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Gunshots on the Roof of the World

A local journalist writes about a murder in the Himalayas. You might say--two murders

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Thursday, September 06, 2012
Image Courtesy Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green meets the Dalai Lama

Local journalist Jonathan Green didn't realize what he was getting into when he took the Men's Journal article assignment that led to his first book, Murder in the High Himalaya: Loyalty, Tragedy, and Escape from Tibet.

"I started out thinking it would be this macho male adventure story," Green tells me as we talk in the kitchen of his house in Longmeadow. "But it ended up as this female epic about bravery, loyalty, and friendship."

One of the friends he writes about, Dolma Palkyi, a Tibetan refugee now living in India, is the main source for Green's book. The other, Kelsang Namtso, was Dolma's best friend and the unfortunate victim of the atrocity for which Murder in the High Himalaya is named.

"This is a story about women being braver than men," Green says.

*

In September, 2006, Kelsang, a 17-year-old Tibetan nun, and Dolma, one year Kelsang's junior, were among a small group of Tibetan refugees attempting to cross the Himalayas over the Nangpa La Pass, 20 miles east of the world's most famous summit, Mount Everest. Despite its high altitude and inhospitable terrain, the Nangpa La is a popular route for Tibetans seeking to flee China and freely practice Tibetan Buddhism.

In fact, Nangpa La, guarded by Cho Oyu, a "sister" mountain to nearby Everest, was the route that led the Dalai Lama to self-exiled safety over 50 years ago.

"Frequented by thousands of climbers each year," Green's website explains, "Cho Oyu lies 19 miles east of Mt. Everest on the border between Tibet and Nepal. To the elite mountaineering community, it offers a straightforward summit—a warm-up climb to [its] formidable sister. To Tibetans, Cho Oyu promises a gateway to freedom through a secret glacial path: the Nangpa La."

Three weeks into their arduous journey, but now a mere 20 minutes from freedom, the refugees were struggling up the pass, cold, shivering and ill-fed, when Chinese border guards began firing on them. One of their many shots hit Kelsang, who was killed almost immediately. The next day, the body of the young nun was thrown into a crevasse.

The entire event was witnessed by a group of Western climbers who were camped at the pass en route to the summit of Cho Oyu. One of the climbers, a Romanian named Sergiu Matei, filmed the shooting, then managed to smuggle the film out of China. It later aired on CNN, the BBC, and many stations around the world. Today it can be seen on YouTube.

Yet despite this video evidence, Green tells me that there is an ongoing propaganda campaign in China against his book, which the Chinese government has banned. On his office computer he shows me multiple videos, some in Chinese, some translated into English, of various people claiming that Matei's video is a fabrication and Green's book is full of lies, written only make the author money.

"I find it flattering," Green says, adding that the inflamed criticism is an indication of good journalism.

*

A veteran investigative reporter, Green regularly travels the world over, reporting on such varied topics as human rights abuses in West Africa, Colombia's cocaine trade, and rainforest destruction in Borneo. For his efforts he has received several awards, including the Magazine Design and Journalism Award for "The Dirty Secret of Your NHS," and the Amnesty International Media Award for "Selling Soccer Into Slavery," both of which he wrote for his native Britain's Mail on Sunday magazine.

But the more research he did on the story of Dolma and Kelsang, the more he knew that his reporting of this event would be even more significant than what he had done in the past.

While he was originally drawn to the story from the perspective of the Western climbers who witnessed Kelsang's killing, Green has grown critical of the culture of extreme mountaineering and its "brotherhood of the rope." He points to the climbing clientele who can afford to pay up to $70,000 dollars for the privilege of being professionally guided up Everest and the other 25,000-foot peaks and then write self-congratulatory books about their triumphant experience, talking about the importance of self-esteem at speaking engagements for which they charge exorbitant fees.

"The whole thing has become a joke," Green says. "It's all about making money. All these books are about the heroism of these white climbers," who, he says, compared to the Tibetans, "are cowards."

"The people who changed," he continues, "who had a realization of their lives, were the refugees."

One event in particular provides a stunning contrast between the elite world of wealthy big-mountain climbing clients from the West and the impoverished Tibetan refugees whose paths they often cross deep in the mountain passes. It's the story of a Tibetan refugee girl who fell into a crevasse on the Nangpa La, three years before Kelsang's murder.

"Her 15-year-old sister and others in the group, having no climbing ropes, attempted to tie their belts together and dangle them to the girl, who was screaming in panic. They could not see or reach her," Green writes in Murder in the High Himalaya, "but they could hear her screams. The icy maw of the crevasse gripped her body, but the more she struggled, the more her body heat melted the ice around her and the deeper into the dark clutches of the chasm she fell."

Across the Nangpa La, a climbing expedition was preparing to tackle the summit of Cho Oyu. The expedition's cooks, who had been looking through binoculars in horror as the refugees hopelessly struggled to save the trapped girl, alerted the mountaineers to her horrific situation.

"The climbers had ropes, ladders, and everything that was needed to rescue the girl," continues Green. "Instead, as it was summit day, they ... ignored her plight, and carried on up the mountain instead, leaving the girl to die."

"There are lots of stories like that," Green tells me, reflecting on the awful crevasse death from the stillness of his office.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Murder in the High Himalaya has been largely ignored in the climbing community, whose members feel that Green has a biased agenda, he says.

But it has been appreciated elsewhere. As we head back to the kitchen from Green's office, we pass a framed letter on his entry wall from none other than the Dalai Lama. A copy of the letter appears at the beginning of Murder in the High Himalaya as a sort of foreword. Green met the Dalai Lama while finishing his research for the book.

Closer to home, Green tells me of a reading he did at Springfield Technical Community College. He wasn't expecting a big turnout, but "the auditorium was packed," he says. "Those kids really got it."

The STTC Book Club then wrote Green a check for Dolma, who is hoping to save enough money for an airplane flight from India to Europe. Green continues to stay in regular contact with Dolma.

"That whole [STTC] event was the most gratifying," says Green. "I felt at that moment that the book had resonated. It had done what it was supposed to do."

Green continues to share Dolma's and Kelsang's story with interested parties. And his readers no doubt look forward to traveling with Green again, wherever his work may take him in the future.

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