DHARAMSALA, INDIA — Bema Lhamo had never set foot inside a school of any kind until she fled her Tibetan village last year, trekking across snowy mountains and dodging Chinese border patrols to reach this Indian town. Now she's making up for lost time.
Lured by the promise of free education and a chance to do her part in the Tibetans' struggle to end China's 49-year control over their Himalayan homeland, the shy teenager is one of hundreds of Tibetan children who make the treacherous journey each year.
Ms. Lhamo, who wants to become a Buddhist nun, says she was forced to work building roads instead of attending school after her parents died. Now in India, she's studying the Dalai Lama's teachings, forbidden under Chinese rule. "If the Chinese saw this, they would stamp on it," Lhamo says, gesturing at a picture of a scarlet-robed Dalai Lama, the monk believed by Tibetans to be the physical embodiment of the Buddha.
From Dharamsala, the seat of his government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama insists on nonviolent means to resolve the conflict with China, upholding the Buddhist belief in compassion as the highest human virtue. That message is transferred to students at the Tibetan Children's Village school, where Lhamo studies.
The school, a sprawling compound of colorful wooden bungalows and lodges looking out at snowcapped mountains, is the largest of 10 independent boarding schools for Tibetan exiles in India. It was founded in 1960 to accommodate the first children fleeing Chinese occupation.
Chinese troops entered Tibet between 1949 and 1952 saying they were freeing Tibetans from theocracy and an oppressive feudal system. The invasion upheld the claim that the territory had been a de facto part of China for centuries, and that most countries did not recognize a separate Tibetan state.
The Tibetan government says more than 1 million Tibetans have died under the Chinese, many tortured to death in prisons.
China argues it is improving living standards for Tibetans, doing infrastructure projects and monastery and temple reconstructions.
Ten years ago, the Dalai Lama renounced his demand for independence, calling for Tibet's religious and political autonomy. And in June, after 10 years of hard-line policy, China's President Jiang Zemin used a joint press conference with President Clinton to reveal a possible softening of the relationship.
Tibetans can study Buddhist texts in monasteries, which are under surveillance, or at home. But the government's refusal to allow Tibetan culture to be taught in schools causes many Tibetan families to send their children into exile to be educated.
"For many it's a simple question of seeing their children survive, but they also want them to do something important for the Tibetan cause," says Dolma Tsering, who teaches Tibetan geography and politics at the school.
Nearly half of the graduates have returned to Tibet to support the resistance movement. Others have founded activist groups in India. But almost none seek Indian citizenship, a sign that they hope to return to Tibet.
The older children speak energetically about plans to work for the Tibetan cause. "When I get big, I will discuss with China about Tibet," 13-year-old Dolma Kalden says in halting English. "I will tell them, 'We don't like you Chinese to kill our people or destroy our environment.'"
Both the children and the adults that accompany them endure a trek that lasts weeks from Tibet across the border into Nepal, south to Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, and then to Dharamsala. Most wait until winter to make the trip, when border guards relax patrols.
Ten-year-old Nhak-pa Tsering, who arrived here with a group of 20 last spring, sat motionless for two days behind a giant snowdrift so he wouldn't be spotted by border guards.
"We were freezing the whole time, but I am happy now because they are sending me to school." Nhakpa says his parents sent him to India, "so I can learn something and one day take back what we've lost."
The children's education is inseparable from the school's primary goal of preparing future political and social leaders.
"It's our duty to teach them that in China there is no such thing as freedom," says geography teacher Tsering. "We value education, but political awareness is essential here."
She asks one fourth-grade class, "What system do the Chinese have?"
"Communism," they chorus in English.
"What does Tibet want?"
The school's leaders are frank about the emphasis on social and political activism.
"This is the training ground for them to do something great in the future," said Tsewang Yeshi, head of the Dharamsala school. "But we hope that will mean something great for Tibet."