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Life In a Tibetan Refugee Camp


By Jed Smith

(All photos by the author)

You hold it up to your eye, run your fingers across it, and try in vain to comprehend the time and care taken to create it. Traditional Tibetan jewellery is a trip. Surely up there with the greatest works of art our species has produced. All of it the invention of a people  whose understanding of time, labour, productivity and life in general couldn’t be more alien to the western economics and capitalism you know.  When experienced in the confines of a Tibetan refugee settlement, as I’m doing now, next to the old lady whose bare hands forged it, it’s even more moving.



Through her son Tsundo (her English is limited to a few words) she relays her story. Raised in a nomadic yak and goat herding family in the foothills of the iconic Mount Kailash – better known as the spiritual epicentre of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Bon religions – she would camp for weeks and months at a time with her family along timeless Tibetan plateaus, in tents made of animal hide. When it came time to slaughter their livestock, they’d honour the animal’s sacrifice by using every last piece of it – consuming the meat, milk and butter; using the hide for clothing and shelter; and grinding the bones into jewellery and prayer beads, about a hundred or so variations of which hang in her shop today. 

When the Chinese invaded in 1959 food supplies to her village were cut off forcing her and her teenage siblings to flee across the Himalayas into Nepal. They joined a hundred more Tibetans hiking by night to avoid detection, through sub-zero temperatures, and some of the most perilous terrain on the planet. It took months and many didn’t make it, picked off by Chinese snipers, the elements or starvation along the way.



Once across the border they came here, to this refugee settlement, in the shadow of the snowcapped Annapurna mountains, in the outer suburbs of Nepal’s lakeside city of Pokhara. The settlement is one of 14 spread across the country, home to an estimated 20 000 Tibetan refugees. Prayer flags hang from every nail and post, housing consists of concrete cinderblock huts with corrugated tin roofs held down by rocks.  There’s a monastery, a Tibetan primary school and high school, set up with the help of the Austrian foundation, SOS Children’s Villages, where I watch a circle of refugee children jamming on Dramyens – the traditional Tibetan six-string lute. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants run by refugees serve traditional Tibetan foods such as momos (a dumpling of sorts often confused as Nepalese) and thukpa (a hearty noodle soup). Stalls abound packed with ancient artefacts and escapees as happy to share their remarkable tales of survival as they are a joke, cup of traditional tea, or thousand year old breathing and meditation technique. Life in exile isn’t easy – and it’s only getting harder in an increasingly Chinese-dominated world – but a daily ritual of meditation, prayer, offerings, incense, dance and community makes it bearable. “We say don’t stay outside, stay in community so we can understand our culture,’ especially for the younger peoples while they grow up,” explains Tsundo, the lady’s son. “It’s the kindness of the Dalai Lama that will let our culture survive but still we have lots of things to do,” he says.

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A trending topic in the 1990s, the plight of Tibetans living under occupation and in exile has largely disappeared from the mainstream news agenda. Not because the situation has improved. Far from it, the rise of Chinese influence globally has only hastened the decline of Tibetan fortunes. Nowhere moreso than in Communist Nepal, where Chinese spending on infrastructure and political influence continues to fill a void left by India – the two nations having recently fallen out over a controversial trade embargo leveraged against Nepal by India in the weeks and months after their devastating 2015 earthquake, which left nearly 9000 dead. 

“Suppose if Tibetan people have refugee card they can apply for travel document and go to USA or somewhere else (but) now China doesn’t want Tibetan people to go to abroad country,”  explains Tsundo. “They want to stop them in Nepal without big facilities or further achievement,” he says.  

Deprived of basic human rights such as identity and refugee cards, Tibetans living in Nepal are forbidden from entering the workforce legally, forcing them to rely on making and selling traditional jewellery, carvings, clothing, prayer bowls, musical instruments and various other artefacts to get by. “We appreciate tourists coming to visit our village and tourists coming to buy something from us,” says Tsundo. “We say every time, ‘This is helping not only one or two Tibetan people. This is helping the cause of the Tibetan issues.’ If we survive, Tibetan issues survive. We appreciate it…The thinking (of tourists), it’s very touching,” he  says. 

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Turning a profit off artisanal knick knacks in one of the poorest countries in the world isn’t easy and it’s only gotten harder with a glut of Nepalese-made knick-knack knockoffs flooding the market. “First this business all done by Tibetan people then the local observe, ‘Oh, they make good money from that and slowly the local people also start,” explains Tse, a Tibetan shopkeeper who grew up in the settlement and now runs a store in Pokhara’s lakeside district selling traditional jewellery and artefacts.

