Yesterday night we safely arrived back in Kathmandu after having been forced to leave Tibet after the serious and violent riots of Friday and Saturday (14th /15th March 2008). It was a 30 hours trip by jeep back over the stunning beauty of the Tibetan high plateau. What an unbelievable discrepancy with what we had seen and experienced the night before!
On our trip back to Kathmandu we were with 12 of us, all carrying similar dark pictures and feelings and personally colored memories of the last 24 hours in Lhasa, where we stayed in a (fortunately Tibetan) hotel right in the centre of the city and the riots, witnessing the most serious anti-Chinese protests since 1989.
Back here, I feel somehow ‘lost’. Nobody shares my experiences of the last days, nobody around me did see what I have seen. It feels unreal being here and seeing Thamel (Kathmandu’s tourist area) waking up for just another day of fun, souvenir buying and eating pizza’s.
Lhasa, 15 and 16 march 2008
A few hours before the first black smoke columns were darkening the sky above Lhasa, we where wandering through the impressive Jokhang temple, home of the most venerated statue in Tibet. The place breathes the deep religious devotion of the Tibetan people who are thrashing themselves in front of the temple (108 times), some of them even over a distance of hundreds of kilometers from their homes to this most sacred and important temple in Tibet (comparable to a pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca). There just was peace.
Although we knew that there had something gone on the passing days (the Drepung and later also the Sera monastery were closed for visits), we could not feel what was going on obviously directly under the surface of Lhasa’s daily life. The events that followed were developing so quickly and escalating so violently that we were totally surprised. The shock of reality was penetrating my consciousness in steps. The first step was when I finally stood at the big panorama window of the coffeeshop on the 2nd floor of my hotel seeing rising a black smoke column from the narrow street near the Jokhang temple where – just half an hours ago – I was having coffee with chocolate cake together with a travel companion. Sitting there, we felt that there was something going on and went outside. We saw military trucks arriving and people running through the narrow alleys in panic. Shops were hurrying to shut down their window-doors and street vendors hasty were packing their goods. First we approached the ‘hotspot’ but when the masses started running off in panic, it got very threatening and we decided to go back to our hotel. People were gathering on the 3rd floor, behind the panorama window of the coffeebar. I also joint them. From here we saw groups of people running over the big junction in front of our hotel. More and more trucks with policemen arrived, hundreds of them, heavily armed. They spread all over the center. There was much screaming and the rattling of broken glass. The sky was more and more darkening by smoke and teargas. Indiscriminate Chinese passengers got attacked. We saw one getting knocked down of his motorbike and beaten up with a wooden stick. Vehicles were set on fire. Meaningless violence against (Chinese) shops, bicycles, billboards etc. spread fast. We heard shooting, not able to distinguish whether it was sharp ammunition or just teargas. Many of us were taking pictures and heading to the roof to have a better overview. Suddenly there was shooting. A panicking voice screamed: ‘Get down! Get down!’ One of us got badly hurt on his eye by a stone, thrown from the street below. We all got on our knees and headed back to the coffeshop. Here two breaches yawn in the big panorama window as two large spiders running over the glass front. We were not allowed to approach the window anymore but strictly requested to go to our rooms. But soon I felt locked up and went back to the coffeshop, in a safe distance from the window. Others were showing up as well. Some of the young female staffmembers were in total panic, weeping and praying with every shot or explosion they heard outside. At a certain moment the electricity went off, darkness spread in the building. A nervous westener emerges and calls us to head to the 4th floor as there would be fire downstairs. A few minutes later we were called to hide in rooms on the 3rd floor, I had missed the reason but taking by the stretched atmosphere that meanwhile had caught us all I followed up the order. As it stayed calm, I at a certain moment went out again. I had the strong desire of getting known what was going on outside and also of having more space and light than we had in the rooms. The whole building still was dark and meanwhile a sharp smoke of fire and teargas filled the whole building. We didn’t know whether there was fire in the hotel itself or the smoke just came in through the different smashed windows. We earlier had seen furious people entering buildings and were neither sure if overheated protesters had entered our hotel or not. Anywhere we saw anxious Tibetan and Chinese women and men sitting in the stairways and the coffeeshop, obviously hiding in a place assumed to be safe. I was not that sure about it anymore. But there was not much time to think things over. Soon after there came the order of immediately packing our personal belongings, such as passports and money, and coming down to the reception hall. We would get evacuated.