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Tibetan refugees seek freedom in Nepal

July 11, 1997
Web posted at: 3:49 p.m. EDT (1949 GMT)

In this story:

From Reporter Kasar Naji

KATHMANDU, Nepal (CNN) -- For years, this small kingdom in the Himalayan mountains has been the gateway to freedom for Tibetans fleeing Chinese communist rule in their homeland. But it's a risky escape.

vxtreme -- Tibetan refugees seek freedom in Nepal --

The influx of Tibetan refugees into neighboring Nepal began rising nearly 50 years ago, when the communists came to power in Beijing and began asserting Chinese control over the region, a process many Tibetans considered an illegal annexation.

In recent years, refugees have come at a rate averaging eight per day, a number that has not changed following February's death of China's paramount leader Deng Xioping.


The new arrivals are fed and housed on the outskirts of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, at a transit camp run by the administration of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Most of them seem anxious about the future and traumatized by the past.

They died on route

To get to Nepal, Tibetan refugees have to pass through the snow-covered Himalayans, the world's highest mountain range. Some freeze to death making the trip.


Tahshi Lama, who fled the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with a group of 26 others, lost a finger to frostbite during the crossing.

He says three members of his party, including a 7-year-old girl, died en route because of hypothermia and difficulty in breathing at high altitudes.

"We had to carry those who fell ill on our shoulders through the snow and up the passes," he recalled.

"The little girl developed difficulty breathing. We thought she was freezing but when we (started) a fire and put her next to it, it did not help. She died a few minutes later. We buried her in the snow," Tahshi Lama said.

Handed back to China

Tibetans bring with them the traditional art of making carpets, which earns Nepal's government $170 million a year.

In spite of such contributions, nearly 300 newly arrived Tibetan refugees were handed back to Chinese authorities two years ago. The action by Nepal's Communist Party -- which was then in power -- was carried out to appease Beijing.

Nepal's current coalition government has the Communist Party as its main partner, but Tibetan refugees no longer have to fear being sent back, according to Foreign Minister Prakash Chandra Lohani.

He says new arrivals are turned over to the United Nations refugee agency.

Once settled in Nepal, some Tibetan refugees decide to stay, while others choose to move on to India and other parts of the world.

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