The two teenage girls were best friends. In their tiny farming village in Tibet, they had stayed up late many nights over four years plotting their escape.
Kelsang Namtso had become a Buddhist nun just last year, at the tender age of 16. Her friend, Dolma Palkyi, 16, wanted to go to India, and meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, before taking her vows.
Dolma says she managed to save nearly $1,400 for the arduous journey through the Himalayas. Half would go to the smugglers. In early September, the girls loaded their backpacks with yak butter, cheese, and barley, and finally set off.
Seventeen days later, Kelsang lay dying in the snow after an attack, captured by Western tourists' cameras, that is becoming an international incident and a stain on China's human rights record.
The girls' journey began with a two-day truck ride west from the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. They joined a group of 73 others, led by two smugglers, making the mountain crossing. For the next two weeks, the group walked mostly at night and slept during the day, at times braving high winds and deep snow.
As morning dawned on Sept. 30, Kelsang was trudging through chest-deep snow. Her pack was nearly empty. "For the last three days we had no food," says Thupten Tsering, a monk who is seeking religious freedom in India. At a press conference Monday in New Delhi, he and others recounted their escape for the first time.
The group was walking single file and had just reached the 18,753-foot Nangpa La Pass when they heard the distinct "zing" of bullets passing on either side. "They were shooting all around," says Tenzin Wangmo, one of three nuns walking directly behind Kelsang. They never saw the Chinese policemen. "When the shooting was going on I just prayed to His Holiness the Dali Lama to kindly save us," she recounted softly.
When a bullet hit young Kelsang, she collapsed into the snow, crying that she had been hit and asked for help. But the nuns themselves were weak with cold, fatigue, and hunger. Still Ms. Wangmo says she made an attempt to grab the fallen woman's arm and pull her along. She was unsuccessful, she says: "There was a monk from the group who said, 'She is dead – if we don't run away we will all be finished.' "
When the shooting started they dropped everything – a sleeping mat and what little extra clothing they had carried on their backs – and ran until evening. That night, lacking food and blankets, they huddled together for warmth.
The next day they walked until finding a small group of nomads with three tents who agreed to sell them provisions. From there they met up with other members of the group with whom they walked for five more days before arriving at the Tibetan refugee center in Katmandu, Nepal.
"We were best friends," says Dolma Palkyi, who was separated from her teenage friend at the time of the shooting and only heard of her death days later. "Still, I cannot believe it," she says, wiping away the tears, "I've lost everything."
About half the group was captured by Chinese police. The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced the death of a second victim, a 23-year-old male, days later in a hospital, stating he died from "oxygen shortage." China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported on Oct. 12 that Chinese police opened fire in self-defense after the Tibetans attacked them.
Human rights groups say the Tibetans were unarmed, and that the male victim died from gunshot wounds.
"This has been going on for a long time, says Tenzin Norgay of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in India. "But today China cannot escape it. The bubble that they created has burst."
Rights groups don't know how many refugees die along the way each year, but they say a significant number fall into crevasses, die of hunger, or are shot by Chinese police.
But never before has such an event been documented so well. A Romanian cameraman and other Western tourists who were in the region to climb Cho Oyu, about 12 miles west of Mount Everest, say they saw the Chinese patrolmen shoot the Tibetan refugees. (www.protv.ro/filme/exclusive-footage-of-chinese-soldiers-shooting-at-tibetan-pilgrims.html)
The plight of these rural Tibetan refugees brings to light the hardships suffered by the estimated 2,500 to 4,000 Tibetans who try to reach India every year via Nepal, paying smugglers to bring them to India because obtaining the official travel permits and a passport can be too difficult. Most come seeking an audience with the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who resides in Dharamsala, in northern India.
"Our aim only is to get the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama," says Ms. Wangmo, one of the nuns. "We were planning to go back afterwards, but now it won't be possible after the trouble in the pass. If we go back to Tibet, the Chinese will definitely arrest us."
The nun killed was typical of the many Tibetan refugees who make the journey: she was poor, young, and religiously motivated. At least half of those making the journey from Tibet are children, sent by parents who want their children to grow up with a strong Tibetan identity and who often cannot afford school fees at home. Among the group of Tibetans that just arrived in India, the youngest was a 7-year-old girl, Deki Pantso, who came without her parents.
Most Tibetan refugees prefer to make the journey in the winter, when there is deep snow in the passes between Nepal and Tibet and the chances of being caught by Chinese patrolmen are diminished. The International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington advocacy group, estimates that 80 percent of refugees attempt to cross between October and April, when the mountain glaciers are frozen over.
The United States and the European Union have condemned the shooting and urged China to investigate the incident thoroughly. But so far Canada has delivered the harshest rebuke. On Oct. 18 Canada's foreign minister, Peter MacKay, expressed his "abhorrence and dismay for this terrible incident that happened at the border. Canada strongly condemns this act of violence against unarmed civilians as an egregious violation of human rights."
Tenzin Norgay, with the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala wondered whether this would lead to more governments pressuring China to improve their human rights record. "I fear it might be another event come and gone. Public memory is very short."