Far from Tibet, a neighborhood is silent

( AP )- Her phone calls home no longer go through, and there's been no word for days from her family in their locked-down Tibetan area. But you can't tell by her smile.

Every day, Zuoni greets backpackers at her restaurant in the Tibetan quarter of this Chinese city known as the most popular gateway to Tibet. Even in the past week, as dozens of armed police took up posts in the neighborhood to prevent protests, Tibetans here tried to go about their normal lives.

Shoppers browse souvenir shops for Tibetan paintings and prayer wheels as police cars, blinking, slowly cruise by.

When armed guards replaced regular security guards at apartment complexes, and police cars sealed off the two main streets at the center of the Tibetan community, Zuoni continued to serve tourists dumplings and butter tea.

"Of course I have to smile," she said over the weekend, looking frustrated. "There are foreigners coming in, customers. If I show them the pain in my heart, they'll feel bad too."

Most Tibetans here, wary of the police presence, would not talk to reporters or were afraid to give their names. "I don't dare," one man said, turning away.

Chengdu sits at the frontier between China's Han Chinese majority and the Tibetan highlands. To the west, mountains rise toward the Tibetan plateau. Every day, buses deliver monks and others to the city, whose 10 million residents number more than all the Tibetans in China. The Han Chinese have gone on with life as usual since the Tibetan protests began, and some say the police presence makes them feel safer.

The Tibetan neighborhood's souvenir stores, hiking stores and teashops are centered around the Tibet government's local office; all are tucked into the same concrete high-rises that sprawl across the city of Chengdu .

Looking for a better life, Zuoni left her parents and siblings years ago in Aba , a Tibetan trading town 280 miles northwest of Chengdu . Aba has been a flashpoint in the anti-Chinese, pro-independence demonstrations by Tibetans. Police fired on monks and Tibetans during a demonstration there March 16. The government says four people were wounded, but Tibetan activist groups say at least eight people died.

Now, like many Tibetans with relatives in protest areas, Zuoni waits anxiously for news and keeps her restaurant open.

"I have to do business," she said. "We all do. But we all feel terrible."

The Chinese government poured thousands of troops into Lhasa , the Tibetan capital, and other areas to stop the demonstrations earlir this month.

In Chengdu's Tibetan neighborhood, hundreds of armed police arrived a week ago, and "the first day, there was a violent atmosphere in the air," said Ronen Medzini , an Israeli student living in the neighborhood.

But the police were restrained and sometimes even friendly, he said - keeping a delicate balance because of the presence of tourists and the neighborhood's few resident foreigners.

A few days later, signs were posted at the local university for Tibetans and other minorities warning students of a 9 p.m. curfew. And on Friday, the U.S. consulate in Chengdu advised Americans to stay away from the Tibetan neighborhood as an "area of concern."

Many in the neighborhood are reluctant to talk to reporters. "How do I know you won't go out and tell the police what I tell you?" a young Tibetan man asked. "Do you believe what the Chinese government is reporting about Lhasa ?"

A monk who arrived from Lhasa just before the uprising began in mid-March agreed to talk while walking along the street after dark. "Of course we have the same point of view as the monks in Lhasa - freedom," said the young monk. "But there's nothing we can do. We're all really nervous."

Two older monks with him nodded at him to be quiet, and they moved on, past teahouses and shops selling CDs of Tibetan music.

Other Tibetans said official Chinese news broadcasts were only depicting Tibetans as lawbreakers. Chinese media gives the number of "innocent" killed, without saying how many might have died in the Chinese crackdown that followed.

Ju Xi, a Tibetan student, struggled to express his anger without getting into trouble.

"How can I answer these questions?" he said, frustrated, when asked about the Chinese government's response. He consulted with friends in the Tibetan language, then spoke carefully.

"I think ... the government is being a little too violent," he said. "I think some parts of this situation are being hidden, too."

The Tibetan teachers at the university, he said, have told Tibetan students not to demonstrate.

"It's difficult," he burst out in English at one point, switching from Chinese.

"We could be kicked out," he said. "If we protest, they could kill us.

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