Exiled Tibetans wait at bamboo curtain

After 25 years of exile, a new generation of Tibetan refugees is growing up in the half-world of the resettlement camp. They have no recognized nationality and no idea when they will return to the ''land of the snows'' behind the bamboo curtain.

They cling proudly to their Tibetan passports, disdaining either the Indian nationality that would get them jobs or the Chinese nationality that would allow them to go home.

In ramshackle resettlement villages on land supplied by the Indian government on the bank of the Yamuna River in Old Delhi, three to 10 people inhabit each shack. Their housing is made of wood slats with a dirt floor and burlap over the windows. The camp is swarming with children, many of whom were born in India and have no memory of the old country, or of their parents' flight from it.

In almost every dwelling there is a bar with wooden tables and tinsel-draped photographs of the exiled Tibetan priest-king, the Dalai Lama. Once the temporal as well as religious leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled to India in March 1959 and is still here.

In this crowded resettlement camp, non-Tibetans come in crowds to drink chang , the potent Tibetan wheat brew that tastes like a mixture of beer and wine. Outside one bar a shaggy Tibetan apso dog chases a pig down the muddy path of the settlement.

Inside sits a soft-spoken young man named Teshi. Although he has a university degree in accounting and speaks three languages, Teshi works as a waiter in a tiny Chinese restaurant.

He is unable to pursue any better career because, by choice, he is not an Indian citizen. Yet he has no actual memory of Tibet, having escaped to India with his parents when he was two years old.

''I think we'll go back some day,'' he says, ''but maybe not in my lifetime.'' Teshi will not return to Tibet until the Dalai Lama decides it is time, he says.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet with 100,000 followers in 1959 after an unsuccessful popular revolt against the Communist Chinese who had occupied the country for eight years. Now a Tibetan government-in-exile operates out of the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, complete with Ministries of Education and Home Affairs and an elected assembly, to administer the estimated 60,000 Tibetan refugees in India.

In recent years the Chinese government has invited the Dalai Lama to come back, an offer he has consistently refused.

''The issue isn't whether we're able to return to Tibet,'' he wrote in 1982. ''The real issues are the feelings and the welfare of the 6 million Tibetans still left in Tibet. Why should an alien rule be forced upon them? If those 6 million Tibetans are really happy and contented, we would be prepared to return and accept whatever status the majority grants us.''

Three years ago a delegation representing the Dalai Lama toured Tibet at the invitation of Chinese authorities. At every stop the group was besieged by thousands of Tibetans shouting, ''Long live His Holiness,'' until the tour was canceled. It was the first inkling the Dalai Lama had in 22 years that some Tibetans were eager for his return.

The Tibetan refugees in the Delhi resettlement village are proud, gentle people. The women are especially handsome with grave, high-cheekboned faces and long black braids. They wear the traditional wraparound dress, or chupa.

At every pump in the camp -- there is no indoor plumbing -- someone is bathing or shampooing. At one spigot a child of about two washes his feet all alone.

The Tibetan passport is the refugee's strongest card, the one irrefutable proof that Tibet used to be a sovereign country. The Chinese government requires a refugee to surrender that passport and become an ''overseas Chinese'' in order to return to Tibet.

India has sheltered Tibetan refugees for 25 years, granting them free land and schools while allowing them to maintain their government-in-exile. But in 1961, after losing a bitter border war with China, India officially recognized Chinese dominion over Tibet.

''Apart from politics,'' says Lobsang Wangchuk, one of the Dalai Lama's representatives in New Delhi, ''the Indian government and people have been very kind. It's mainly because culturally and religiously we're so connected - our culture is based on Buddhism, which came from the Indian Hinduism.

''And centuries ago Indian scholars introduced a system of writing in Tibet. The Tibetan alphabet is similar to the Indian Sanskrit. We do not have Chinese characters.''

The Chinese say the mountainous Tibet -- ''the roof of the world'' -- was always part of their country. They also say Tibet was a feudal theocracy, and only the wealthy nobles and monks fled when the Chinese came to ''liberate'' the people.

The refugees in the camp on the bank of the Yamuna, however, could never be considered wealthy. Most were nomads or farmers, and they are devout Buddhists who consider the Dalai Lama a living god.

Reports emerging from Tibet in the last five years indicate the strict communist ideology has eased recently. The Tibetan language is no longer suppressed; some of the Buddhist monasteries destroyed by the Chinese in the 1950s are being rebuilt; and Tibetans are allowed to make pilgrimages to major shrines.

The Dalai Lama argues that there are hundreds of new schools, but they teach Chinese history and language and ignore the separate Tibetan heritage.

There are thousands of miles of new roads, he says, but they exist only to transport military vehicles because there are no private cars and little public transportation.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan increased the strategic importance of Tibet to Peking. According to the Indian Express newspaper, the Chinese have built nine air bases and 15 radar stations in Tibet since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

''When the Chinese military is not there, definitely we'll go back,'' Wangchuk predicts. He escaped Tibet at the age of 12 without his parents, who he believes are still there.

''The air is very clear there,'' he remembers. ''In my part you see snow, and many rivers that you cross on the ice. Most of the major Indian rivers begin in Tibet.

''In the summer it was so beautiful, so green. I belong to a nomadic family, and we roamed about looking for grass for the cattle.''

Pasand Wongdui, who manages the Tibet House, a museum and cultural center in New Delhi, says Tibetans will never resort to violence to regain their country.

''We are not the Palestinians,'' he explains. ''We could be, but our leader teaches us to be gentle and nonviolent.''

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