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A Tibetan Nun in Gutsa Prison

by Namzol Tendzin for Turning Wheel Magazine

Namzol Tendzin, age 18, is a nun from Tsamkhung Nunnery in Lhasa, who was arrested imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for participating in pro-independence peace marches, and for celebrating the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize. Though she was finally released without a prison sentence after months’ torture and interrogations, it was with such sever restrictions on her mobility and freedom of religion that she decided to escape into exile. She is now living in India. Following is her own account of her ordeal.

When I was 15, I enrolled in Lhasa Ani Tsamkhung nunnery. When I joined, there were 116 nuns. Seventeen of us have since been expelled for participating in pro-independence peace marches and for celebrating the conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize on His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Of these, two were initially imprisoned: myself and Jampa Dolkar. Kunsang la was arrested and imprisoned for protesting our arrest. She is still in prison.

Before our arrest, and in the wake of repeated pro-independence demonstrations, a “work team” consisting of four men and to women came and stayed on in our nunnery for about four months.Their mission was “political education” and, of course, investigation. While they stayed on, there was no possibility of getting on with the normal religious functions of the nunnery.

The daily schedule, under their program, consisted of meetings at which Chinese publications, magazines and newspapers were read out loud and discussed. Those among us who had taken part in “separatist” activities were condemned and threatened with expulsion. They declared that “it is one or two separatists among you who bring a bad name to the nunnery and threaten to bring about its ruination.” The Dalai Lama was roundly condemned at each session, and the prospect of an independent Tibet was laughed off as wishful thinking and as an undesirable return to an old feudalistic path which, by the grace of the Communist Party, Tibet was, in their view, rid of.

About that time (January 1990), Losar (Tibetan New Year) was approaching, and Jampa Dolkar and I asked for permission to go home and celebrate it. We were told that we were first required to attend a meeting on the following day. But on that day we found not a meeting about to start, but six men who hustled us into a jeep and drove us to Gutsa Prison.

Kunsang la from our nunnery protested our arrest. She had written her protest on a piece of paper and thrown it into a section of the nunnery where the Work Team members lived. Though the letter was written anonymously, her handwriting gave her away, and so she too was arrested, and to this day remains in Gutsa Prison.

We reached Gutsa Prison around 3 pm and our interrogation began in earnest. I was asked, “What reason did you have for performing a lhasang (fire ritual) and throwing tsampa (roasted barley flour) into the air?” I replied that we did so in celebration of the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize, which is a sure sign that Tibet will be free soon. This angered the interrogators beyond words. I was showered with blows, even on the delicate parts of my body. When I still gave the same answer to the repetitions of the questions, they started using sticks and electric batons. Many times I fell unconscious, but each time they revived me and repeated the tortures. I was also asked why I took part in protest rallies when already there was unrestricted freedom in the land. they told me I was deceived by the Dalai Lama, that he left Tibet of his own free will, and was free to come back any time he desired. I was also told that I was fortunate to be born in a liberated Tibet, and that I did not know how happy I was because I did not know the past.

Interrogation on the first day went until 6 pm. Thereafter, it was conducted for about two hours every three days. At each session about three or four policemen in civilian dress would ask questions and inflict torture. The interrogation was mainly directed at finding out names of others who participated in the rallies and in the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize.

An especially painful torture consisted of wiring one finger on each of my hands, while I was seated on a chair, and connecting them to an electric installation. As the handle on the installation was turned a full circle, I felt every single part of my body being seized by a powerful electric current. The intensity of the shock would fling me across the room, invariably rendering me unconscious. The interrogators would, however, try to revive me by slapping me and throwing water on me. Often the wires would snap, and then they had to reconnect them. People subjected to this method of torture most often had to be taken directly to the hospital. This instrument of torture, I learned later, had been newly installed. There were about 500 prisoners it Gutsa, all females but for a few children, and almost all undergoing varying sentences for politically offending the Chinese. About 40 of them were nuns.

While we awaited sentencing, we were kept in solitary confinement. There were also 18 children in the prison, no older than ten, who had been put there for committing petty offenses. They were given some education of the kind available in village schools, but there were more beatings than teachings. Many of the children were being educated so that when they came out they would be good citizens. There were a few Chinese prisoners too, but none of them remained there for long. They were, of course, not political prisoners. On one pretext or another, a friend or relative would come to fetch them.

After about three months at Gutsa Prison, some officials from the criminal court in Lhasa came calling out my name. They asked me questions, and I was expected to answer as tutored by my interrogators, who also remained present throughout. I did not conform to the line and was again tortured. These Lhasa officials determined whether the stage for imposing the sentence had been reached. I was not sentenced but was temporarily released for four days, then rearrested. i remained in solitary confinement and was subject to torture for a further period of one and a half months, after which I was finally released, without ever having been sentenced.

Life in prison was harsh. Besides the solitary confinement and the interrogatory torture, there was barely enough to eat. For breakfast we were given a mouthful of steamed bread and a mug of black tea. Lunch consisted of a couple of leaves of green vegetable boiled in plain water. Dinner was the same as breakfast. Sometimes there was no lunch. For bedding we were given a thin dirty cotton quilt to use on the concrete floor, whether for blanket or mattress.

On my release, I was handed over to the Lhasa Police, who in turn handed me over to the local authorities. I was allowed to return to my family with these conditions: I was prohibited from practicing religion by myself or with anyone else; I could not enter any nunnery for the rest of my life; I could not leave the village without obtaining prior permission and a pass from the authorities; and I could not talk with any fellow villagers. This last condition was imposed to prevent me from talking about the situation in prison.

The effect of these conditions was to alienate me from my own people even while I lived among them. Because my basic human rights were so violated, and because I was made a social outcast, I felt I had no alternative but to escape into exile, and I made up my mind to do so.

Accordingly, I asked permission to go to Lhasa on the pretext that I needed medical treatment. I was allowed to go, and while in Lhasa I went to my nunnery, incognito, for a last glimpse of it. I told two of the nuns of my determination to escape into exile, and they said they wanted to come with me. Everyone in the nunnery was in constant fear of being arrested.

We left Lhasa at dusk dressed in men’s clothing, posing as traders. We paid a truck driver 250 Chinese rupees for each of us. At the border town of Purang, we were lucky to meet 13 other Tibetans, including two nuns from Kham, who were also escaping into exile. Here we got a Nepalese guide whom we paid 1,200 Nepalese rupees per person. To avoid detection by the border patrols, we crossed into Nepal in the middle of the night. After walking for 25 days, we came to a rod, and spent the last of our money to take a bus to the nearest Nepalese town. We reached India in November 1990.

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