Freedom Fighters

There are a great many Tibetan refugees living in Dharamsala today, quite a few of whom are actually ex-political prisoners from China. Several nonprofits support these individuals as they acclimate to life in India, offering everything from job training to language courses. We attended an English class for ex-political prisoners with Laura, and the attendees welcomed us into their group with smiles, songs, jokes, stories of yak herding, a rousing game of Pictionary, and a seemingly endless kettle of delicious chai. Most had served between five and 15 years in Chinese prisons. They suffered torture and unthinkable abuses before being released and escaping through the Himalayas to India. Typically, the crimes that landed them in Chinese custody consisted of exercising what in the U.S. would fall under the umbrella of “freedom of speech and expression” but which in China counts as treason. We cannot post the names or pictures of the ex-political prisoners we spent time with because most still have families living back in Tibet who are in danger from the Chinese government. We can share one of their stories with you, though, and from all that we have heard, this one is quite representative among the Tibetan ex-political prisoners in Dharamsala.

We heard this account of arrest and imprisonment from the lips of an ex-political prisoner who bravely spoke about his experiences at a cafe while we were in town. Back in the mid-1990’s, this Tibetan man and two of his friends got together and decided to stand in the street in Chinese-controlled Tibet and shout “Free Tibet!” They said this a few times and then shouted “Long Live Dalai Lama!” Before these actions, they had already considered torture and death and were willing to face any consequences. The Chinese authorities arrested the three men within five minutes’ time. None of them had any sort of trial–it was guilty as charged from the moment they were in Chinese custody. Life in prison was brutal. Every week each prisoner was told to fill out a form on which there was an option to indicate that he felt regret for his actions, wished to renounce his previous actions, and would be loyal to the Chinese government from that point forward. The man sharing this story said that neither he nor any of his fellow inmates ever checked that box, even though they knew that this choice would lead to more beatings and further torture.

To illustrate life in Chinese prison, he gave an example of a typical torture method used on Tibetan prisoners. Guards stood the prisoners in a freezing cold cell, forcing them to strip down or to wear thin rags. The guards would then pour water into the cell until the entire floor was covered and the water level rose to the prisoners’ ankles. The water quickly turned to ice, and the prisoners would have to stand there, bare feet encased in ice for hours on end. Most would eventually pass out and fall over, at which point they would be severely beaten. The man who talked to us said he has watched a number of his friends and fellow prisoners be beaten so severely that they received brain trauma and died right there in the prison cell next to him. The main goal of these torture sessions was to extricate the names of other supporters of the Tibetan cause. They refused to give up any names for many reasons, not the least of which was that they were not acting as agents of anyone else during their protest on the street–they were acting for themselves–and also, the request for names could never be satisfied, anyway. The harsh censorship policies of the Chinese regime make it almost impossible for Tibetans to organize or to teach anything related to their own beliefs and culture.

This ex-political prisoner went on to share something that really surprised us: almost every act of protest or defiance launched in Tibet is an independent action, decided upon in the moment by the individuals themselves because they can’t stand the oppression any longer. When asked if, with the advantage of hindsight, he had any regrets about his protest, he replied quickly and decisively that he had none. In fact, he continues to work toward a free Tibet from Dharamsala and plans to do so until the Chinese relent.

Like the monks we met before them, this man and the other ex-political prisoners with whom we spoke are an ongoing inspiration to us. They told us, when we asked, that the best way we can help them is to never forget their struggle and to share what we’ve learned about Tibet with others. We won’t forget the kindness and laughter we shared over silly drawings of cats, dogs, and yaks during our game of Pictionary. We won’t forget seeing the pride and sorrow in their faces as they sang the Tibetan National Anthem for us. We won’t forget the stories of their bravery in standing up to oppression. We won’t forget them. We won’t forget Tibet. And we’re cooking up some ideas about how we can do more to help with their cause, so stay tuned.

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librarian, writer/editor, floundering guitarist, breakfast addict

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