The Forgotten Refugees From a Forbidden Land

Tibetan monks take part in a function organized to mark the 80th birthday celebrations of Dalai Lama in Kathmandu July 6. Nepal ceased issuing refugee papers to Tibetans in 1989 and recognizes Tibet to be a part of China. Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Daily Signal.

The Majnu Ka Tilla Tibetan refugee colony in New Delhi is a chaotic neighborhood of narrow alleys and shanty concrete structures packed into a thin strip of land between National Highway 9 and the Yamuna River.

The refugee colony was founded in the 1960s to consolidate Tibetan refugee communities around India's capital into one location. Today, about 3,000 Tibetans live in Majnu Ka Tilla.

Tibetan restaurants, guesthouses, street food vendors and craft stands line the narrow streets, which are clogged with rickshaws, beggars, stray dogs and women carrying impossible loads on the tops of their heads.

It is the typical chaos of the Indian street. But in this section of India's capital, walls are covered in "Free Tibet" graffiti and posters of the Dalai Lama. There is a Buddhist temple in the center of Majnu Ka Tilla, out front of which hangs a large poster with a tally of the number of days a trio of Tibetan activists has been on a hunger strike.

"You can walk around here and there are so many stories of people who gave up everything to come to India," said Lopsang Sherap, 35, a guesthouse manager in Majnu Ka Tilla. "That tells you how bad it is in Tibet."

Sherap's parents crossed the Himalayas in 1959 to escape Tibet—the same year the Dalai Lama went into exile. Sherap was born in India, but he is not an Indian citizen. He does not have a passport and is essentially stateless, forbidden from returning to what he calls his "motherland."

"It's impossible for me to go to Tibet," he said. "They'd never let in a Tibetan who was born in India. But if Tibet were free? Yes, of course I'd go back. And so would my parents."

Cultural Genocide

In his 1957 book, Seven Years in Tibet, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer wrote about his adventures in what he called the "Forbidden Land"—a reference to Tibet's near total ban on foreign visitors prior to the 1950 Chinese invasion.

"The foreigners whom I met during the five years of my stay in Lhasa were not more than seven in number," Harrer wrote, referring to his time in the Tibetan capital.

Tibet is no longer off-limits to outsiders. Chinese government sources say that 15 million tourists visited the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 2014. Yet, 65 years after the Communist Chinese invasion, Tibet is still a forbidden land. But for an entirely different reason: Tibet is now a prison for the Tibetans living there.

"Tibetans are stuck in China. They can't even travel outside their own villages," said Karma Rinchen, additional secretary for the Tibetan government in exile's Department of Security, during an interview with the Daily Signal in Dharamshala, India.

"A villager needs at least five permits to travel to Lhasa," Rinchen added. "The government completely regulates the movement of Tibetans within Tibet. It's kind of insane, actually."

Within the 474,000 square miles of the TAR, Tibetans live in an Orwellesque condition of constant government overwatch and restricted movement. Tibetans are subject to arbitrary imprisonment and torture. Their sovereign culture, religion, history and language are being systematically and deliberately erased in what the Dalai Lama has called a "cultural genocide" at the hands of China's Communist party.

"Some kind of cultural genocide is taking place," the Dalai Lama said in November 2011, addressing a string of self-immolations by Tibetans inside China. "That's why, you see, these sorts of sad incidents happen, due to the desperateness of the situation," he added.

Since 2009, 141 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet, 122 of whom died immediately or shortly thereafter, according to officials in Dharamshala.

According to a Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy report on human rights in Tibet: "The self-immolations should be regarded as an indicator of the continuing deterioration of conditions inside Tibet: the lack of religious freedom, the prevalence of arbitrary detention and torture, and Tibetans' unequal access to development."

In 2008, protests against Chinese rule swept across Tibet in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Chinese authorities, who blamed the Dalai Lama for the protests, reacted with a crackdown on Tibetans' freedoms and an increase in government surveillance to stamp out any vestiges of resistance. In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, according to interviews with Tibetan refugees, Chinese police now randomly confiscate Tibetans' cellphones. Being caught with a photo of the Dalai Lama or of the Tibetan flag are grounds for arrest.

