family is from Hualong County in eastern Tibet. His parents, both uneducated farmers, wanted a different life for their son. Kelsang has an elder brother and younger sister. To this day he is unsure why his parents chose him to go to India.

I felt okay. I didn’t know what was there, but still wanted to go. I wanted to see a new place. So my mom packed everything that could fit in my small bag and cooked some bread for my trip.

About twelve people from Kelsang’s village travelled with this man from India. They walked for two hours to the closest town where vehicle transportation was available. From there they caught a six hour bus to Xining where all twelve slept in one room for the night.

That night a man arrived with his fifteen-year-old son who was coming to India with us. When he saw me and another girl my age, he begged us to rethink going. He wanted us to go back home. I remember him telling us that there are no buses or cars where we are going; we would have to walk. He said the walk was many days and it was very difficult, that we would get sick and no one would want to carry us. The man explained that many children are left behind to die. People lose their fingers, arms or legs to frostbite in the mountains or are buried alive. That made me sad and a little afraid, but I still wanted to go to India.

The following morning the group of now thirteen, left for a four-day bus trip to Lhasa. Before arriving in Lhasa, the bus got stuck in a mountain pass covered in ice. Kelsang explains spending hours vomiting from altitude sickness.

When I arrived in Lhasa that afternoon, my entire body was swollen. I could not even wear my shoes and I felt very weak, but I had arrived there alive. We sat on the floor at the bus station for many hours. We were all very tired. A boy about eighteen years old arrived and I recognized him. He welcomed us and after he had spoken, I realized that this boy was my grandmother’s sister’s son. I knew his face and he knew me.

For two days Kelsang the group stayed in this man’s home until taking a minibus a few hours away to Shigatse.

As we were leaving Lhasa, a man with long hair from the eastern part of Tibet came to us and said we all must pay him because from here he will lead the way to Nepal. I realized later this was his occupation. When we got to Shigatse, the man leading us announced it was time to start our walk. We walked and walked and walked. That was all I can remember doing for days. Soon we crossed a very wide river with a bridge that closed after crossing it. On the other side was a Chinese security checkpoint. This was the first time someone asked us where we were going. Our group leader responded that we were on a pilgrimage to visit Kailash Mountain. He had told us before to lie and say this because in Tibet this was a very holy place near Nepal territory.

Kelsang and his group passed through this first checkpoint safely. By this time it was late afternoon and they were tired and ready to eat. There was another security checkpoint a few hours ahead, but they had to wait until night to reach it.

We did not sleep. We just sat and waited until it was dark and then began to walk again. I began to feel tired and sick. It was completely dark when we finally reached the second checkpoint and our leader told us we must pass it very silently. There was a large tower that was a look out point for the guards. We tried to be as quiet as possible, but the dogs heard us. The dogs began to make lots of noise. The guards know we are there. They begin to yell and turn on all their lights, shining them on us. We are all so frightened and begin to run. We lose each other as we run apart and away from the yelling and chasing guards. Luckily I was with two other people and we run across the bridge where they can no longer shine the light on us. But the checkpoint is surrounded by tall barb wired fences. My jacket gets caught. I pull on it and try to run but I am stuck. I can hear the yells of the guards getting closer, and I can no longer see the boy and girl whom I was with. I am alone and very scared. I start to yell for help and soon the boy has come back and pulls me as hard as he can and we run to a cave and hide there. I have lost my jacket.

The cave is small and very dark. It is cold outside. We do not know where our group is, but we do not say a word. We are alone, me the boy and the girl. We sit silently, shivering from the cold and our fear as we wait. After some time we come outside and see that the light is still on. We hear lots of noise and think the others have been caught. We are worried that if we stay here, the guards will find us so we have to leave.

It is not until the lights of the monastery go out that I realize Kelsang has been switching between speaking in present and past tense. We take a moment as a feel around the table for my cell phone that I use as a light to continue writing.

We arrive at a guesthouse and soon we find the rest of the group. I am very happy. That night we are not allowed to sleep, our leader tells us we must be awake and ready to run if the guards come. They will be looking for us, he says. By now we are so tired and hungry. One man leaves the room to get us food. That was the first time I ever saw instant noodles and I thought they were very, very good [laughing to himself].

