Jonathan Mirsky

The body in the snow

A word is missing from the subtitle of Jonathan Green’s shocking exposé: cowardice.

The body in  the snow
Text settings

Murder in the High Himalaya: Loyalty, Tragedy and Escape from Tibet

Jonathan Green

Public Affairs, pp. 304, £

A word is missing from the subtitle of Jonathan Green’s shocking exposé: cowardice.

A word is missing from the subtitle of Jonathan Green’s shocking exposé: cowardice. It shines out of his story of the murder of the 17-year-old Tibetan nun, Kelsang Namtso.

It happened on 30 September 2006, at the base camp on Cho Oyu in Tibet, the sixth highest peak in the world. Forty teams of Westerners, who had paid up to $20,000 each for the trip, waited there for their turns to climb. To make the wait more comfortable, hundreds of yaks and porters had carried quantities of wine, sushi, TV films, pregnancy-testing kits, condoms and M&Ms to about 20,000 feet. Into this scene, half an hour from the Nepalese border, exhausted and starving, staggered Kelsang, her best friend Dolma, and 70 other women, men and children, defying a Chinese law forbidding Tibetans to leave their country without permission.

The group was spotted by Chinese border guards and fired on. Several Tibetans were wounded and Kelsang was shot dead. At least 100 foreign climbers and their Western guides saw the entire event. Almost all of them, including the guides, ignored Kelsang lying in the snow, and the wounded Tibetans begging for help, and either continued their climbs or came down from the base camp, determined to keep silent about what they had witnessed. Entrepreneurs were terrified that the Chinese would shut down the lucrative climbing business.

Although the author includes information about Tibet past and present that many readers will find useful, the core of this book is Kelsang’s murder and its implications, which Green, an experienced journalist, recounts vividly and with scrupulous attention to evidence.

After Kelsang was killed and lay frozen in the snow, a Western climber, peering through a telescope, saw Chinese officers approach her:

They kicked the body twice. After photographing the scene, several posed for pictures next to Kelsang’s body like hunters beside a prize buck.

A British climber with a team of British doctors asked:

Was I going to risk my own life to look at a body that was dead, or might be dead? I felt like I should have gone down there. But in the end I didn’t.

How many Spectator readers would confront Chinese soldiers with automatic rifles standing over a dead or dying Tibetan? But what deserves condemnation is this:

Minutes after the commotion, the climbers returned to preparing for the summit, some demanding hot coffee from their sherpas.

Deeper in the sinkhole of corruption was Henry Todd, a successful climbing entrepreneur, at the base camp. Todd, who has been convicted for running ‘the biggest LSD operation ever investigated and prosecuted by the British police’, was alarmed that damaging eye-witness accounts of Kelsang’s murder were leaking internationally. He e-mailed his contacts that

the shooting was an unexceptional event, involving not unarmed refugees or those of the religious order, but traffickers escorting women bound for prostitution.

Todd’s allegations spread to the climbers in the camp. One of them recalled:

There was a rumour that they weren’t nuns, that there were traffickers involved. It’s the sort of thing put out by people — the leaders of the big groups — who didn’t want the Chinese to come and interfere … It’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars if you have a team of 15 people.

Another climber said:

For many people in the camp, the most important thing was to be able to come back again. They decided not to tell what happened because of this.

Kate Saunders, the spokeswoman for the main Tibet support group, stated: ‘They just got on the plane and went home’.

Wholly predictable was the official Chinese announcement on what had happened. The Tibetans had been ordered by the border guards to go home, claimed Xinhua, Beijing’s wire service:

But the stowaways refused and attacked the soldiers … the frontier soldiers were forced to defend themselves and injured two stowaways … One injured person died later in hospital due to oxygen shortage on the 6,200-metrehigh land.

The Chinese might have got away with this lie. But a Romanian journalist climber, Sergiu Matei, had risked filming the murder of Kelsang. His footage was shown on Romanian television, and soon BBC and CNN were broadcasting it internationally. The US ambassador in Beijing issued ‘the highest form of diplomatic protest’ to the Chinese government.

For many Tibetans, Green says, even though Matei’s film was banned in their country, news of it had the effect of the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Lodi Gyari, leader of the Dalai Lama’s negotiating team in China, said:

Not just as a Tibetan but as a human being it was very sad. But it was also inspiring. It gave Tibetans a sense of courage and self-respect.

Green has a somewhat cliched style (‘painfully quiet’, ‘perfect foil’, ‘mulishly stubborn’, ‘rippling mountains’), and a weak grip on some facts (there were no Red Guards in China before the Cultural Revolution). But in this book he shows himself to be a first-class reporter who managed to speak to Tibetan survivors of the ill- fated tripas well as to Western witnesses. He reserves his greatest admiration for the two best friends, Dolma, who survived and spoke to Green, and Kelsang, who died alone in the snow. The girls were determined to escape from Tibet at all costs, meet the Dalai Lama, and ‘untainted by the great evil of our age, cynicism’, which afflicts so many doing business with China, tell the world what they knew.

To see Matei’s film and interviews with the Tibetan escapees, Google Tibet: Murder in the Snow.