“A Mad, Furious Scene”

Dr. Blake Kerr ’80 describes his efforts to stop Chinese brutality in Tibet and his work with the Dalai Lama.

Blake Kerr is a family doctor, human rights activist and author of Sky Burial: An Eyewitness Account of China’s Brutal Crackdown in Tibet (1993). After gaining notoriety while visiting Tibet for the first time in 1987, he was invited to meet with the exiled Dalai Lama in India. This became the first of five visits through 1999 during which Kerr shared what he observed of Chinese oppression. In December he testified as the final expert witness in Spain’s six-year international trial against Chinese leaders accused of crimes against humanity in Tibet. Shortly after his return Kerr sat down in his home in Water Mill, New York, to talk about his experiences.

How did you become a human rights activist and expert witness in a court of universal jurisdiction?

Karma. Twenty-four years ago, as a tourist in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, witnessing Chinese soldiers and police massacring unarmed Tibetans, I was inspired to begin documenting the underside of China’s military occupation of Tibet. This later became irrefutable evidence of China’s genocide in Tibet.

How did you come to find yourself in Lhasa?

In 1987, after I had graduated from medical school, my friend John Ackerly ’80 [who later served as president of the Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet] and I bought one-way tickets to Hong Kong. We took trains across China and traveled overland across Tibet to climb as high as we could on Mount Everest. After three months of travel we returned to Lhasa, arriving at the beginning of a series of Tibetan protests against Chinese occupation.

Why Mount Everest?

When I arrived as a freshman at Dartmouth I immediately got in with the wrong crowd: rock climbers. John and I became part of Dartmouth’s mountaineering club and we went everywhere to climb. The College even paid us to teach climbing as a PE class. We took the money we made and went mountaineering in Peru. While I was in medical school and John was in law school, I kept trying to convince him we had to go to this magical place and climb Everest. Finally he agreed to do it in a Don Quixote way: “Let’s go and climb it in sneakers.” We did—and made it to 22,000 feet.

What happened in Lhasa?

It was October 1, 1987, Chinese National Day, the equivalent of our Independence Day. Several Buddhist monks carrying the outlawed Tibetan flag began a nonviolent protest in front of the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Tibet, chanting in unison, “China out of Tibet” and “Free Tibet.” As local Tibetans joined the march, the crowd swelled. Dozens of Chinese police arrived, beating innocent bystanders with shovels and rifle butts. The police dragged monks into the local police station. Once behind closed doors the monks were tortured and executed. In revolt and in defense of the monks Tibetans overturned the Chinese’s jeeps and stormed and burned the police station. The Chinese police fired on the crowd.

What did you witness that day?

I saw Chinese police shooting Tibetan men, women and children from the rooftops. I watched in horror as a Chinese soldier shot a 10-year-old boy through the heart. He soon died in his father’s arms while I tried unsuccessfully to save him. I consoled a mother as she cradled her dead 16-year-old son, beaten to death beyond recognition with a shovel, and I watched as other Tibetans were shot and beaten by the Chinese. It was a mad, furious scene. In a short period of time, as a young doctor, I confirmed 12 deaths. I knew to say, “Amchi yin, I am a doctor.” Working without many medicines or anesthesia, I found myself treating severely burnt monks and victims of gunshot wounds and torture. It took three days to clean the blood from my hands.

What happened next?

Over the following days, while Chinese soldiers removed Tibetan victims from hospitals and transferred them to prison to be tortured, I made secret house calls—sneaking out at night, climbing over walls and rooftops, tending to the sick, wounded and dying in Tibetans’ homes and monasteries. Brutal stuff, lots of infections and internal bleeding. That’s when I made the gruesome discovery that would change my life.

What was that?

While I was treating a young man with a bullet wound through his calf, his 19-year-old wife, Kunyang, informed me that when she was six months pregnant with her first child, the Chinese ordered her to the People’s Hospital, where she was given an injection into her abdomen, forcing a premature birth. She told me she heard her baby cry twice: once when her son was born, and the second time when the Chinese doctors gave the newborn a lethal injection in his head. The following day the doctors performed a second operation, to sterilize Kunyang. I soon learned Kunyang’s story was pervasive throughout Tibet. After fleeing Tibet I began medically documenting China’s torture of Tibetan political prisoners and China’s national policy of coerced abortions, sterilization and infanticide in Tibet.

Why were you forced to flee?

John had been arrested for displaying an image of the Tibetan flag, which was banned, on a sticker on his camera bag. While we were walking through the markets, women working the stalls held out their fingers, mimicking firing guns, indicating that we’d be shot by authorities. Soon the police appeared and one put a gun to John’s neck. This led to a two-day interrogation, where we were questioned all day at the police station, then taken back to our hotel at night. They stationed guards outside our door. So we finally decided to go out the window and to the bar where the rowdy Australians hung out. We were able to stay in the country for two weeks, but we were fugitives. When the police started conducting house-to-house searches, we decided it was time to leave.

How did you meet the Dalai Lama?

When John and I arrived in Kathmandu, we were contacted by his representative, who asked us to come to Dharamsala, India, where he had been in exile since 1959. John and I had been the subjects of a significant amount of news coverage, some of which suggested that we had precipitated the riots that occurred. I remember arriving in New Delhi and having to sit for a press conference at a table covered with microphones. I knocked over my glass of water and thought I’d be electrocuted. I was pretty nervous.

What were your impressions of the Dalai Lama?

He immediately struck me as an interesting person and a very nice guy you could joke around with. He asked a lot of questions about his home area, which is kind of the Wild West of Tibet. He told us he could understand the reports that monks had thrown rocks during the riots, because it was a natural reaction. Acting on my Catholic guilt, I confessed that I’d thrown rocks at Chinese police who were shooting kids, and I felt forgiven.

Explain the importance and magnitude of this trial and your involvement.

On January 10, 2006, Spain’s National Court began international proceedings against China’s former President Jiang Zemin, former Prime Minister Li Peng and other Chinese leaders, with charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and “forced disappearance and arbitrary execution” over a 27-year period from 1971 to 1998.

A charge of genocide in an international court is very difficult to prove. After my first experience in Lhasa I spent the following 13 years traveling back to Tibet, India and Nepal, collecting and documenting China’s national and orchestrated human rights violations against Tibetans. I gathered first-person accounts, on-site medical investigations, photography and hidden video and audiotapes. After my testimony the judge accepted all my documentation—approximately 44 pounds of evidence. The next step is seeing if the judge will issue arrest warrants against the Chinese leaders through Interpol.

Are you at all hopeful about the future of Tibet?

What has happened to Tibetans is very similar to what had happened to Native Americans. When you dilute a population and outlaw its culture, when you have a practice of coercing abortions on people as the Chinese have done in Tibet and typically follow that up with sterilization, it’s called genocide. It’s crimes against humanity on a mass scale.

I do have hope for the future, but it’s an uphill struggle. It has to change with the Chinese. They have to see monasteries and the real Tibet—not some Asian Disney World—in order for that change to happen. Tibet is attracting young Chinese who go to Tibet and see that Tibetans are not evil, are not the heathens they’ve been made out to be. I am encouraged by this.

Adapted, with permission of Robbie Vorhaus, from an interview that appears on the website of Vorhaus Communications.


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