(Please Note: All photos have been profssionally downgraded and altered to protect people's indenties. Please see more at the bottom)
People panic, it's human nature after all. An entire city is in the middle of a full on riot. Explosions and gunshots rock the air. Thick plumes of smoke are rising up from all round your rooftop vantage point. Below the scenes of mob violence unravel before you like a bloody movie scene. What's worse, across the road a block of buildings is in flames, there's tear gas in the air and an upturned car is burning up against your hotel wall. No wonder people were were panicking.
Strangely different nationalities acted in different stereotypical fashion. The Dutch remained cool, the Slovaks wept, the Americans panicked, the Brits went silent, the Australians tried to be cool, and the French did their own thing. Generalizations I know, but it's what happened. Meanwhile the real people at hand where the Tibetans, and they were scared because they knew that s new nationality was descending upon the Tibetan capital of Lhasa; the Chinese army.
"Stay put and don't go anywhere," our guide pleaded.
"The hotel's on fire and the staff told us to get out!" shouted back a frantic voice.
The reception area was in tatters. The bay windows were smashed in and chunks of glass were strewn everywhere. It was dark as the power had long since gone out. Smoke was spilling in from the street outside; tables and chairs stacked up around the broken doors. Through the cracks in the furniture we could see masked faces running by, trails of smoke and the odd orange flicker of fire.
We headed back up the stairs as the staff came running down in the opposite direction. We'd given up on getting any precise answers from them a long time ago. But what to do? We didn't know whether the hotel was truly on fire, and even if it was, the streets outside were certainly no safer looking at this stage.
I'd already managed one venture outside. The Tibetan's were fine, and were not interested in harming a tourist. What worried me the most was what we were now hearing. The incredible sound of metal clattering and crunching against tarmac and concrete outside. Tanks.
A few of us ran to the rooftop again, only to be tackled back by local tibetan workers. "Too dangerous, back to your room."
But in such a situation, survival takes hold. I for one wanted to know if the damn hotel was truly on fire or not, not to mention whether the Chinese Army were about to open fire or worse. I pushed back, hard, and released a host of profanity in a torrent of rage. They moved back by force.
There was more clattering now. Plus the unmistakable sound of solid rubber on tarmac; marching troops. Not just marching troops, but hundreds of urban fatigued army types storming down the main road. On traffic poles, junction boxes and any metal object they'd clatter their batons. A chilling sound that was meant to intimidate with the warning of impending violence. It did. Long since before, the rioters had moved on.
Still some locals were trapped. I looked on as an APC trundled up the road and blocked in a group of terrified people. In the distance explosions still rocked the capital. Gunfire rang out followed by a strange metallic whoosh as tear gas was set off below. Much like my time in Kathmandu I recognized the terrible bitter taste as my eyes began to water and sting.
I changed location and looked on as tens of army trucks appeared. Dusk was approaching, the hotel was smoking with the absence of flame and the explosions were becoming more distant. It looked like we were going to be spending the night in havoc.
We moved to the second floor bar area of the hotel. Almost as if by circumstance we were blessed with a giant bay window over a corner. It was like watching a war movie from a giant wide screen. We had a full view of the main road by it's main junction. Army troops continued to move in. A near never ending stream of trucks, tanks, and troop carriers. A hole in the window provided a funnel for street smoke to channel through; the smell reminding and adding to our hightened state.
As evening settled the explosions lessened even more. But our fear was never higher. Outside the Chinese military were taking their own propaganda style photographs. Ones that depicted the military lined up in various strong reassuring poses and stances. My 11pm that night we then had our own visit. An army officer with a chest full of ribbons. He looked at us and said nothing before turning to leave.
Panic, fear, and the unknown. Some people did well with it, others did not. Only in extreme circumstances does this become life threateningly clear. Fast reactions and the necessity to think ahead become paramount. Adrenaline the drug of choice. It was a time that will live in many people's memory's forever. For the many it would mean a life time struggle for independence would continue. For others a realization of further action. For some it wasn't the bond it should have been, but an event. For others yet, a realization in their own abilities.
Note: After speaking with several official and unofficial Tibetan/Chinese organizations I have had these photographs downgraded and altered to protect the identities of those depicted in them. There are plenty of photos and video out there without alterations from the riots. However, taking all view points into consideration, it is my decision not to release any full resolution unaltered images nor video from the riots.