After a few hours, we continue to a small, dangerous bridge and we cross it one by one. We had to go very slowly and quietly because the bridge was not safe. Luckily, we are able to cross and arrive at the last main check point in Tibet. To avoid the checkpoint, we must walk through a wide river. The river was too deep and large for me and the small girl to cross alone but there is no other way. We all take off our belts and tie them together to make a rope, we hold this and go one by one. It took a very long time and it was January so the river was full of ice. One of the men carried me on his shoulders. He told me to close my eyes but in the middle of the river I opened them. I was so scared and I wish I hadn’t looked. All my tears come. I thought we were all going to die in this river. I am not going to live, I kept thinking. This was the first time I had cried since I left my home. The others were praying, crying, asking, begging for peace and safety. No one knew if we would make it. I do not know how long it took to cross, but when we had, we were crying with happiness and thanking His Holiness for our safety. We were so happy because that was the last checkpoint.

Suddenly a police car drives and stops, they wave to us from across the river. They look very angry but we cannot hear them, they are too far and the river is too big. Again, I feel very scared. They know we have skipped the checkpoint and they are coming to get us. They start to cross the river too. They throw bombs in the water, not far from where we are standing.

So we run. And that whole night we do not stop.

I feel hungry and frightened. My shoes are broken and my fingers frost bit. After a day of walking, our leader tells us we are safe and we sleep in a cave. That night I cried all night. I missed my mom so much. I missed waking up to the bread she would make. I knew that when I woke up in the morning, I would not have that smell of the bread, I would not have any food. I would not have my mom.

Kelsang begins to trail off. His head slowly bows into his open hands. Was it exhaustion, the heat? I didn’t know what was wrong. He had been so firm, and unemotional the entire hour and half he had been speaking, but now as his small body quivered in his too-large red and yellow robe. I noticed a tear hit the wood floor next to my foot. “I’m so sorry,” he says to me with downcast eyes.” He can’t look at me. “I have never told this story out loud to anyone before. You are the first person to know. I didn’t think this would happen, but now I cannot hold it, I am just exploding. It has been so long, but there is still so much emotion for me. Usually when I think about this time I go to my room and I cry alone. I never wanted anyone to see me like this or to know.” After a few moments of silence he continued. “I expected it [though]. I knew and I hoped that one day someone would want to know my story. It is very difficult for me, but I want to tell it to you. I want you to know so you can share it for me.”

We agreed to take a break to regain our composure and begin again when he was ready. Later, when we met he said he was feeling better and apologized for crying before. For the next two hours and through three power outages, Kelsang continued his story.

That night in the cave, I dreamed about my mom and her bread, and the whole day, as we walked across the endless mountains, I thought of her. It has now been more than eight days of walking but we were not done. One evening we met a group of nomads and asked them for shelter and they gave us one tent but there was not enough room for all of us so the older people slept outside. That night for the first time in many nights I slept well, but when I woke up I saw that my friends outside were covered in snow. They were shivering and looked white from the cold.

The whole day we walked again and I felt so exhausted. I did not want to tell anyone because I remembered what the man had said about the young children being buried alive. So I tried my best to walk. By now we had reached a desert. We are still in Tibet territory. It is still very cold so we dig a hole in the sand to stay warm and sleep. At midday we meet another group of nomads and buy yak meat because we are out of food. We must eat it raw because there is no place to cook it. We all get very sick.

I am weak and vomit often, but have to keep walking. We reach a small riverside and we all sleep there. That night I thought I was going to die because it was so cold and I am very weak. I did not sleep at all; I just turned from side to side. I no longer know how many days it has been. Our leader tells us that in two days we will be in Nepal, but I think he was just trying to encourage and give us hope.

We walked day and night, day and night and in the evening of the second day, we came to the mountain that marked the border between Nepal and Tibet. I saw a large stone that marked the division between the Chinese and Nepali territory. We begin to climb the tall mountain; some of us cannot make it and we lose part of the group. We have had no food and are all very weak and tired from the cold and sickness. I try eating snow.

The air was very thick with fog as we began climbing and we had to shout for each other and follow voices to know which way to go. We try to follow a small path that led to a village a few hours ahead. We hope everyone can see the path because by now we have lost each other in the fog. I feel very alone.

