Tibet is now a province of The People’s Republic of China and the victim of the full-scale reconfiguration of its territory, history and culture by the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama, who was at one time the sovereign of that country, is still the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist people, although he has had to maintain that position since 1959 from well outside the country of Tibet itself. Although he insists that he is a simple monk and nothing else, he is a significantly famous thorn in the side of Chinese efforts to marginalize the Tibetan people. On October 17, he received the Congressional Gold Medal, over the outraged objections of the Chinese government.
A Reuters article in the November 1 issue of the New York Times quoted China’s Foreign Ministry as stating that “a wave of high-level visits by the Dalai Lama to western countries will have no effect on the status of Chinese-ruled Tibet, and will only serve to harm relations with Beijing.”
Since 1950, when the Chinese invaded sovereign Tibet, the circumstances of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have been chronicled in print and film many times over, as have the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, priceless art, and the livelihoods of many more thousands who have had to flee that country.
One aspect of the situation that has been less chronicled is the migration of thousands of Tibetan children every year, very often without their parents, over the Himalayan Mountains to Nepal and India. Usually they go in groups, led by mercenary Tibetan guides who are paid for their efforts by the families of these children, who wish better lives for them than can be found in Tibet. Many thousands of children have reached the Dalai Lama's Tibetan capital-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. Some have not. The routes are dangerous and on occasion deadly, simply by virtue of the weather and terrain. The children can attempt escape by less arduous routes as well, although these routes are frequented by Chinese police and army, Nepalese bandits, and other brigands who may attack, imprison, or rob the children.
New York photographer Nancy Jo Johnson helped three young Tibetans leave the country in 1996. Her harrowing effort was chronicled the following year in a LIFE magazine article, accompanied by her photographs. She first encountered Tibetan refugees in the early 1980s while living in Katmandu, Nepal, and has been involved in the Tibetan issue ever since. She is a member of the board of directors of the United States Tibet Committee.
Johnson has been working to raise awareness about Tibetans through her photography for over 20 years. An exhibit of her work, "Tibet: Survival of the Spirit," held at the Canon Rotunda of the U.S. House of Representatives, was sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., and former Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., co-chairman and honorary co-chairman, respectively, of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. It commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's March 1959 flight to exile in India.