Posted on: June 1, 2007
Tibetan refugees and traders cross Nangpa La Pass (ca. 5800m) on September 30, 2006, the morning of the murder of Kelsang Namtso, a Tibetan nun who was attempting to flee Tibet. Nangpa La is a traditional route for traders selling cheap Chinese goods at Namche Bazaar on the other side of the Himalaya—and for Tibetan refugees on their way to India. Namtso was part of a large group of Tibetans overtaken by Chinese soldiers. The soldiers opened fire as the refugees ran away up the pass. The nun was killed; a number of others were captured, while nine reportedly escaped to Nepal. The murder was witnessed by a large number of Western climbers, but only a few had reported it by the time Kozjek returned to Slovenia. Pavle Kozjek became the first to release photos of the murder to the media. [Photo] Pavle Kozjek
Cho Oyo, Advanced Base Camp, September 30, 2006
The sound of gunfire: one shot, two, and then a burst of volleys. The night before, my Slovenian teammates—Uros Samec, Marjan Kovac, Peter Poljanec, Emil and Aljaz Tratnik—and I had stayed up late playing cards, and I was fast asleep in our tent when the shots woke me. Hunters? What would they be doing at 5700 meters? It must be soldiers: A military exercise? Or maybe warning rounds, fired in the air?
On a normal morning in advanced base camp, at around 9 a.m., our Tibetan cook, Zhangmu, would appear at the tent entrance and offer the morning duth chai, black tea with milk, to prepare us for the departure from our warm sleeping bags. Half an hour later the loud banging on the mess-tent pot would signal breakfast was ready. Slowly we'd climb from our bags. At base camps in the Himalaya, on rest days, time feels prolonged, far from the rush and stress of ordinary life. Even here, in this tent city at the base of Tibet's 8201-meter Cho Oyu, we lived quietly, our departure for the summit still another day ahead.
But this morning I didn't wait for Zhangmu. I quickly shed my bag and got out of the tent. Nobody else was outside yet. Opposite our camp the kilometer-long Nangpa La Pass stretched in clear sight about a thousand meters away. With snow-covered mountains on both sides, the pass looked like a mighty door to a fairy-tale wonderland.
In the sharp morning light a long, broken line of people moved across the glacier, black dots against stark, white snow. A few days earlier we had noticed others crossing the pass, a traditional route for traders selling cheap Chinese goods at Namche Bazaar on the other side of the Himalaya—and for Tibetan refugees escaping to India via Nepal.
As I did every morning, I looked up toward Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world, and the focus of my thoughts for the next two, maybe three weeks. With the sun behind it, the gentle western slope appeared cold and dark, much more grim than it had looked the previous afternoon. A strange fishlike cloud veiled the summit. I hoped the weather wouldn't deteriorate; we'd already had to wait a few days in camp after the first storm.
Once more, shots in the distance—slightly below us to the right, maybe a hundred meters from the west end of camp. Startled ravens fluttered above the tents. But I couldn't see much from where I stood, only the line of black dots gradually moving farther away.
Another shot, this time much closer, somewhere on the moraine just below our tents. I snapped a couple of photos of the black dots. There was something magical about the string of people moving along the sun-shadow line. The mountains above the pass soared from the mist, seemingly higher than usual. But with nothing else to see, and with the morning cold nipping at my fingers, I went back into the tent.
Chinese soldiers (in white balaclavas) gather around the body of Kelsang Namtso the day after the shooting. Name of the photographer withheld by request.
A few minutes later Chinese soldiers walked among the tents. Must be a patrol: they were armed with Chinese Kalashnikovs; one carried two guns. Just below our tents, an officer appeared in a spotless uniform with a red epaulet, a gold star and cheap, white sneakers.
The soldiers looked like teenagers, friendly and relaxed. Close by, a group of children clung together, wearing light jackets and carrying schoolbags. Were they here to visit relatives in camp? Why weren't they romping about like other children their age? They looked frightened.
More soldiers came down the trail. I snapped a few more pictures with my zoom lens from between the tents. There was no real need to hide; the soldiers seemed too preoccupied with some mysterious business to care about climbers. Still, I sensed they might not like to appear in photos.
The officer asked for binoculars, and a nearby climber lent him a pair. Everyone was looking toward the pass, but there didn't seem to be anything to see. No more black dots on the snow: the line had already vanished beyond the horizon. The pass is so wide and almost flat that perspective is lost. It was hard to assess how far the dots had gone. A kilometer, two—maybe more?
The soldiers walked the children slowly toward a large tent with a Chinese flag in the center of the camp. Why were the kids going with the soldiers? I followed them, but they disappeared into the tent with the flag. A crowd gathered, enveloping the entrance.
After about an hour, the soldiers and the group of children, accompanied by a number of Tibetan adults, passed my tent again. I had seen only children before. One soldier carried a Tibetan man on his back. Abruptly, the soldier dropped him to the ground. The man staggered and moaned; he looked as though he'd been shot in the leg. After a moment, he balanced himself with ski poles and continued walking.
A cold dread uncoiled in my stomach. Hiding behind our mess tent, I tried to catch the rest of the scene with my video camera.