After a long time our group arrives at the village. We are too tired and hungry to be happy. We need food, but we have no money left. We give our jackets and blankets in exchange for food. That night, we cooked dinner and I remember it as the best dinner of my life. Even though we can feel the stones in the food, we eat it and that night we sleep comfortably in a room for the first time in many nights. The next day it is sunny. We continue to climb up the mountain and once we start going down we see trees and this makes us happy. We know once we reach the bottom, we are in Nepal territory.

That night we find a man selling instant noodles and for the second time in my life I have them. We cannot sleep that night because we must cross through the first Nepal checkpoint in the dark. We make our way through a forest but before we get to the checkpoint, we stop. We have to wait until the middle of the night to pass through it. I lie down in the forest and fall asleep immediately, but my leader wakens me. I cannot sleep; the police could come.

At around 3AM we cross a small bridge that sways back and forth in the wind. It is a thin bridge and many of the wooden boards are broken. As we cross the bridge we can see lights in a room on the third floor of a security building. We see the police sitting at a table through the window and can even hear them talking. I was scared to even breathe because they might hear me. We are so quiet, they do not notice us and we think we have made it safely. At this point, it is very dark and we are tired so when we see two people walking towards us we think they are part of our group, but as they get closer we can see the guns and we know they are policemen. We hear one of the men load his gun. It is too late to run. If we try, they will shoot us. We stand there unable to move. I am so scared.

The two men force us all to go wait in a small concrete room. We cannot sit. It is too small. The boys must stay on one side and the girls on the other we are told. We spend two nights in this room. There are no windows and we are not allowed to leave. The entire time we are left thinking about our fears.

After two days of being held there, two Nepali police finally come. They tell us we can continue to India but four policemen will accompany us. They walked with us for many days taking us from police station to police station, threatening us with their guns. They do not give us food. Finally, one morning we were so hungry they give us something to eat but it is food we were not used to and we all became very sick. With what little money we had left, we buy one biscuit and share it with the entire group. We now have no more money.

We continue to walk and one night we all sleep in a room in a prison. We could see in the other room that the policemen were eating their dinner. My leader begged and begged them to let us lick their plates when they were done. They give us a small bowl of rice that we all share. We stay in different prisons for another five days.

The last prison was the nicest; there we meet many Tibetans. That night a man who looked very smart came to us and said that he was from Tibet and that we should not worry. He says we must pay the Nepali police to be released. The next day he returns with a bag of donuts. We are like wild animal eating them.

Kelsang and his group are forced to stay at this prison for an additional week while funds for their release are organized.

Finally, we are called one by one one to a small room at the prison where the guards ask us many, many questions. They ask me why I had come, how much family I had, my parents’ occupation, if I was alone; there were so many questions. I was very scared, but they released us and we leave for the Tibetan reception center in Nepal. We sleep in a large hall at the reception center for more than two weeks. When we leave, they give us a small amount of money.

The night we left the Tibetan reception center it was warm. It was April, the beginning of summer. It is so hot we sit on the roof of the bus but we are bitten by so many bugs our whole bodies become infected. We ride on this bus for three days before we arrive in Delhi. I cannot believe how hot it is. We go to another Tibetan reception center and stay there for three weeks.

When I was in Delhi, I was often very hungry so I would go to the street stands and I would get very close and when they were not looking, I would take the food and I run away as fast as I could (chuckling). I did that only three times.

After three weeks of staying in Delhi, Kelsang continued to Dharamsala by bus and remained at the Dharamsala Tibetan reception center for a month while officials found appropriate locations and schools for the refugees to attend. Each refugee registers according to age to attend different schools.

It is more comfortable at the Dharmsala center. I taste Daal for the first time and it is so good. I learn to eat with my hands because at home we always ate with chopsticks. Some people come to visit us and give us food. There is a young Tibetan woman who takes care of me there. She was so nice.

I remember so well when the officials let us go to the river. It was a Sunday and this was the first time I had taken a bath since I left my home. Here, for the first time since I had left my family, I feel comfortable and happy. At night I am always the happiest because my leader had told me my home was in the west and that is where the sun sets. But every morning, I wake up and miss them again.

