The Photographer's Diary 
Tibetan Hunger Strike
 
Photo by Eugene LouieThe mood on the 48th day of the hunger strike was very somber. The tension was palpable when I arrived. Supporters outside were crying and I feared someone had died. When I entered the tent, Dawa Gyalpo was lying on the floor and his son hovered over him like a guardian angel. He appeared to be near death. I found it difficult to lift my camera to my eye, but did so because I thought it was my best effort to honor his sacrifice. I made several frames and began to sob. I couldnít believe these good people were going to die because countries belonging to the United Nations did not have the courage to take a moral stand against the Chinese government. Nobody would introduce Tibet's right of self-determination on the floor of the General Assembly for debate.

To me, it felt like the world just wanted to sell more McDonaldís hamburgers to a billion Chinese and didnít give a rip if Tibetís unique culture was being destroyed.  Just then, the TYC President Tseten Norbu angrily flung open the mosquito net and entered the tent.  I was still sobbing uncontrollably but that did not seem to matter to Norbu. He shouted something to me, which I donít remember. However, there was no mistaking his tone of voice. He wanted me OUTSIDE!  I was crushed, but wiped the tears off my face, picked up my cameras and retreated outdoors.

 
Photo by Eugene LouieWhat happened the next day is something I have difficulty talking about. Chinaís defense minister was flying into New Delhi on a diplomatic mission. The Chinese and Indian governments have always been at odds with many border skirmishes igniting between the neighboring countries. The suspicion among the camp is that the Indian government will not want to greet the  Chinese diplomat with an "in your face" political protest by a bunch of Tibetans who were starving themselves to death for freedom in their homeland. Everybody is fearful the police will shut the strike down -- ending any hope the Tibetans have of creating a national martyr. 

The Tibetan Youth Congress made the Dalai Lama promise not to intervene before the hunger strike began. He had stopped similar protests in the past, but this time the pent-up frustration among the exiles made this event truly different from anything in the past. The Dalai Lama visited them (meeting in private) in the beginning.  He monitored their progress daily, but honored their request and did not ask them to stop. It must have been a torturous decision for His Holiness. Tibetan Buddhism is based completely on non-violence, and suicide is considered a form of self-violence. 

Fifty years of inaction by the international community, however, is enough for these group. These frustrated exiles are determined to create martyrs so the world will take the destruction of their tiny nation seriously. 

On or about the 51st day, the New Delhi police made an early morning surprise raid, tearing through and destroying the camp. They forcibly removed several of the strikers under the cover of darkness.

Thupten Nogdup, a former monk and soldier in the Tibetan army, was one of the caretakers who planned to act as a replacement if one of the protesters died.  He was a quiet man, who kept to himself.  I hardly noticed him, but remember he would vigorously sprinkle water on the dirt around the tent to keep the dust in control. He is in the background with a towel over his shoulder in the bathing picture I shot earlier.

When the police began their raid, Nogdup disappeared and retreated to the outdoor bathroom where he picked up a bottle which he apparently stashed days earlier, without telling anyone. The bottle contained gasoline. The only video camera that was present that morning recorded a sight I never will forget. On the tape, in the middle of the confusion of the police arresting people, a walking fireball appears. It is Thupten Nogdup who set himself on fire because he did not want the sacrifice of the long hunger strike to end in vain. Witnesses say they heard him say, "Long live the Dalai Lama."

The sound of  panic can be heard on the tape. An English womanís voice shouts, "Oh, my God, Oh my God," over and over again. Suddenly Nogdup disappears out of frame as police and protesters knock him to the ground throwing blankets over him to put out the blaze. He was taken away to a hospital where doctors say he suffered third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body.  He is not expected to live.

Hansa Natola, an Italian woman with whom I became friends, called my hotel room and told me there had been a fire and to get there fast. I grabbed my cameras and ran. It was around 6:00AM and I frantically woke the hotel staff to find me a driver. I jumped into the cab's backseat and the driver stopped at the hotel gate to socialize with another hotel worker. It was unbelievable. I began shouting to him to "shut up and drive!" Maddeningly he continued talking and ignored my demands. When we finally arrived at the site I saw police carrying Tibetan women away like sacks of rice. I ran up to one woman who used a Gandhian tactic and went limp, forcing the police to carry her away as dead weight.

I raised my camera and fired a burst of three frames. Suddenly I felt several strong hands grab me. I shouted, "Get the f--k off me!" and pulled away. Since I am Chinese-American, I think the Indian police thought I was Tibetan and therefore just another target for arrest; but once they realized I was an American they began to leave me alone. I did not want to do anything provocative, fearing confiscation of my film. So I eased into the camp.  I discovered a mess. Tibetans had been herded into groups and forced to sit on the ground. Women were crying. The neat tent was torn apart.  Beds were upside down. A broken picture frame containing a picture of Gandhi lay on the ground in pieces.

 
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