4 years ago today, one of the most important yet unfortunate events took place. Like many days before and after September 30th, 2006, a group of 75 Tibetans were attempting to flee the iron fist of China and reach the refuge of Nepal, via the Nangpa La Pass through the Himalayan mountains.
The trip had already been harrowing enough. From the truck packed with people, resembling sardines in a can, to the harsh travel through the mountains, to the twine holding one’s shoe sole to the rest of the shoe to keep their feet warm, it soon became a test of survival rather than a simple escape to freedom.
Morning had just broken, and the group was on the move, hoping that the journey would soon come to an end. It was not the case, and frostbitten toes were the last of their worries. From the peaks they saw shadows scrambling and then the loud popping noises were heard, as was the sound of bullets buzzing by.
As is common on the mountain of Choy Oyu, an expedition was preparing to climb. Luis Benitez (Climber and Expedition Coordinator), Paul Rogers (Expedition Coordinator), Pavle Kozjek (Photographer), Sergiu Matei (Videographer and man who took the video of the incident), Pierre Maina (Danish Doctor and Climber) were all shocked by the popping sounds they heard as well.They noticed an increased presence of the Chinese Military, but again, this was common in the mountains of Tibet. What they didn’t know, at first, was the soldiers were firing their weapons at Tibetans. As the Tibetans were forging onward, the Chinese soldiers were “shooting them like dogs”, a now infamous quote from the video of the shooting.
As seen in the video, a couple of the Tibetans were hit by the gunfire, one of them was 17-year-old nun Kelsang Namtso. Kelsang, like most of the others, was headed toward Dharamsala, India in hopes of being blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was also her hope to continue her lessons as a nun and receive teachings from His Holiness. Her dreams were shattered that day, as her innocent life was taken from her. Her body, which has never been found or returned to her family, was believed to have been dumped down a crevasse. This was witnessed by a few people, including Sergiu and Pierre.
2 weeks after the event, 41 of the Tibetans reached their destination, the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu, Nepal. What happened to the others? All were arrested, of course, but to this day 17 or so are still unaccounted for. Questions should obviously be raised about these folks and their whereabouts. But as we all know, all we’ll get from Chinese officials is the usual smoke and mirrors.
Jonathan Green, an award-winning writer/ journalist, recently had his first book published “Murder in the High Himalaya.” His telling of the story is well researched and detailed, I read and reviewed the book here. Recently I spoke with him via e-mail about the incident, his book and the future of Tibet.
PM: What drove you to write this story? When did you first hear about it?
Jonathan Greene: I was sent to the Himalaya by my magazine editor in London who wanted a general piece on Tibetan refugees. Her interest was spurred by small news reports about Kelsang Namtso’s murder. While there I followed the entire route from the Nangpa La to Dharamsala. I was horrified by what I found and wrote the story. It looked like people escaping a war zone. Worse, the world didn’t seem to know anything about it. There seems to be a lot of compassion fatigue about Tibet. Coupled with the fact that few people really want to report on China and the Tibet issue, or take them on.
PM: How hard was it pitching the manuscript? I would assume some would not want to touch it due to the nature of the story and political ramifications that may come if someone else had published it?
Jonathan Green: It was very difficult selling a book like this. For one it’s densely, political and complex and two it’s absurdly expensive to report from the Himalaya. A lot of publishers these days just want soft, funny memoirs – memoirs are the big thing right now – all about life in the US, or at least with central American characters. So this was tough because the heroine of my book is clearly Dolma and it’s all set in three countries, most of which it is hard to gain access to information within as a journalist. I ran out of money, found a couple of small grants and just pushed on… I’ve incurred a lot of debt but I knew that would happen when I signed up for it.
PM: How did writing “Murder In The High Himalaya” differ from other stories you’ve written in the past? Did you find it more difficult based on the profile of the Tibetan movement?
Jonathan Green: It was the most extreme reporting challenge I have ever had. At the outset I knew it was going to be brutally tough. Writing a 75 000 word non-fiction book about an issue in which everyone who knows anything about it is not going to talk because they are terrified of the Chinese or simply because it interferes with their business interests was very hard. I had to go to places under the radar, many of the interviewees could only be used on background and I spent months trying to talk to people who didn’t want to talk to me. I have lot of experiences from the course of my research that I couldn’t write about because it might put people in danger.
In other narratives I have written, magazine editors often encourage the writer to be a character in the story. I toyed with the idea of this but in the end I decided that it would simply disrupt Dolma and Kelsang’s very powerful story and it wasn’t about me. It was about Dolma. And any suffering I went through to get the story I did was nothing compared to what Dolma and Kelsang went through for their own journey to the truth. So, I decided to leave myself out until the epilogue.
PM: We’ve all seen the “Free Tibet” stickers on bumpers everywhere. What do those words mean to you? Is a Free Tibet possible?
Jonathan Green: Yes, of course it is. China does change it’s stance but only when there is significant pressure for it do so or because it will be denied access to the international community and the world economy. The only way China will change is if people keep resisting and admonish China when it does wrong, as in the case of Nangpa La. To appease them and adopt this code of silence as the international community does is not in China’s longterm interest nor ours. Throughout history it has been demonstrated that appeasing regimes is never a positive thing in the long run, either for those living under the regime or the world community in general.
I’m sure one day Tibet really will be free or autonomous or at least not be the repressed region that it is today. It will come.
PM: When you interviewed Kelsang’s friend Dolma, the emotions must have been overwhelming. I understand you were there to write a story and tell about what happened, but I know that I would have been overcome with a range of emotions while listening to the stories. Besides the language barrier as an obstacle, did you find emotion as another one?
