Eyewitnesses Recount Terrifying Day in Tibet
How a Protest Became a Rampage

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.

A Surging Mob

Interviews with nine eyewitnesses, some of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity, confirm that tensions began building in Lhasa on Monday, March 10. That's when police blocked monks from Drepung Monastery, a few miles outside Lhasa, from marching into the city to mark the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising that sent the Dalai Lama into exile.

When protesters shouted Tibetan independence slogans and unfurled a homemade Tibetan flag, they were quickly hustled away by police, who detained at least 15 people. The police response was fairly typical for such protests -- public dissent against Chinese rule is not allowed -- but this time the incidents were not quickly snuffed out.

Rather, rumors began circulating among Tibetans that some monks had been beaten. "A lot of Tibetans on Monday night were distraught by the arrest of the monks," said Chris Johnson, a novelist who was in Lhasa on a two-week vacation.

On that Tuesday, police stopped another protest march, this one by monks from nearby Sera Monastery. By Wednesday, tourists said, the roads to the monasteries outside town had been blocked by police vehicles. One tour agent said he was told to tell his clients that "the monasteries were closed for renovation."

The city was fairly quiet Wednesday and Thursday. But late on the morning of Friday, March 14, Rune Backs, a 35-year-old tourist from Copenhagen, saw trucks of riot police driving in circles near the Potala Palace, the onetime residence of the Dalai Lama and now one of the region's biggest tourist attractions.

Backs did not see police advance farther into the city, but a line of officers blocked the square in front of the palace, letting no one through. After watching the scene, Backs turned and headed back downtown, puzzled by what he had seen and figuring he could visit the palace another day. That's when he saw the smoke.

Zhang Bing Quan saw it, too. The 38-year-old Beijing native was standing on the roof of the hostel he owns in Lhasa, watching the tendril of smoke rise, when one of his guests ran in, breathless, from the street. He told Zhang he had just seen a Tibetan man wielding two knives jump on top of a police sport-utility vehicle, shouting and slashing. The man quickly jumped down and was whisked away by two women while others upended the vehicle and set it on fire. Then another. Then another.

The crowd in the square grew to more than 100, including five or six people in monks' robes, according to two Swiss tourists who later compiled a timeline of what they had seen. The crowd began pelting a nearby fast-food restaurant with rocks, then surged inside, throwing boxes of restaurant supplies onto the street. "Join us!" the tourists heard some in the crowd cry.

Firefighters arrived to douse the flames but ran away after the mob took over their truck. The Swiss tourists decided to leave, and as they headed out into the street, they came upon the mob that was confronting riot police. They saw several people injured by rocks.

James Miles, a correspondent for the Economist magazine and the only accredited Western journalist in Lhasa at the time of the riots, was walking in the same area a short time later but did not see the mob attack police. Indeed, he did not see any police anywhere.

"That's what astonished me," he said in an interview after he returned to Beijing. "There was a complete absence of security or any uniformed presence on the street."

Claude Balsiger, another Swiss tourist, said he saw an elderly Chinese man clawed off his bicycle and thrown to the ground, where a rioter smashed his head with a large rock. "Some older Tibetans went to try to stop them, but others were howling like wolves. That's how they supported" the rioters, said Balsiger, 25. "Everything that looked Chinese was attacked and beaten up."

Kicking Down Doors

Back at Zhang's hostel, guests began pouring in from the streets. Many headed to the roof, transfixed by the sight of a city in flames. Five Tibetan neighbors crawled over nearby rooftops to join them, Zhang said.

Then, about 3 p.m., he heard a "strange, high-pitched sound." He looked down to see a gang of 30 to 40 people swing into his street, howling. He was surprised to see that most in the mob were young women, who had masks over their mouths and were wearing backpacks. "They were attacking even more fiercely than the boys," he said.

The mob began kicking down doors and wrenching open shops, including the offices of the state-run Tibet Daily newspaper and the local bureau of the official New China News Agency. Zhang saw a man in his 30s shouting into a megaphone and a woman nearby, pointing. They appeared to be directing the mob where to attack, he said.

One group grabbed a white barrel of gasoline, poured the liquid into the doorway of a shop and ignited it. In the space of about 30 minutes, seven fires were blazing on the block, including one in the building next door.

Thick smoke billowed over the roof, and his guests began to panic. Zhang's employees tied together heavy ropes to throw over the side of the building, an escape route. A firetruck soon arrived, though, and the flames were extinguished.

Zhang's street remained quiet the next day. A few riot police officers appeared and positioned themselves in front of the news bureaus. Zhang said the police ordered him and his guests to stay inside. They did, discussing Friday's chaos and swapping stories of rioters they felt certain could not have been local Tibetans; many of the guests said they had heard different dialects. They questioned how the government could have allowed the city to get so out of control.

Zhang went up to the roof to look at the smoldering shells of nearby buildings when he saw three men in police uniforms and white gloves carrying a heavy bag down the street. A body bag. He started to cry as he recalled it. "We didn't realize that night that people could be killed," he said. "Why did this happen? Even the Tibetans ask."

Tibetan experts outside China are asking the same question. The quickest answer is that because of the spotlight on China as the host of the 2008 Olympics, this is the year to make a stand.

"People think it's now or never," said Robbie Barnett, a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. "Presumably they thought that they could risk what they were doing and not be shot" because the world is watching.

Correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi and researcher Liu Song Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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