I thought it would help you to hear some first hand stories of people in my life. People I work with (almost) daily. People who have changed my life forever. Beautiful people with amazing souls and inner strength that brought them through horrors most westerners can never even imagine.
I want to introduce you to some of the Tibetan exiles/refugees and former political prisoners in my life.
I will start with the first former prisoner I ever met...a man who now plays a special role in my life. I want to introduce you to Sonam Dorjee...middle, wearing glasses. Look at his smile. And then read his story.
Sonam Dorjee is a soft-spoken, studious looking man in his late thirties. He comes from a poor farming family in a Tibetan village. Speaking to our international group at a non-profit event at L.I.T. (Learning and Ideas for Tibet), he recalls how the Chinese arrived one day to mine natural resources from his region for shipment to China, and how their factories polluted the rivers so badly that wildlife and farm animals began to die.
In 1992, he says, the Chinese demanded the people of his village denounce the Dalai Lama and stop any talk of a free Tibet. Restrictions were placed on how many children Tibetan families could have (Tibetan families in the city are allowed one child, while in rural areas they are allowed two). He was asked to “round up” women with more children for forced sterilization. Some women were to be given forced abortions. This, he says, is one way the Chinese control the Tibetan ethno-religious population.
Sonam refused to comply. He took part in a meeting with other villagers, and eventually they made a mutual decision to protest. They sewed and planted a Tibetan flag on the steps of the main local temple and refused to denounce His Holiness. A crowd gathered below the steps to support them. After fifteen minutes, Chinese police arrested everyone on the steps.
The group was taken to a local police station where they were forced to kneel and beaten with sticks. Sonam was beaten until his nose, mouth, and even eyes bled. Afterwards, they were taken to a detention center near Lhasa where they were again beaten, and imprisoned without trial.
Sonam was taken to a room where he was forced to stand on a table. His thumbs were tied with ropes hanging from the ceiling, and the table was kicked out from under him, where he hung and was beaten til he lost consciousness. He reports that the beatings were so intense that the blows made his body feel like it was on fire, but that after a few minutes everything would go numb and he couldn’t see or feel.
His fellow prisoners were tortured with finger vises until they were out of their senses with pain. All of them were interrogated repeatedly for months. The Chinese wanted them to admit that the Dalai Lama and/or foreign nationals (specifically American or British) had organized the protest, but they refused to reveal who had organized the demonstration.
One of the most difficult parts of being in prison, he says, was being unable to sleep lying down because of numerous wounds on his body. Chinese doctors sometimes took blood from prisoners, which was reportedly sold for food or to bribe government officials for favors.
The Chinese told them they would be allowed to take their case to court, but they knew it was a lie. Sonam explains that no Chinese court judge can rule in favor of Tibetans, or he will be punished also. They decided simply to accept their sentence.
Sonam was sentenced to thirteen years. Others in his group who were more active in preparing the demonstration were sentenced to fifteen. After a few months, he was taken to Drapchi, the largest prison in Tibet, near Lhasa. There were separate sections for men and women. He estimates there were about 300 men and 270 women. All prisoners were given a thick rule manual which they were expected to memorize within three months. Those who could not were punished.
He was forced to labor taking human waste from the toilets to the greenhouse, where vegetables were grown. The Chinese did not permit prisoners to bathe or ever have clean clothing. He also had to raise vegetables, which were given to outside vendors for sale. He was supposed to earn 12,000 yuan monthly selling these vegetables, with sales being recorded on receipts from the vendors, but no matter what the actual sales were, the vendors always reported they fell short of their quota. For failing to make the required sales totals, workers were put in solitary confinement.
He describes solitary confinement as being too small to lie down or even stretch. While there, he was given only one glass of water and a tiny bit of bread each day. His feet were shackled with a ball and chain weighing 3kg.. After 10 days, he says, he went delirious with hunger and lost consciousness.
When he woke, he decided to attempt suicide to escape his torture. He says he ate pieces of metal and hit his head against the wall repeatedly, but did not die. Then, he says, he thought about how other political prisoners had survived torture for much longer, and he decided to survive the rest of his sentence. He was held in solitary for two months, even though Chinese law states the maximum solitary sentence is twenty days.
Other prison experiences he describes include being forced to stand outdoors in burning summer sun or freezing ice with no shoes for long hours and sleeping on bare ground with no covers. At the end of every year, each prisoner was forced to write a letter stating that what he had done against the Chinese government was wrong.
In 1998 the Chinese flag was put on the wall and prisoners forced to sing Chinese National Anthem. Seven Tibetans were killed for refusing, another committed suicide. Others protested, and their sentences were increased. A monk near him was shot, and he helped some other Tibetans use their clothes to tie his wound. Another prisoner organized a hunger strike, for which everyone was interrogated and tortured. Sonam says the interrogation room was ankle deep in blood by the time it was his turn to be questioned. After this, surveillance cameras and microphones were installed in the prison room, plus two additional guards who spoke both Tibetan and Chinese.
In spring 2005, all political prisoners were taken to a special new prison. There was one guard for each prisoner. These guards were supposed to get prisoners to confess and renounce Tibet. Guards who were successful received rewards.
In late June 2005, Sonam was released and taken to a local police station, where he was told to write a letter promising never to oppose or protest against China again, but he refused. He says his time in prison made him stronger and more determined for a free Tibet.
He returned to his village, but his home and family had moved. When he finally found them, they didn’t recognize each other at first. His sister, who was only 7 when he was arrested, was now a woman. He says he felt like it was not his home or his family, that everything had changed.
For awhile he was glad to be back and tend yak and cattle on the mountains. But after three months, he grew unhappy and decided to look for work. He had to apply for special permission from the local police to leave the village and go to Lhasa, where he found work in a shop for two months. Then, he says, Chinese officials forced the shopkeeper to fire him. Each time he found a new job, he was forced out by the Chinese, so he went back to his village.
He became ill but refused treatment for a long time. Finally he was allowed to go to a hospital in Lhasa, and it was then that he decided to escape to India. He didn’t tell his family, but sought help from a network of other former political prisoners. He traveled from Lhasa to the border of Nepal in a truck, where the border guard was paid 5500 yuan.
He had to cross a river in the dark, and fell down a cliff, hurting his head. He made it to a Nepali village, where he says everyone stared at him strangely. When he found a mirror, he realized his face was almost completely covered in blood. He was taken to a refugee center in Katmandu, where he was given food and medical help for eight days before being sent to Delhi, then on to Dharamsala.
He arrived in Dharamsala in 2007. Along with 150 other refugees, he got to meet and tell his story to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who told him he should let the western world know exactly what the Chinese had done to him and why. He stayed at the refugee center for one year, where he was interviewed by many international news agencies. Later he went to a Tibetan school, then joined Gu Chu Sum Tibetan Political Prisoner Organization. With other members, he helped create a non-profit school, L.I.T. (Learning and Ideas for Tibet) where Tibetans can study English and other subjects for free.
Sonam continues trying to create a new life and now teaches Tibetan language to people from other cultures on request. He tells his story to international guests every few weeks through a translator. He is also active in cooking for L.I.T. events.
When questioned by the international audience, Sonam softly says that although the best years of his life were spent in prison, he feels it was more than worth it, and that now all he wants is to inform the world about what is really going on.