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Tibet goes offline

“The Chinese police found out about it,” my Tibetan friend Karma hastily types on Yahoo! Messenger from one of the busy and smoky Internet cafés in Lhasa.

“The student was arrested and asked lots of questions,” she continues, probably wary that someone might see her online chatting with me, a foreigner in a different part of the world.

The Internet café she is at is usually a very crowded one, frequently visited by the Chinese and Tibetan youth especially after 5 pm. It was one of my ‘hobbies’ in Lhasa too to use the Internet after restaurants died down at night, in April 2007 when I first visited Tibet.

“If he talks about me, then not only I but the whole school will be damaged” I continue reading Karma’s message as I sip my morning coffee in my comfortable living room facing the Mediterranean Sea in Cyprus, away from the kinds of worries most Tibetans might be facing even more just now, especially after the beginning of riots in Lhasa in March against the Chinese government soon to host the Olympics in Beijing.

[email protected] appears to be offline
He or she will receive your messages after signing in.”

“Oh, no!” I say to myself, worried that she might have also been taken away by the Chinese police for saying something wrong. I panic that her fate might be the same as her student who had written in his composition for Karma’s class that China should free Tibet.

My memory, at the speed of a lightning, takes me back to the year before one of my walks with Karma in the streets of Lhasa from her school to Barkhor, the old Tibetan quarter and the centre of Lhasa. About 24-years-old, Karma works as an English teacher at a primary school.

With long coal black hair and eyes as dark and gentle as of those other Tibetans, Karma who I met during my stay in 2007, always looks cheerful but at the same time, uneasy about Tibet’s situation in the Chinese occupied ‘roof of the world’ since 1950.

“I am sorry. I keep going on and off,” Karma appears back online, not surprising me a bit why she has to do this in her land occupied by a powerfully wired country.

Relieved that she is still in the café and not anywhere close to the police station, I take a risk and ask, “He was brave enough to write against the Chinese government but how did the Chinese police hear about it?”

“No, actually there are a lot of people who talk about the same topic and also write about it,” Karma writes, not really responding to my question.

“You mean other Tibetans talk about the same thing?” I type with fingers transmitting shock waves into the keyboard.

 “But we keep it a secret and do not tell it to others as it will harm not only one self but also the parents and relatives,” Karma writes back, reminding me how philosophical her approach to life has always been.

“There must be a reason for the occupation of Tibet,” she tells me once in Lhasa, taking me back to one of Dalai Lama’s statements how the fact that Tibet has been occupied caused him to seek refuge in India and therefore, has given him an opportunity to spread the teachings of Buddha to people outside of Tibet.

“But how did they learn about your student?” I try to bring Karma back to my original and unanswered question, unable to curtain my curiosity anymore.

No response appears back on the screen for a minute. I can feel my heart getting ready to jump out of my chest, as I were back in Tibet in 2007 when hitchhiking in an area where I was not supposed to visit as a foreigner.

“Karma is typing something ingenious” the Yahoo! Messenger screen alerts me, calming my heart down.

“I think, after finishing this, we will have to change the topic. I am afraid,” Karma appears back, even though she is the one who seems more willing to talk about it. “My student is caught because someone who knows about his composition called the police in order to get some money.”

“My God!” my fingers blurt out. “Is there anything I can do?” I say, not really knowing what I could do against such a powerful government nestled in China.

“His parents are not allowed to meet him. They do not even know where their child is,” Karma continues, ignoring my question, perhaps aware that I cannot really help unless I get the world realize what really goes on in Tibet, behind the tightly locked Chinese doors.

 The words ‘tightly locked’ suddenly reminds me of the sad face of a Tibetan truck driver who worriedly shows his hands as they are cuffed behind him to tell me that he could not give me a ride to Lhasa in his truck. If caught, the Chinese police might take him to jail for picking a foreigner in East Tibet where non-Chinese are not allowed, except as a part of tourist tour groups.

 Instead, I sit for hours, on the top of a mountain, hoping someone else would pick me up before the darkness and the bitter cold start sinking in. I am on the top of this mountain in East Tibet not being able to continue traveling on a motorbike with a friend of mine. The second-hand bike refuses to carry two passengers in some of the harshest and tallest mountains of the world.

 Still alive and sound, lucky enough not to continue waiting in the dark and cold, I find myself in Lhasa in about two days, writing an e-mail message to friends from the same café now my friend Karma is chatting with me online:

