In August 2008 the world marvelled at the amazing spectacle that was the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Millions of people around the world tuned in, or made their way to Beijing to watch the worlds greatest athletes compete in a sporting contest that is hailed as a symbol of peace and cooperation.
Thousands of miles away in Tibet, a very different story was playing out. Months after the biggest uprising against Chinese rule in almost fifty years, a military crackdown was in place. Since protests had begun that March hundreds of Tibetans had died, and thousands more had been arrested. Despite the condition that the international press was to have a free reign in the run up to the Olympics, the media blackout was extremely effective. As time has passed since the uprising, some of those Tibetans who witnessed the terrible events have been released from prison, or come out of hiding, and have made their way to exile.
Before 2008, thousands of Tibetans would travel to India each year, crossing the greatest mountain range on earth in a bid to experience freedoms denied to them in their homeland. The journey is a perilous one, and those seeking a path must risk not just the natural dangers of the mountains such as hypothermia, starvation, frost bite, snow blindness and avalanches, but also being shot and imprisoned by the Chinese border control.
However, more stringent border controls and greater restrictions upon internal freedom of movement has seen a dramatic drop in refugees. In 2013 only around 200 people successfully reached the Tibetan Reception Center in Dharamsala, India – less than ten percent of the pre-2008 figure.
There are many reasons for Tibetans to leave their homes and families. Some simply wish to study their own language or religion without political indoctrination or interference, whilst others flee oppression, or wish to tell the world of their years of imprisonment and torture without trial. Many desire only an audience with the Dalai Lama.
In Tibet, freedom of speech is tightly curtailed by the Chinese government: the internet and other forms of communication are closely monitored, images of the Dalai Lama are banned, and those who do speak risk torture and long jail sentences. The Tibetans whose stories make up this project are able to speak with impunity only because they have left Tibet. Their stories help us to build a more complete a picture of life in Tibet today, as well as the events of 2008.