‘Living here now is ok, though, there’s enough food. I am happy.’
The Dalai Lama regularly visits the area to draw attention to the 250,000 refugees still living in the camp, campaigning for resources from Buddhists and supporters of a free Tibet from around the world. Through his direct support and influence, this community is just about able to survive.
But Tseoing’s words are in stark contrast to the reality surrounding us. She entered a refugee camp 59 years ago – what started as a temporary solution for thousands of families has become permanent. The tents of the first few months and years became houses, where generation after generation has been born.
In a valley surrounded by dominating Himalayan peaks, the Dolma family – like all other Tibetan refugees – were refused citizenship by the Indian government. That applies not only to the initial generation of refugees, but all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They cannot officially work, meaning they cannot pay taxes and therefore cannot access state services such as education and healthcare. This is a disenfranchised group who cannot hold passports, hidden up in the mountains one of the remotest parts of India. With little earning potential, escape to another country is almost impossible – they are trapped with little hope of a solution.
The camp perimeters have not expanded beyond their original borders, in this heavily militarised area. The Indian state of Ladakh borders both Pakistan and China, where tensions are always high and have been known to spill over into outright violence. For the Tibetans still living here, it means that their homes are permanently surrounded on three sides by barbed wire, military barracks, tanks, fighter jets and troops. It’s a threatening place to raise a family.
On the fourth side of the camp, one hundred meters from Tseoing’s home, there is a cemetery. It is lined with thousands of painted stones and prayer wheels, remembering family members who have transitioned into the next life. In the centre, though, is a rectangular marble memorial tower, standing 15 feet high and towering above the rest of the cemetery.
In English, under the Tibetan script, is written ‘Great Martyr Memories Pillar’. Built in 2015, it lists the name, age, date and place of death of 250 Tibetans who died as martyrs for the Free Tibet cause since 2011. New names are being added every few weeks.
Each one is a person who set themselves alight and burnt to death to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The vast majority were in young men in their 20s, a third were Buddhist monks.
Tseoing says that she dreams of seeing her homeland again: ‘I would die happy’. She remains optimistic that things will change for the next generation, that time will bring freedom.
For the first time, Karma – her son and translator – falters. He looks up at me from outside his mother’s line of sight and shakes his head slowly. He does not believe such an optimistic future is possible for his children. He has been able to find work as a mountain guide, working with companies like the UK’s 360 Expeditions to take clients through the Indian Himalayas.
The fight to free Tibetan goes on around the world, but daily life for the Dolma family means being surrounded by memorials to the campaign’s martyrs and the oppressing military power of a region on the constant verge of conflict.
Words and Pictures Emma Rosen