"Out of 100 Tibetans who flee from Tibet to India, 99 come here to learn our culture and our language," said Sonam Tsering, 30, owner of the Nechung Café just outside the Tibetan Library in Dharamshala. "We had to speak Chinese in school, and it was forbidden to have pictures of His Holiness in our homes. Tibetan culture is dying in Tibet—our philosophy, our religion, our language, everything."

Tsering fled Tibet when he was 9 years old, crossing the Himalayas in a 23-day journey from Tibet to Nepal in 1994. Tsering went alone, leaving his family behind for a new life in India. Now 30 years old, Tsering hasn't seen his family in 21 years.

"Always we have hope that Tibet will be free one day," he said. "If we the people follow His Holiness 100 percent, then we will get Tibet back."

Stuck in Limbo

The Sonamling Tibetan refugee settlement in Choglamsar is located on the Indus River a few miles outside the northern Indian city of Leh, capital of India's arid Himalayan Ladakh region.

There is no horizon here. Only a surrounding stadium of barren Himalayan peaks, colored in earth tones that sharply contrast against the deep blue sky. At an elevation of 11,500 feet, the air is thin, crisp and cool. But the sun, with less atmosphere to filter it, is baking hot. One can go from shivering to sweating just by stepping out of the shade.

Buddhist monks in their maroon robes wander the dusty streets, which are crowded with Royal Enfield motorcycles, cows and shared taxis. Restaurants serve tsampa and butter tea. Walls of prayer wheels line the roads, which passers-by spin while chanting the Buddhist, "Om mani padme hum," mantra.

Scattered throughout India and Nepal, Tibetan refugee colonies like Sonamling have become time capsules of Tibetan culture prior to the 1950 Chinese invasion.

"I went back to Tibet in 1991 for two months," Topgyal Tsering, 47, said during an interview at the Tibetan government in exile's offices in Sonamling. "There were many changes. Tibetan culture was disappearing very fast. There were no more yaks, and no more dzos plowing the fields. People no longer wear the traditional clothes, and in some places it is forbidden to speak the Tibetan language."

The need to preserve their culture, coupled with an unshakeable belief that Tibet will one day regain its independence, has left the Tibetan refugee community in limbo. "Tibetans can't integrate into India because if they do, their culture will disappear," Tsering said.

Tsering fled Tibet across the Himalayas into Nepal with his family when he was 9. He still has family in Tibet, whom he calls regularly. "We don't talk about politics," he said. "They are afraid of talking about such things on the phone."

With China stamping out Tibetan culture within Tibet, Tsering said refugee communities have a special responsibility to preserve their exiled nation's culture, religion and language.

"Our culture is disappearing, and not just because of what the Chinese have done," Tsering said. "Young Tibetan refugees want to be more Westernized and it's hard to remember their roots. It takes a community to preserve a culture."

Speaking in Majnu Ka Tilla, Sherap said: "I was born in India, but I am Tibetan first. When my parents' generation passes, however, there won't be anyone left to remember Tibet as it once was."

Family Ties

Inside almost every shop, guesthouse and restaurant in Majnu Ka Tilla is a shrine to the Dalai Lama, usually draped in Khata scarves and fronted with offerings of food. Shrines to the Dalai Lama, ubiquitous within Tibetan refugee colonies across India and Nepal, are illegal inside Tibet, a fact Tibetan refugees frequently mention when they explain the oppressive conditions that spurred them to flee their homeland.

Tsundue (who asked not to have his last name used due to security concerns regarding his family in Tibet) has a shrine to the Dalai Lama over the checkout counter in the Tibetan craft shop he runs in Majnu Ka Tilla.

Since the 2008 uprisings, it has been too dangerous for Tsundue to talk directly with his mother, who lives in Tibet, so he relays messages to her through his brother, who is a monk in the eastern Kham region of Tibet. The Dalai Lama, however, is never mentioned, knowing that those two words would trigger the interest of Chinese authorities likely eavesdropping on the conversation.

