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Murder in the Himalayas: A Story that Had to be Told

September 30, 2010

Rebecca Novick
Huffington Post
September 26, 2010

"There will always be people willing to risk everything for freedom."

It's been four years since video footage of the
fatal shooting of a teenage Tibetan girl by a
Chinese border patrol made international news,
before slipping into its final resting place on
YouTube. But human rights journalist Jonathan
Green, who first broke the story, is determined
that it not be forgotten, and has offered an
engaging and well-researched account in Murder in
the High Himalayas published by Public Affairs Books.

In Murder, Green follows two parallel story lines
told from very different points of view. There is
the story of two young Tibetan women--Kelsang
Namtso, a 17-year-old nun and her best friend,
Dolma Palkyi--who join a group of 75 Tibetans to
make the grueling and dangerous trek from Tibet
across the Himalayas into Nepal. Then there are
the international mountaineers who witnessed
Kelsang's death, and the high altitude morality
play that ensued as consciences, careers and checkbooks jostled for position.

On the morning of September 30th 2006,
approximately 100 international climbers were
eating breakfast at Advanced Base Camp on Cho
Oyu. At 26,906 feet (8,201 meters) Cho Oyu is the
world's sixth highest peak, part of the Himalayan
range that falls in Chinese-controlled Tibetan
territory. A Romanian freelance camera man,
Sergiu Matei, watched in horror through his lens,
as a contingent of the People's Armed Police
(PAP) opened fire on the unarmed Tibetan group,
which included children as young as five years
old. "They're shooting them like dogs," he
exclaims, as a black dot on the snow covered landscape slumps to the ground.

The dot was Kelsang. She made an easy target,
struggling exhausted and oxygen-deprived up the
18,753 feet (5,716 meters) high Nangpa la pass--a
common escape route for Tibetans. Excited about
her recent ordination as a Buddhist nun, Kelsang
was seeking a new life in India where she dreamed
of pursuing her religious studies and of meeting the Dalai Lama.

A month after the incident, Green hiked up the
Nangpa la and met the Tibetan refugees coming
through. He was shocked by what he saw. "It
really looked like they were escaping a war
zone," he recalls in a radio interview. He began
to hear about the conflicts that had arisen among
the Cho Oyu climbers that September morning. Some
had felt strongly about speaking out. Others had argued for keeping quiet.

"These events raise the question of what
Westerners do when faced with human rights
abuses, particularly in the context of China's rise," says Green.

It was not an easy book to write. The limited
accessibility of Tibet and the difficulty of
getting information out of the plateau presented
enormous challenges. But a more disturbing
challenge was finding mountaineers who were
willing to talk to him about what they had seen.

"This was a very clear murder. Everybody knew it.
If you want to wait until you leave the country
to talk about it, I understand that. But I do
think we all have a moral obligation to bear witness."

2006 was a dark year for Himalayan climbers. In
May, over 40 climbers had walked past British
mountaineer, David Sharp as he lay dying of
hypothermia on Everest. Though Sharp's death
remains controversial, veteran altitude doctor
Dr. Jose Ramon Morandeira was horrified by the
other climbers' behavior. "I guess I am too old,
I guess these are not my times anymore...I can't
help thinking that if David had thought of
shouting: 'I'll give you a million dollars if you
get me out of here,' he could still be alive."

Jonathan Green believes that 4 months later on
Cho Oyu, the decision that most climbers made to
keep quiet about the killing came down to glory
and money. Many worried that if they talked,
China would deny them access to the mountains by
refusing to renew their permits. Himalayan guides
make a lot of money. The going rate for an ascent
of Cho Oyu is $15,000. For Everest, it's $60,000.
"When people start up the mountain they're a
regular Joe, but when they come down, they're a
Himalayan mountaineer", says Green. This new
status gives them access to a lucrative world of
speaking engagements, motivational talks, and
book deals. "It's a whole industry."

But other climbers who were on Cho Oyu that day
have thanked Green, saying that this was a story
that had to be told. Many of them had no idea why
Tibetans were risking their lives to leave Tibet,
and it was Green's book that explained to them
the larger context of what they had witnessed.

Before the Romanian's video came to light,
China's state press agency, Xinhua, reported an
official as saying that the Tibetans had attacked
the PAP and that "the frontier soldiers were
forced to defend themselves." The official said
that one of the Tibetans had died from "oxygen
shortage". One year after the incident, then
foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchoa told
reporters that the Nangpa la shooting was "a
piece of fabricated news", Matei's video, which
first aired on Romania's ProTV, firmly refuted
the Chinese version of events. Green sought
responses from Chinese officials for his book but
was met with a stony silence. "They don't want to
drive this topic by talking about it. They want this story to go away."

A mountain guide from Colorado, Luis Benitez, who
in 2004 claimed the world's (non-Sherpa) record
for most consecutive summits of Everest, reported
the incident via email 3 days later from the
mountain via satellite to an adventure website
ExplorersWeb. ExplorersWeb publicized the story,
and later a number of Eastern European free
climbers also spoke out. A Slovenian, Pavle
Kozjek, who died on a mountain in Pakistan in
2008, was the first to release photos of the
shootings, that according to witnesses continued
for up to 20 minutes. But even Benitez felt
conflicted and at first tried to retract his
original account, perhaps finding it easier to
believe the rumor circulating in the camp that
the Tibetan group was part of a human trafficking
ring. It seems like there are no heroic figures
in this story. But Green thinks otherwise.

To him, the clear heroine is Kelsang's friend,
Dolma Palkyi, who survived the journey to Nepal
and now lives in a Tibetan community in India. "A
lot of people would not have had the courage to
do what Dolma has done--to stand up, whenever
asked, and speak out about what happened. I feel humbled by her," he says.

In his book, Green crafts a deeply human face
from the fuzzy generalities that often
characterize reports on the Tibetan experience.
"We have these labels 'human rights' and
'refugees' and it becomes overwhelming for people
who don't understand what's going on in these
places," he says. "I wanted people to understand
it as a personal story. Kelsang could be their daughter."

American sports commentator, Peter King, wrote on
his blog that the highlight of his vacation had
been reading Murder in the High Himalayas.
Suddenly, a whole new kind of reader was buying
Green's book--sports fans. He started getting
letters from soccer mums in Omaha saying how
moved they had been by Kelsang's story.

People get shot all the time trying to cross the
border from Mexico into the US, so why is this
any different? The answer, according to Green, is
that in this case people are getting shot for
trying to leave their country, not for trying to
enter a neighboring one. Tibetan refugees are a
big embarrassment for Beijing who is constantly
asserting that Tibetans are all happy in Tibet.

Of the original 75 refugees who attempted to
cross the border that day, 42 made it safely to
Nepal, while 15 remain unaccounted for. Jamyang
Samten, age 14, spent a few weeks in prison
before being moved to a labor camp. He later told
rights gourps that children were interrogated and
tortured with electric cattle prods along with
the adults. "It went on until I fainted," he
said. Since it was his first offense Jamyang was
released after a few months. He immediately tried
to escape Tibet again--and succeeded. He now resides in India.

Just this June, Nepali authorities sent back
three Tibetans trying to cross the border from
Tibet into Nepal for the first time in years in
contravention of the Gentleman's Agreement
between the Nepali government and the UNHCR. Two
of them are now serving 6-month prison sentences.
But Green thinks Tibetans will keep trying to
leave. As he puts it, "There will always be
people who are willing to risk everything for freedom."

Listen to an interview with mountain guide Luis Benitez
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