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Tales of horror from Tibet

Witnesses to the unrest describe protesters' rage against Chinese, and troops firing into crowds.

March 22, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — On a cloudless day near the top of the world, Swiss tourist Claude Balsiger had just finished a late-morning cup of tea and stepped out onto the streets of Tibet's capital. Buddhist monks had been marching against Chinese rule all week, but today seemed calmer.

Suddenly, Tibetan youths started hurling paving stones at police, who tried to protect themselves with their riot shields.

Over the next few hours, the odor of tear gas and fires replaced the scent of incense wafting from backpacker cafes. The intense Himalayan light was blacked out by smoke. And in the days that followed, violence would spread beyond Lhasa to ethnic Tibetan villages deep inside China and to Chinese embassies worldwide.

China has barred Western journalists from entering Tibet and ethnic Tibetan areas. But interviews with foreign witnesses and Chinese residents, as well as blog postings by Tibetans too frightened to be interviewed, show that during three crucial hours on March 14, woefully unprepared police fled, allowing rioters to burn and smash much of Lhasa's commercial center.

Tibetans randomly beat and killed Chinese solely on the basis of their ethnicity: a young motorcyclist bludgeoned in the head with paving stones and probably killed; a teenage boy in school uniform being dragged by a mob. When authorities did regroup, paramilitary troops fired live ammunition into the crowds. Witnesses did not see protesters armed with anything other than stones, bottles of gasoline or a few traditional Tibetan knives.

Despite a massive deployment of Chinese forces, the protests show no signs of abating. In New Delhi on Friday, Tibetan exiles stormed the Chinese Embassy. And China posted a "most wanted" list of 21 alleged rioters, featuring grainy photographs taken from video shot by a hidden camera.

The death toll of Tibetans had risen to 99 as of Friday, with a 16-year-old girl being shot by police in China's Sichuan County, the Tibetan government in exile said.

Chinese authorities say 19 Chinese have been killed in Lhasa: one police officer and the rest civilians.

Since their homeland was invaded by Chinese communists in 1951, Tibetans have risen up periodically against Beijing's rule. Led by the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, their movement has been largely nonviolent. There hadn't been a substantial uprising in Lhasa since the late 1980s, giving the city a reputation as a laid-back Shangri-La.

"Tibetans usually are so calm and friendly, but suddenly they were insane," said Balsiger, 25, a teacher. "They were howling like wolves. . . . It was so brutal, so violent."

March 10, Monday

Everybody is girded for demonstrations today. It is the 49th anniversary of the failed Tibetan revolt in which their leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in India. This year the protests are expected to be bigger because activists hope to use the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing to press their case.

Tibetan demonstrations are well-choreographed: Monks, who ran Tibet in pre-communist times, usually take the lead while laypeople try to protect them.

At 6 p.m., a parade of about 300 red-robed monks leaves the 15th century Drepung Monastery, five miles west of downtown Lhasa. Blocked by police from reaching the city, the monks sit for several hours at a checkpoint before dispersing.

At dusk, students and monks stage a second demonstration in the center of Lhasa, making a circle around Barkhor Square and joining hands. The square is filled with uniformed and plainclothes security officials. A young Dutch couple watch police take away six or seven demonstrators.

"Everybody is afraid to speak," the Dutch tourists, Steve Dubois and Ulrike Lakiere, write later on a blog. "Even us, free-born people, not for our sake, but for that of the Tibetans who can get in trouble just by speaking with us."

Balsiger recalls meeting a young Tibetan brother and sister at a cafe. Although he and they have no common language, he understands that they live in fear of Chinese undercover police. They nervously show him that they wear images of the Dalai Lama, which are banned, on strings around their necks, hidden under their clothes.

March 11, Tuesday

Nine monks emerge from the Sera Monastery north of Lhasa carrying a banned Tibetan flag and are almost immediately dragged away by police.

Several hundred more monks come out to demand their release. The paramilitary Chinese People's Liberation Army police disperses the crowd with tear gas.

March 12, Wednesday

Many stores in Lhasa are closed. Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet who writes a blog, says two monks at Drepung Monastery slit their wrists in suicide attempts, and monks at Sera Monastery start a hunger strike. Water supplies are cut to many of the monasteries.

A foreign tourist wanders into Sera Monastery at 3 p.m., just as hundreds of monks are rushing out, their hands in the air and in obvious distress. Police surround them.

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