"My mom told them (the Chinese) I was dead, so the issue is closed," Tsundue said. "But we have to be careful."

Tsundue was 10 years old when he and his uncle escaped Tibet by crossing the Himalayas into Nepal near Mount Everest. He was in a group of 30, which included two children.

"I was only 10, but I can remember being very scared," Tsundue, who is now 25 years old, said during an interview at his shop in Majnu Ka Tilla. His manner of speaking and appearance were Western. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, and had a faint moustache and a hipster haircut—long on top and shaved on the sides. He smiled a lot as he spoke fluently in English.

"We crossed the Himalayas in winter," he continued. "We had to travel at night because the Chinese soldiers were out there and they would shoot us if they caught us. My uncle held my hand as we walked. I was practically asleep and frozen so he had to pull me along."

At the beginning of the journey, after four days concealed in the bed of a truck, Tsundue's group had to cross a frozen river. The refugees walked across gingerly, he explained, carrying their loads (comprising all of their possessions crammed into one backpack) on top of their heads. Yards from reaching the opposite shore, Tsundue fell through the ice. His uncle grabbed him and yanked him out of the water before he slipped under the frozen sheet.

"After that my legs were wet, and as we hiked through the mountains my pant legs froze as hard as wood," Tsundue said. "It sucked."

Tsundue and his uncle couldn't afford to buy sunglasses to protect from snow blindness, which was a constant worry due to the blinding reflection of the high-altitude sun off the winter blanket of snow. As a substitute, they cut strips of black trash bags and tied them around their heads.

"We met merchants who offered to sell us sunglasses," Tsundue said. "But they were charging 700 rupees. Way too expensive."

Tsundue's group took a route across the Himalayas into Nepal. Without mountaineering clothing or equipment, or enough food, they traversed some of the same glaciers and mountain terrain Sir Edmund Hillary described exploring in his 1955 book, High Adventure.

"We stopped aghast at the view ahead," Hillary wrote, describing the area. "It was far worse than I had expected. In front of us a great icefall tumbled down thousands of feet in an utter chaos of shattered ice. The icefall was split by a great rock buttress, and the ice surged around it like the bow-wave of a destroyer."

Chinese and Nepali border guard units now patrol the same Himalayan frontier where Hillary explored. For Tibetan refugees trying to slip through the dragnet, their goal is the U.N.-run refugee reception center in Kathmandu, which promises freedom and a path to refugee communities in India.

But just getting to Kathmandu isn't enough. Tibetan refugees know they aren't safe until they make it through the reception center's doorway.

"We had to wear Nepali clothes and try to pretend we were from Nepal," Tsundue said. "But only four of us were not put in jail when we arrived."

Tsundue said his parents sent him to Tibet to escape the corrupting influence of Communist Chinese culture. He said Lhasa, once home to the Dalai Lama, is now teeming with brothels and cheap alcohol.

"The Chinese want to destroy Tibetans as a race," he said. "Moms worry, you know. So my mom wanted to get me out of Tibet. She told my uncle to get me out."

Except for his uncle, who is now a monk living in Nepal, Tsundue's entire family still lives in Tibet. He hasn't seen any of them in 15 years. When Chinese police started asking questions about her son's whereabouts, Tsundue's mother said he had died.

"After I arrived in India it was seven years before I could talk to my mom," Tsundue said. "After all that time she sent me a letter and put a photo of her in it. I didn't recognize her. I had forgotten what she looked like."

In addition to his brother, Tsundue has a 15-year-old sister he has never met. His mother was pregnant with her when he left Tibet in 2000.

"I am alone and don't have any family here," he said. "It's a very hard life."

When Tsundue was finally able to start calling home, he noticed that his father was never available to talk. His mother kept saying that he was away on a trip or at the monastery each time he called.

"After a while I suspected something was wrong," Tsundue said. "When she finally told me he was dead, I said, 'Mom, I knew for a long time that something had happened to dad.' She was trying to protect me, I think."