 “Some enlightening and inspiring thoughts from the roof of the world – well, I have been once again reminded that almost anything in life is possible but patience is needed…the result is usually and most of the time better than expected… I learnt this while – let me tell you the story – sitting in the middle of a small Tibetan village nowhere. We, on our motorbikes – a young French man, an older German man and myself -, finally got into Tibet – up and down the mountains through really high passes – without getting caught (foreigners are not allowed in Tibet without a permit) but the bike would not carry two people anymore (Chinese bikes are really shitty!) so I decide to go on on my own but you cannot get into buses in Tibet – foreigners are not allowed. And therefore, in the middle of this very small village and later on the top of a mountain (I had to walk there from the village) where nothing exists, I sat for hours waiting to catch a ride to Lhasa… No one would stop… The Tibetans are rightly scared of the Chinese police…I feel hopeless…Tibetan villagers keep driving by and looking at me, sadly smiling…I see vultures dancing high up in the sky, the Buddhist flags keeping rhythm with the wind….it is blindingly sunny at 3,000 meters… toward the end of the day, I manage to stop a big Land Rover!…two Chinese people…they agree to take me to Lhasa…and we go through every other military checkpoint (they are in every town and village in Tibet) with no problems (the back windows of the car are black and no one can see me from outside)… lots of foreigners are sent back when trying to go into Tibet on their own… During the ride, whenever we stop for a break, the driver keeps pointing to his driver’s license and forms his fingers take the shape of a gun…I don’t know what he means…Is he taking me to the police, I keep wondering. But he does bring me all the way into Lhasa and even drops me at the hostel where I am staying at right now…When I ask the receptionist what his driver’s license means, guess what she tells me??? … That I was taken to Lhasa in the car of a military police…Hah! I guess I got the best of everything…traveled into Tibet on a motorbike and witnessed the best of the scenery in Eastern Tibet and then like a princess, I was driven into Lhasa with no problems at all….

 “Please pray that our problem in Tibet ends,” Karma returns back to our online chat, leaving behind my mind fondly cherishing the risky adventure in Eastern Tibet.
“I am sure most people in the world know about our problem and are willing to do something but the Chinese republic is too strong,” Karma types, perhaps sadly, perhaps angrily even though I never witness anger but only peace on her face during our conservations in Lhasa.

“So, our hope is to wait, and to pray for my student,” Karma continues.

“It feels relaxing to talk about these things with you Pema Kadro,” Karma says, sounding like she feels the need to apologize. Whenever she seeks comfort in me, Karma uses my Tibetan name given by students that I briefly taught at Karma’s school and who translated it as ‘the lotus flower that feels.’

“I am so sorry for that, and I hope you would understand,” Karma continues diving further into apology.

“No, don’t say sorry,” I plea with her. “I understand, of course, and I am really worried about everyone there.”

“Someone is coming, so I will turn off the computer,” Karma suddenly types, and goes offline.

At that moment, I feel I am dropped into a pool of ice-cold water, as I were back in time to March 2008, when I was reading an e-mail message from one of my Tibetan monk friends living at a monastery outside of Lhasa but who goes sometimes to Lhasa to visit friends and family.

 “I have some sad news to tell you. Our friend Norbu is arrested,” the message reads. “If you can help him, please. I don’t know where he is.”

 Helplessly, I continue reading the message: “I don’t know why he was arrested and where he is now. He did nothing wrong. During these difficult times, they arrest all suspects in Lhasa, and they take them from Lhasa to Mainland China.”

My laptop brings me back to someone online, taking me away from my monk friend’s sad message back to Karma.

“All ok,” she writes, comforting me.

“I always remind myself that I am a Tibetan, and also tell my students that we are Tibetans and that we should not forget we are Tibetans,” Karma continues writing, as if she were not the one who was scared about a minute ago.

“If my student who is arrested tells the police that I told them this, I am totally finished,” Karma adds, sending a shockwave of electricity into my heart.

“I don’t have a choice but to wait,” she tries comforting herself.

“People keep disappearing, but I am helpless,” Karma types, reminding me again of my monk friend who “disappeared” and has not been heard from since March 2008.

“It feels sad that most Tibetans are beaten cruelly and some caught without doing anything, and we really cannot do anything for them,” her online message continues.

“You heard that almost all the monasteries and temples are sealed off. For a long time we are not going to be able to see or go to a temple or a monastery,” I keep reading, remembering how religious most Tibetans are and how frequently they visit their places of worship.

“Even those who stay around the monastery are not allowed to go, and if they do, they are not allowed to go back to their house,” Karma proceeds with her shocking message. “Really, it seems that we have lost our human rights, totally, and the costs are rising too – not only of gas but everything else.”

“Oh!” is the only word I can type back, sighing.

“We are even not allowed to circumambulate the temples,” Karma writes back, perhaps not knowing how my single word “Oh!” might sometimes be such a helpless word.

“And we do not know what to do, and in the news, they use cruel words to say bad things about the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans cannot bear to hear such things about him,” the message keeps reading, at the speed and ferocity of a lightning.

The irritating sound of Yahoo! Messenger to notify you that someone has gone offline pierces my ears as it too were a furious lightning. Karma goes offline again.

Her beautiful face in her room in Lhasa instead takes the place in front of the screen saying [email protected] appears to be offline
He or she will receive your messages after signing in.”

I find myself back in her small bedroom in Lhasa given to her by the school she works for. Like so many other Tibetans whose houses I visited during my stay in Tibet, she presents me with pink and white crispy sweets she keeps in a bowl for her guests.

During that moment in her room in 2007, just as I do in front of my laptop in 2008, I feel that like everyone else around the world, Karma and my missing monk friend Norbu have a right to feel that they can start a day without being worried about being arrested or saying the wrong things.

Minutes pass by in front of my laptop but Karma still seems offline.

I continue to sit in front of the screen, in my living room away from the worries many Tibetans face today in their own land, waiting and hoping that Karma comes back online.

I wait and wait. Sadly, my wait ends with the sunset, without being able to meet Karma back online.

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