The decline in trade, along with an increase in Chinese influence in Nepal has triggered a second exodus of Tibetans. Tsundo estimates the settlement’s population has dropped from a peak of 1000 down to around 350 today. “The prosperity of this business is going down. Many people now not thinking of staying in these places (refugee settlements). They thinking about migrating to other places like India, Europe, America because it is getting more difficult day by day,” he says, adding, “There are financial problems but also political problems are growing day by day.”

Among the many consequences of China’s increasing influence is the closing of the border between Tibet and Nepal (located in the Upper Mustang region of the Himalayas) to escaping Tibetans. That leaves only one escape route out of Tibet, through Ladakh on the Indian-Tibetan border, which has put a significant dent in the amount of refugees escaping. An average of 2000 escapees is today down to between one and two hundred. 



The agony of exile, oppression, and ongoing genocide in their homeland is offset by the ecstasy of their many religious festivals. It’s one of the main features of life in a Tibetan refugee camp and tourists are encouraged to take part. The biggest, Kalachakra (check your Tibetan Buddhist calendar), is a celebration of the “correspondence between human beings and the cosmos,” featuring a mix of ornate Tibetan costumes, synchronised dance, chanting, music and spiritual teachings. In recent years refugees have noticed an increasing police presence at the festivals and wonder how long they will be allowed to continue. 

“China give order to high officials ordering local police to visit here every festival,” says Tsundo. “We know the police over there personally – we go over there to have tea with them – and they say, ‘Please don’t do some things because we have order from the high up (official).’ So they don’t do bad things to us but still we don’t want to draw their attention,” he says. 

The last time Tibetans in Nepal protested China was during the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In response they were beaten with sticks by police in the streets of Kathmandu. “We shout in Kathmandu, we get beaten. That was our last protest. Since then we have not participated…Why? Because we are caught now, we can’t do anything,” says Tsundo.



According to the trickle of news they receive from relatives still trapped in Tibet the situation is as bleak as ever. Protests over Chinese gold and uranium mining operations at sacred Tibetan sites are routinely put down by machine guns. Imprisonment, torture, assassinations, and the denial of human rights remain a constant. The Tibetans that are allowed to visit Nepal or India for religious festivals are shadowed all the way by Chinese spies and threatened with death or lifetime imprisonment if they step out of line. Tsundo relays one story about a Tibetan delegation that was permitted entry by the Chinese to the holy buddhist city of Bodh Gaya, in India, to attend Kalachkra, only to be gunned down by Chinese soldiers in their train carriage on the return journey. “China doesn’t fear anyone, they openly kill,” he says. 

The Tibetans I spoke to outlined a Chinese vision for their homeland in which Tibet would be turned into a “fortress on the roof of the world,” giving China control of much of south-Asia’s fresh water supply, the start point of which is in the melting snow and streams of the Tibetan Himalayas.

With the Mekong now experiencing record low flows, bringing farmers and fisherman in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to their knees, fingers are, as the Tibetans suggested, being pointed at China.  Despite assurances from Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, that China too were experiencing drought,  new research from American climatologists shows that China, where the headwaters of the Mekong spring forth from the Tibetan Plateau, was not in drought at all. Rather, Beijing’s engineers had caused the record low water levels down stream by limiting the river’s flow.

“The satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress,” Alan Basist, who co-wrote the report, which was released on Monday, for Eyes on Earth, a water resources monitor, told the New York Times. 

All things considered, the battle to preserve this ancient Himalayan culture is looking increasingly up hill. “We are not sustaining our culture like before. It is now slowly changing,” says Tsundo.

Post-script: This piece was submitted to (and rejected by) Vice Australia and Vice Asia Pacific, among others, before being accepted by the Saturday Paper. Upon submission, however, the editor, Maddison Connaughton, a graduate of one of Melbourne’s most elite private schools, never published it, refused to pay me for it (despite weeks of labour), and never gave any indication as to why. It was left up to the media union, the MEAA, to force her and the Saturday Paper into paying me a kill fee – about half the original amount – after a lengthy dispute. More importantly, the story of the declining fortunes of Tibetans living in exile never saw the light of day. It remains an unfolding, slow-motion, human rights disaster. You can offer your support for Tibetans at home and abroad, here.  And feel free to drop the Saturday Paper a line. 

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Published by Jed Smith

Journalist with 15 years experience across every major news outlet in Australia.

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