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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Death of a Warrior

August 21, 2008

Death of a Warrior
by Jeremy Smerd
The New York Observer
August 18, 2008

On a blustery day last December, my 78-year-old Tibetan father
stepped out  of customs at John F. Kennedy Airport into the
unforgiving air of his new home. After eight years apart, his family
was reunited in a land where  he could find the freedom and
independence for which he spent the better part of his life fighting.

I first met Wangyal (many Tibetans use only one name) as a student 13
years ago when I lived with his family, who were among the thousands
of Tibetans who had fled Chinese control of their homeland and ended
up in Kathmandu, Nepal. A Jewish kid from Pittsburgh, I soon took to
calling him what everyone else did, "Pala"—father.

Pala hadd never been to America, but he was no stranger to it. He
listened to the nightly Voice of America broadcasts in Tibetan,
drawing false hope that America would somehow renew its silent
promise to stand up to the Chinese, who had invaded and occupied
Tibet since the early 1950s. While uttering mantras to the Buddha of
compassion during his daily circumambulations of the holy stupa, he
wore gifts of Steelers sweatshirts and Yankees hats from students
like me. He knew the feel of a U.S.-military-issued rifle and knew of
a place called Colorado, where hundreds of his fellow guerilla
fighters were airlifted to C.I.A. training camps.

The day I went to live with my Tibetan family in their two-room
apartment, I was ushered immediately into the shrine room, where I
was to sleep under the protective gaze of the Buddha and the
lingering calm of incense. Pala soon came in to empty the water bowl
offerings, followed by my 11-year-old Tibetan brother, who stroked
the hair on my white arm and asked if I wanted to see a picture of
Pala with the Dalai Lama.

I was expecting to see a Tibetan standing deferentially next to the
man Tibetans treated as a living god. Instead it was a photo I had
seen before, from the Dalai Lama's first autobiography. I remembered
the young Dalai Lama, in the clothing of a layman, sitting astride a
horse. This time, however, my eyes focused on the young man standing
in the photo, his high cheekbones now unmistakable, wearing
dune-colored traditional dress with a rifle slung over his back. Pala
was 29 when he fulfilled every Tibetan's lifelong ambition of meeting
the Dalai Lama. Only he was helping the Dalai Lama escape Tibet.

The circumstances could not have been more acute. Wangyal was a
trader from Kham in eastern Tibet when Mao Zedong's so-called
peaceful liberation of Tibet turned violent. The Khampa men of
Chatreng fought for nearly three weeks until the Chinese called an
airstrike that lasted for 10 days, decimating the village. Revolt
spread throughout Kham, and eventually the men formed a unified
militia. The C.I.A., seeing an opportunity to destabilize Communist
China, began providing covert training and supplies. By 1959, though,
the Chinese controlled Lhasa and threatened to depose the Dalai Lama.
Wangyal was chosen to protect the Dalai Lama as he fled over the
dangerous Himalayan mountain passes into India.

The success of the escape proved a powerful recruiting tool.
Thousands of Tibetans made their way back to the Tibetan border to
try to push the Chinese back. Wangyal took his knowledge of trading
routes and became a courier, clandestinely crossing between Tibet,
Nepal and India to ferret messages from the front lines to the
combined operations center in India.

Beginning in 1964, C.I.A. funding slowed as the American government
began committing itself elsewhere in Asia. Ammunitions and food
became scarce. The Khampas lived in caves in the highlands of Nepal
and staged night attacks against the Chinese in Tibet. Wangyal and
his comrades boiled the hides of yaks for days just to squeeze out
some sustenance.

Ten years later, the Nepalese government, pressured by China to
pacify their border, attempted to crush the Tibetan resistance. Not
until the Dalai Lama intervened in the name of nonviolence did the
Tibetan guerillas put down their arms and pick up the strands of a
life delayed, marrying Tibetan women half their age, starting
families and moving into the Kathmandu Valley. A group of veterans
built a carpet factory and, above it, an apartment building, where
years later I would live with a generation of Tibetan warriors.

I hadn't seen Pala since the carpet factory closed down eight years
earlier and his wife, Tsamchung, made an escape of her own, to New
York City. She followed a wave of Tibetans, including many from the
apartment building in Kathmandu, who sought in the United States the
rights and economic opportunity they could not find as stateless
people in Nepal. Tsamchung worked to clean houses, worked to learn
English. She chose the American flag logo to decorate her first
credit card. She sent money to her family so Pala could spend his
retirement improving his karma through prayer and ritual. She hired a
lawyer from Chinatown and was granted political asylum. She planned a
future for her family, worked and waited. What was worse than the
news of her daughter's death from tuberculosis was the pain that came
from having missed her so much already.

The reunion at J.F.K. was a triumph of perseverance. Tsamchung draped
khatas, white ceremonial scarves, over the necks of Pala, her son and
her remaining daughter. They celebrated with dumplings and butter tea
in their Queens apartment.

Pala looked frail. Perhaps it was the cave's close quarters or the
heat and humidity of Nepal's lowlands; the doctors I took him to at
Bellevue told him that tuberculosis, an epidemic in the Tibetan
community, had decimated his lungs. June's heat wave in New York sent
Pala to Elmhurst hospital. For the next four weeks he was never
without the company of family. When he died, his body lay untouched
until monks who work days at Subway sandwich shops could arrive to
perform prayers that would ensure a good rebirth.

The family will spread Pala's ashes in Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha.

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