One day an official came and told us we were going to visit the Dalai Lama’s palace. We arrived at the palace and we kneel down as we wait for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Suddenly he appears! We may have struggled for many days, but the Dalai Lama always gave us hope and now he was sitting there smiling at us. We were all crying. I will never forget that day. He asks each of us where we are from and how we are doing. He tells us he is so happy we are there with him. He gives us each a paper bag with pictures of him and deities in them. We are so happy and thankful.

A few days later I must separate from my group to go to school. We cry and cry. We had become a family. We know we will never see each other again.

Kelsang attended a small primary school in Dharmasala where he and the other students lived in a very basic house and were taken care of by an older woman whom they considered their mother. There were about 18 students all of whom were from different parts of Tibet and spoke varying dialects. Kelsang stayed here for many years. He began at what was called Opportunity Class and progressed onto the next years of education where he was taught Hindi, English and Math.

It wasn’t until 2011 that I saw my parents again. I was seventeen years old. Gradually I had lost affection for my parents. It had been a very long time. I didn’t feel like I had parents anymore.

After many years of working I saved all of my money and went to the Chinese embassy to get a visa. The embassy had closed for two months because of Tibetan protests. I was very disappointed. When the embassy opened it was only available to Tibetans twice a week, Monday and Friday, and the lines were so long. People would come at 4 AM to wait for it to open at 9 AM. The police would give you numbers when you waited. I remember I was number 42. After many hours I got inside. It was April 2011 that I registered and I did not hear back from the embassy for five months. I called very often and they told me to wait. In October, I called and they said yes. I started shouting! I had never been so excited before. Right away I quit my job and I packed everything. I already felt more close to Tibet.

I took many buses and once I arrived to the Tibet border I was taken to a Chinese office where I was interrogated by the police. They checked my hair, my clothes, mobile and asked my questions for hours.

The way there was very cold and isolated and I was stopped by many police officers but soon I arrive to Lhasa early in the morning when it is still dark. I wanted to see all the glory of the Potala after being away for 16 years. I can tell Lhasa has changed a lot just from outside of the window of the jeep. It now had many new large hotels. The Chinese had changed it in a bad way. Tibetan culture was being destroyed.

At this point Kelsang began to cry and took a few moments to regain his composure. He explained that this moment was both a very happy and sad one for him.

Once in Lhasa, Kelsang had to go to another Chinese office. He is greeted by a Tibetan who offers him some green tea and warns him to be careful and not to talk to many people. Kelsang searched for a guesthouse to stay in that night and was denied many times because he could not prove his Tibetan citizenship. The following day, after hours of walking and asking for directions, Kelsang found his village.

The whole village ran to me, he said. My mother was crying. I also cried. But I did not even have time to drink the tea my mother had made me before the Chinese police arrived at my home. They stayed at my house for five hours asking me questions. Sometimes I felt frustrated. After they left I finally felt warm and happy.

Kelsang explained that the visa he was granted lasted for three months but that twice a week the Chinese police would come to interrogate him. He was forced to notify them anytime he had plans of travelling even within Tibet.

My mother wanted me to stay and get married in Tibet but I felt like I had no freedom. I had plans of returning and staying in Tibet but I decided I could not. I could not live there. Freedom means something different for the people living in Tibet. They are not free politically. They want to express their rights but cannot. My family can barely trust each other to talk about the situation in Tibet. The Chinese are always listening; they will pay you for information.

Kelsang remained in Tibet for two months out of his three-month visa. He explained that if had felt that there was freedom, he would have stayed.

I escaped Tibet for political and educational reasons. We risked our lives day and night for those reasons and it is important to share that because we still live in exile. It is important for people to know. I feel that one day I can do something for Tibet, I can share it with the world. There is no life to live like this in Tibet.

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3 Responses to “A Tibetan refugee’s story”

  1. Caroline says:

    This personal account of Mr “Kelsang” is very important to share with the world.
    I thank you Kelsang for your courage to share it with Mrs. Heffernan, and via her with us. Knowledge about the fate of the Tibetans will set them free. I will tell your story to others.
    I wish you all the best.

  2. giuliana says:

    I feel so hopeless to hear all your life stories, you all are strong and faithful people, why this harsh destiny? We cannot even imagine all you are going through, one day things will change, the world now knows about Tibet , hopefully the Whole humanity is going to change for a better world shanti Giuliana

  3. Connie Auck says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I know you have had to endure much loss for the price of your freedom. NAMASTE

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