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

"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.

Photo of Kelsang's body taken by
Slovenian climber, Pavle Kozjek

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.

Some of the captured survivors with Chinese
border guards at advanced base camp on Cho Oyu.
Photo by Pavle Kozjek

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