Jonathan Green: That’s a very good question. Dolma is actually very calm and brave. She’s very in control of her emotions. So I took my lead from her. The only time I saw her weep, quietly, was when Jamyang told her of the time when he went to see Kelsang’s body. She never cried for herself though. Because she was so strong and willing to help me, we were able to get the story down.
I’ve met a lot of people in my life but almost no-one like her. She’s incredible. She has nobility and poise, an abundant richness of humanity. I learned a lot about life from her.
PM: How aware were you beforehand of the issues going on in Tibet and in Nepal, which the latter is controlled virtually by the CCP and its large bank account?
Jonathan Green: I knew that. But it’s only when you are there that you understand the fear, the walls of silence and the terror that is omnipresent everywhere. It’s ubiquitous.
PM: We are seeing a good number of Tibetan activists, and it seems the movement may be growing. With groups like Students For A Free Tibet, how do you see activism morphing as time goes on? Do you see it continue to grow or do you think it will eventually die down?
Jonathan Green: We are seeing the movement grow stronger and stronger. And for the first time, the movement is being led from within Tibet along with the exile community. This is crucial to understand. Because it shows that despite the repression, which is worse today than it has ever been, the resistance is growing in passion and strength in response.
PM: I have heard whispers here and there that there is possibly discussion to bring the book to film? Care to elaborate a bit more if this is true?
Jonathan Green: We hope that will happen but nothing has been decided yet.
PM: Do you have any words of encouragement for those involved in the cause with this being the 4th anniversary of the Nangpa La shooting?
Jonathan Green: This incident was one of the most important in modern Tibet history because for the first time China’s treatment of Tibetans was filmed and witnessed. Because of this people with no knowledge of Tibet can be educated about what is really happening there.
Do not let the opportunity that this presents slide. It’s easy to jump from one Tibet issue to the next, to protest the latest Chinese injustice but this story illustrates everything about Tibet that the west needs to know. It’s key that the world understands what is happening there but somehow the message keeps being lost because there is only so much information everyday Americans can take about a particular issue before they get compassion fatigue and move on to the next. You have to hook people straight away so that the message is clear and unfiltered, not bombard them with a million issues on the same topic.
I believe Kelsang Namtso’s sacrifice can do that. It can change the world in the same way that the man who protested the tanks in Tianeman Square did. He became a very powerful symbol which, in part, changed how China deal with its own citizens and the world in general.
Don’t underestimate the power of Kelsang Namtso and Dolma Palkyi to do the same.
But you have to promote Kelsang’s story, otherwise people simply won’t hear about it and her sacrifice will be lost.
After speaking with Jonathan, I got in contact with Sergiu Matei, the videographer of the incident, and he was gracious enough to answer some questions as well.
PM: Your occupation is a videographer. In 2006, were you on the mountain as a videographer or were you there to climb?
Sergiu Matei: I was on Choy Oyu 4 both reasons!
PM: The morning the shots started popping in the air on Choy Oyu, what was your first thought?
Sergiu Matei: I thought someone is having fun and I wanted to shoot some rounds too…
PM: Once you realized the severity of the situation, how did it impact your conscience knowing innocent people were being shot like targets on a range?
Sergiu Matei: Took my camera and started to record! but i felt guilt, mercy, and a very repugnant feeling about all that Himalaya meant to me until that moment
PM: Once you grabbed the camera, was your intention to record this and get it exposed around the world as much as it has been?
Sergiu Matei: Honestly… Not at all … I wanted to show whoever I could what happened there
PM: When the camera started rolling you must have known just how hard it was going to be to get the tape out of the country. Were you fearful that you might get caught with it?
Sergiu Matei: I was shitting, my pants… Honestly.
PM: Obviously you were able to get the tape out, as we have all seen the video on YouTube. Are there still times when you are nervous to be out anywhere?
Sergiu Matei: I did! I’m still getting sweaty palms sometimes!
PM: Is there any more of the tape that we have not seen? If so, do you ever plan to release it to the public?
Sergiu Matei: Not in my possession anymore , and what was published its the bottom line out there.. were couple of moments on that tape in which the ABC stuff require me to take Choedon out and not interfere with the chinese PLA
PM: I’ve heard that you will not be climbing any more, and understandably so. What are you doing now?
Sergiu Matei: I’ve dreamed for more than 10 years of Himalaya and the peacefulness in that place, but that day made me realise that all that was just well hidden info about what was going on there for more than 50 years, in which westerners were involved to! and .. I’m out playing Rugby with my m8’s
PM: Are you involved in anyway with any of the Tibetan freedom groups? Do you think a Free Tibet is possible?
Sergiu Matei: I was never asked to do so and Richard Gere used the Nang Pa la better for himself than for the Tibetans.. at least that’s how it looked from out here.
PM: I asked Jonathan this as well, but will ask you too. Do you have any words of encouragement for those involved in the cause with this being the 4th anniversary of the Nangpa La shooting?
Sergiu Matei: I hope that Tibet will be returned to its people… but it look’s utopic after this four years!
So, what else can be done you ask? Simple! You can keep this story alive, tell your friends and family about it. Send this article, and others around the net, to those contacts you have. You can read “Murder In The High Himalaya” and gain knowledge about this issue. The best thing though, like Jonathan said, is to never forget the sacrifice Kelsang made for herself and her people.
Tibet is still the most under reported human rights issue in the world. Because of the fear China instills in the world, noone is willing to go up against them for fear of the fact China will pull their money out or stop supporting those countries monetarily. We can make a difference though, for the Tibetans, by keeping this story alive.
To this day, these folks are still unaccounted for (list from Wikipedia):
For more information, I highly recommend reading Jonathan Green’s book, “Murder In The High Himalaya”. You can get the book via Amazon at:
May any merit obtained by this article, or anyone affiliated with it, be dedicated for the benefit of all beings. May the suffering of all beings be alleviated by this merit!