Eyewitnesses Recount Terrifying Day in Tibet

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 27, 2008

BEIJING, March 26 -- In the moment, Canadian backpacker John Kenwood recalled, he was "young and stupid, and it was all adrenaline." He was running, one in a mob of 200 or so, screaming, "Free Tibet!" and chasing riot police down a narrow street in downtown Lhasa in the early afternoon of March 14.

It was a heady feeling, being part of a howling pack that had forced police to turn tail and run, some dropping their shields as they fled a barrage of rocks. Then the Tibetans in the crowd slowed and began turning back, grinning and patting one another on the back.

The ebullient mood did not last long. The pack broke into smaller groups, gathering rocks and pulling out knives, looking for the next target.

"There was no more crowd to be part of. It looked like they were turning on everybody," said Kenwood, 19, describing the scene to reporters last week when he arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, after 10 days in the Tibetan capital. "It wasn't about Tibet freedom anymore."

What he witnessed next was a violent rampage unlike any in decades in Lhasa, a city where Tibetan Buddhism's most revered temples sit among office buildings and concrete markets built by Chinese bent on developing the remote Himalayan region. Hundreds of mostly young Tibetans broke up into roaming gangs and attacked Chinese passersby and vandalized shops, killing 19 people and injuring more than 600 over two days.

During the riots, looters set fire to a clothing store, burning to death five young employees who were huddled on the second floor. Most police officers kept their distance while the center of Lhasa descended into chaos.

Nearly two weeks later, there are still more questions than answers about what sparked the violence. But several witness accounts suggest that what began as a small protest by Buddhist monks on the morning of Friday, March 14, turned quickly into ethnically charged rioting, possibly fueled by rumors that monks had been roughed up by police. Some outside experts cite another factor behind the uprising: Tibetans' awareness that the world is following news of their cause more closely as China prepares to host the Olympic Games in August.

Police and paramilitary troops have blanketed Lhasa, looking for ringleaders. Hundreds of Tibetans have been arrested or turned themselves in to police in a bid for leniency. There are rumors that outsiders orchestrated the attacks, echoing the official Chinese government claim that the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader, is to blame. For his part, the Dalai Lama has condemned the violence and said repressive Chinese policies fueled the explosion.

Whatever the reasons, the people of Lhasa have been left to deal with the repercussions.

Ethnic Chinese, who were the main targets of the attacks, are mourning their dead and rebuilding what's left of their homes and businesses. Buddhist monks are confined to their monasteries, where telephones go unanswered.

Few Tibetans in their homeland have been heard from since the riot, and the tally of their dead is hard to confirm. Friends and relatives from outside the region say they are afraid to telephone out of fear that Chinese authorities will monitor the calls and arrest anyone who discloses information.

Chhime Chhoekyapa, secretary to the Dalai Lama, said Tibetans call and ask that their dead be remembered in the spiritual leader's prayers. "Our information is based on this," Chhoekyapa said. The Dalai Lama's office has released details of 22 people who died in Lhasa on March 14 and is checking unconfirmed reports of dozens of others.

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