Tsundue recently watched a bootleg copy of the 2014 movie Unbroken at a friend's apartment. The movie was about U.S. Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who survived a plane crash in the Pacific in World War II and endured more than two years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The story resonated with the 25-year-old Tibetan refugee.

"I still have hope for Tibet's freedom," Tsundue said. "I still believe that one day I will go back home and see my family again."

Apart at the Seams

Human rights conditions in the TAR have consistently worsened since 2008, but they are an unequally shared burden. Han Chinese living in the TAR are not subject to the same government surveillance and restrictions on movement under which Tibetans live, creating a state of apartheid inside Tibet.

The requirement for Tibetans to obtain five travel permits to travel within the TAR, for example, does not apply to Han Chinese, according to officials in Dharamshala.

"There are definite tensions between the Han Chinese and Tibetans inside the TAR," said Sherab Woeser, visiting fellow at the Dharamshala-based Tibet Policy Institute think tank. "They live in different communities in the same town. They are like disconnected parts."

The 2008 protests evidenced the simmering ethnic tensions within Tibet. Protesters targeted Chinese-owned shops in Lhasa and, according to Western and Chinese news reports, Tibetan rioters also attacked Han Chinese civilians.

"Tibetans, as a people, have been completely marginalized inside China," Woeser added. "And their resentment is starting to come out."

Monks caught with pictures of the Dalai Lama or Tibetan flags are forced to undergo "patriotic education," or are arrested and tortured. In 1994, China banned photos of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan monasteries. Today that ban extends to all Tibetan homes and even includes smartphones. Being labeled a "splittist" is grounds for imprisonment. Sometimes those who are arrested disappear with no explanation for years. Occasionally, inmates die within days of release due to injuries suffered during torture.

"The final solution to China's Tibetan problem is for Tibet's culture and religion to no longer exist," Woeser said.

In addition to deliberate government repression, some claim growing metrics of inequality are also fueling ethnic tensions. According to Chinese census data, Tibetans living within the TAR are less educated, live shorter lives and make less money than those in other regions of China.

Over the past 30 years, the TAR has had the lowest life expectancy in China among all of China's regions—66.33 years in 2010.

The TAR also has the highest rate of infant mortality among all of China's regions. About one quarter (23.5 percent) of all babies born in the TAR die between six weeks of pregnancy and up to one week after birth. This is about three times the national Chinese average of 8.6 percent.

Tibet's illiteracy rate is also the highest in China. The rate has declined significantly since 1990, but at 24.4 percent in 2010, illiteracy in the TAR is still six times the national Chinese average of 4 percent.

"Many parents send their children over here because they know they will have a better life out of Tibet," Tsering said, speaking at the cafe he owns in Dharamshala.

No Escape

Escaping Tibet has always been perilous. The Dalai Lama required an armed escort of Chushi-Gangdruk Tibetan guerilla fighters for protection when he fled in 1959.

Forty-seven years later in September 2006, Chinese border police shot dead a 17-year-old Tibetan nun, Kelsang Namtso, while she was crossing the Nangpa Pass into Nepal with a group of Tibetan refugees. She was only 20 minutes from the Nepali border. A Romanian mountaineer who was part of a climbing expedition on nearby Cho Oyu filmed the shooting.

Since 2008, increased Chinese border security as well as Chinese support and training for Nepalese border patrols (a key route for Tibetan refugees is through the Himalayas into Nepal) have made it even harder for Tibetans to escape.

"Now there's no way to get out, they're completely intolerant to Tibetans crossing the border," Rinchen said. "And it's not just about closing the border, China has also been taking back Tibetans' passports."

According to Tibetan government in exile officials, after 2008 the number of Tibetan refugees decreased from about 2,000 to 3,000 a year prior to about 300 or 400.

"The border between India and China is almost completely sealed," Rinchen said. "It's almost impossible to get out. China is spending a lot of money to guard this border and keep Tibetans from fleeing. This is telling. People don't risk their lives to escape a country where they are happy and have a good life."

