Friday, June 25, 2010

Mystery Man Tracks Murder in the Himalayas

by Jonathan Green

I’m not sure whether my epiphany dawned on a remote, snowy mountainside - in the shadow of Mount Everest on the Tibet border at 14 feet above sea level - one of the most hostile environments on the face of the earth. Or if it was simply sitting in my basement office making calls over several months to reluctant interviewees that were never returned.

Either way, a few months after starting my investigation into the murder of 17-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nun, Kelsang Namtso, by Chinese paramilitary soldiers – a killing witnessed by at least 100 Western mountain climbers, many of whom refused to bear witness to what they had seen – I began to think I had set myself an impossible task.

Conventional wisdom is that writing a book is like climbing a mountain. I had to do both, but even that wasn’t the hard part.

As an investigative journalist it’s easy to take for granted that, although the job is not without it’s challenges in the US, at least freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution and is upheld in daily life. You don’t get 15 years for speaking to a journalist in, say, Wisconsin.

But I was investigating a state-sanctioned murder in modern-day Tibet, one of the repressed places on the face of the earth. Tibetans face 15 years in prison just for talking to a Westerner, over e-mail or the phone, about the political situation in their country. Let alone talking to a Western reporter about a murder by the Chinese police.

And therein were the first of many problems of reporting a narrative set in three countries separated by the highest mountain range in the world in regions were free speech is criminalized.

At the heart of my story are two girls from remotest Tibet, best friends, who nursed a dream to escape Tibet, cross the high Himalaya, all in the hope of a few seconds with the Dalai Lama. They joined 75 other refugees before tragedy struck. Kelsang was murdered in front of Western climbers. Many didn’t want to talk about what they had seen lest they upset the Chinese authorities and were refused entry back to climb in Tibet again.

But, I persevered, and therein I found a redemption of sorts.

Because, in stark contrast to these obstacles, a few extraordinarily brave people stood up against the might of modern-day China to help me bring the injustice of the murder of an amazing young woman to light.

The first was her best friend, Dolma Palkyi (right), whom I spent weeks interviewing and who gave selflessly in talking about the killing of her friend, which she witnessed first hand. She did so because of her conviction that, simply, people needed to know the circumstances of Kelsang’s murder.

And secondly, a very brave Romanian climber Sergiu Matei, who risked his life to film the murder, saved a Tibetan refugee and then smuggled footage of the murder out to the world. Today, the loop of the shooting plays all over the globe on Youtube and other outlets as a permanent memorial to the bravery of a young woman who was murdered while trying to escape to a better life of religious freedom and for a brief meeting with the Dalai Lama.

After many years of struggle, my book slowly evolved and so did a truth and realization in my work, and perhaps a valuable life lesson too. It was that, no matter how hard things appear, there will always be the brave, the few, who will help us whether we are journalists, police officers, attorneys or anyone else who works in the field of justice. And that despite an army of uncaring, or unhelpful or plain obstructive, if just one person stands up to speak out against injustice it can, and does, make all the difference in the world.

Murder in the High Himalaya by Jonathan Green is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and in all good bookstores. Jonathan Green is an award-winning journalist and author. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men's Journal, the Financial Times Magazine, British GQ and Esquire and the Mail on Sunday's Live magazine among many other publications.


Sue Russell said...

I think it is an incredible accomplishment, Jonathan. And the following is so true:

"And that despite an army of uncaring, or unhelpful or plain obstructive, if just one person stands up to speak out against injustice it can, and does, make all the difference in the world."

It is a privilege to meet those people and some of your encounters with courage were extraordinary. Kudos to you for your courage too.

Anonymous said...

I love books like this. I'm going to pick it up and then save it to give for my husband on his birthday. I'm glad people talked to you.