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Kate Saunders is the Communications Director of International Campaign for Tibet.

Tibetans continue to fight the freedom battle

"Whether their act was big or small, no one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back." These lines — from Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada — are about an existential moment in the life of one ordinary German, when he makes the decision to launch a silent campaign against the Nazis at a time when the city is paralysed by fear.

I was reading this novel late one night, the day a Tibetan was shot dead in a new wave of unrest and killings in the eastern Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo. Many Tibetans have reached such an existential moment recently — making the decision to act and risk their lives — and have chosen, in the words of one Tibetan writer, to "step off the cliff". Tibetans like Tarpa, in his early 20s, who disseminated leaflets and wall posters in his local town in Ngaba, Sichuan, calling for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet, and saying that Tibetans should mark the Chinese New Year by mourning for those Tibetans who have set fire to themselves as a form of protest and self-sacrifice since February 2009.

Referring to the life and death struggle of Tibetans to protect their religious culture and language against oppressive Communist Party policies, Tarpa wrote, "For the long term survival of a people, compatriots, we must articulate the joys and sorrows of our people in the pure form of our native language, and keep loyalty to our people at the centre of our humble hearts!" And then he signed his note, giving full details of his identity, including a photograph of himself.

When they came for him on the afternoon of 26 January, a crowd of distressed local people gathered around his house, trying to stop his arrest. Armed troops fired into the crowd and Tarpa's close friend 20-year-old Ogyen was shot dead.

On 8 January, a 42-year-old Tibetan reincarnate lama from Golog poured kerosene over himself and set himself ablaze. He left a tape recording wrapped in monks' robes with his last message. Interspersed with prayers for the long life of the Dalai Lama, Lama Sobha called upon Tibetans to work together to protect Tibet's culture, religion and language "by using all your resources and by involving your body, speech and mind".

On 23 January, the first day of Chinese New Year, Tibetans in Draggo, Sichuan, gathered to protest, anguished by the self-immolations, and finding the repression unbearable. A 49-year-old Tibetan called Yonden was shot dead when police fired into the crowd.

Even to speak of such deaths is to risk one's life in today's Tibet. Tibetans can be imprisoned, tortured or worse for sharing news about their experiences or views about their situation with the outside world through emails, phone conversations, Facebook. The Chinese government has sought to impose a complete information blackout, blocking the internet and cutting off mobile phone signals in some areas, in an attempt to prevent any news reaching the outside world. And yet, within days, an image of Yonden — ruddy-cheeked and with long hair — reached the outside world. Harrowing photographs of the blackened body of Lama Sobha, his hands twisted in death by burning, have reached us too (see, and powerful images of Tibetans gathering around the body of Dawa Dragpo, shot dead in Serthar on 24 January. Fragments of news and glimpses of the situation in Lhasa are also reaching us through microblogs. Images of police carrying fire-extinguishers on their backs, snipers on rooftops, even comments from anonymous individuals apparently serving in the armed police forces in Tibet have circulated on Twitter.

One microblogger wrote: "Worried — just in, online friends: Get out of Lhasa as soon as possible, or at least don't go for a walk! Some friends walking along the street in the evening were stopped by police and forcibly broken up..."

Tibetan writer Woeser, writing from Beijing, microblogged the following: "A middle-aged lama said: 'Of the monks in the monasteries today, there are those that have run away, those that have been arrested and those that have been driven out. We who are left behind are just minding this monastery and awaiting the return of Gyalwa Rinpoche [the Dalai Lama]'."

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