Rinchen is second in command of the Tibetan government in exile's Department of Security. The department has a broad set of responsibilities and is equivalent to a fusion of the CIA, Secret Service and FBI for the exiled Tibetan government. Approximately 100 staffers and agents working for the department assist the Indian government with providing security for the Dalai Lama.

They also hunt for Chinese spies in Dharamshala, defend Tibetan government computers against Chinese cyberattacks (which are frequent) and debrief recently escaped Tibetan refugees about conditions inside Tibet.

Rinchen said the security department's debriefings of refugees paint a picture of pervasive human rights violations inside Tibet, as well as simmering resentment against Chinese rule that has not abated or diminished after 65 years.

He also admitted that due to China's tight control of information flowing out of Tibet, interviewing refugees is still the most reliable way to learn about conditions on the ground. Although, he admitted that the rise of social media has helped shed more light on human rights violations, as has the work of some Tibetan bloggers who take enormous risks to relay information.

"It's still very difficult to get information," Rinchen said. "It's a tough job and we don't have many resources. And we don't encourage sources inside Tibet to take risks."

Rinchen said the information the Department of Security collects is used to brief government in exile lawmakers and to generate reports for foreign governments and international bodies.

"This isn't about military intelligence," he said. "It's about documenting human rights abuses."

Detoxing the Mind

"When we got to India," Choegyal Phuntsok said, "I understood why we left."

Phuntsok, 25, owns a craft shop on Temple Road in Dharamshala, selling yak bone prayer beads and bracelets embroidered with "Free Tibet."

He was 10 years old in 2005 when he escaped Tibet into Nepal, crossing the Himalayas in a group of 23, including his mother, father, 4-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister.

While explaining his escape from Tibet, Phuntsok echoed the same harrowing details as many other refugees. His group would only travel at night, he said, out of fear of Chinese soldiers patrolling the Himalayan border.

"If the Chinese caught us, they would kill us," he said with a casual laugh. "During the day we would hide in caves. For one whole month we would only move at night."

Each day, while others slept, a man in the group wearing camouflage to blend into the mountain terrain would volunteer to scout ahead to find that night's route. The scouting duties rotated among six men, including Phuntsok's father.

Phuntsok said the route across the Himalayas was extremely dangerous. His group had to endure extreme cold, the physiological consequences of the high-altitude and the perils of traveling across glaciers and steep mountain terrain. As well as armed Chinese and Nepali soldiers patrolling the area.

"We saw several dead bodies along the way," Phuntsok said.

Phuntsok's parents decided to take their children on this dangerous journey so that they could have an education free from the "brainwashing" of Communist China.

In Tibet, the Chinese are systematically eradicating all vestiges of traditional Tibetan culture and language, Phuntsok said. In Chinese school, Tibetan students were taught in Mandarin, even though it wasn't their native language. And Chinese teachers promoted a skewed version of history, claiming Tibet was never an independent country and that the 1950 Chinese invasion was actually a "liberation" of Tibet from Western imperialists.

(As Harrer wrote in Seven Years in Tibet, there were about a half-dozen foreigners living in Tibet at the time China "liberated" it.)

Phuntsok compared his first few years living in Dharamshala among Tibetan refugees to "detoxing" his mind from Communist Chinese propaganda.

"Tibetans know that if they come to India they will be able to get an education and learn about Tibetan culture," Phuntsok said. "In Tibet we weren't allowed to learn about Tibetan or even speak in Tibetan. We weren't even allowed to have a picture of the Dalai Lama in our home. Being Tibetan is a crime in China."

"Now, when I realize what happened to my country, I get angry," Phuntsok added.

Despite having grown up and received his education in India, the 25-year-old refugee said he feels like his life in India is transitory and impermanent. If Tibet became free he would go back "in a heartbeat."

"I'm always hoping that my life, my career, and one day, when I have a family—it will all be in Tibet," he said. "I believe that one day Tibetans will get our freedom, and we will see Tibet again."

Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the Daily Signal's foreign correspondent.