By Al Santoli and Mahlet Getachew
Washington, D.C. April 2003
Ms. Ngawang Sangdrol, a petite soft-spoken woman, spent almost half of her 26 years in harsh Chinese-controlled prisons in Tibet because of her courageous activism for the freedom of her homeland. AFPC Asia-Pacific Initiative Director Al Santoli and API Programs Coordinator Mahlet Getachew interviewed Ms. Sangdrol in Washington, D.C. in April 2003.
Ms. Sangdrol, who suffers from migraine headaches due to repeated beatings by Chinese police and prison guards, was serving a 21-year sentence – continually extended – for her persistent non-violent defiance against Chinese efforts to force her acceptance of their rule and denounce the Dalai Lama. First arrested in 1990 as a young 13-year-old Buddhist nun, she became known as one of Tibet’s longest serving female political prisoners. She was among 14 nuns who gained international recognition for secretly composing and recording songs expressing courage and hope, which they had smuggled out of the notorious Drapchi prison.
We first met Ms. Sangdrol at an International Campaign for Tibet reception in downtown Washington. At one point she was noticeably overwhelmed by the room full of well-dressed people and a long table overflowing with Tibetan and American cuisine. It was a mirage-like atmosphere unimaginable to a former political prisoner whose only possession had once been a hand woven rosary that she prayed with in the frozen darkness of her tiny solitary prison cell.
Ms. Ngawang Sangdrol:
I was first arrested on August 21, 1990 when I was 13, in a group with some sister nuns at a festival at Norbu Lingka, the former summer palace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Lhasa.
The Chinese had occupied Tibet since 1959, so you were part of the third generation born under Chinese rule. It is fascinating that even after almost a half-century of the Chinese trying to eliminate Tibetan culture that the spirit of nationalism is still strong and Tibetan people still respect the Dalai Lama. What was the attitude of people in the area of Lhasa where you were born?
The Tibetan people in my home neighborhood all have the same attitude, love for our country and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was born in a small neighborhood in Lhasa. The city is now of mixed ethnicity, but mostly Chinese, who are moving in from outside of Tibet. They speak Chinese, not Tibetan. With the new train link to central China, there will be even more ethnic Chinese moving into Tibet.
I entered the nunnery when I was 12. My family is very religious, but I also had the desire to join the nunnery. The nuns have separate facilities from the male monks. Also, my parents had suffered under Chinese rule, and they told their experiences to me. There is no person in Tibet who doesn’t understand what is going on under Chinese rule. Everyone has a burning desire to speak out for freedom.
I was arrested in a group of thirteen nuns from the Garu Nunnery for chanting for freedom during a Tibetan festival at Norbu Lingka. We knew that because there was a large crowd of people, we would get a lot of attention for what we were chanting. We also knew there were a lot of Chinese police forces in the crowd. So we walked into the middle of the crowd before we began shouting, “Free Tibet! Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Almost immediately, Chinese police in uniform and in plain clothes dragged us away. We 13 nuns were forced into a truck.
We were taken to Gutsa detention center outside of Lhasa, far away from the city. We were beaten severely by the police on the way to the prison. And they continued to beat us after we arrived at the prison, from morning until night. The prison had different types of prisoners. Some were common criminals and others, like us, were political prisoners. There were a mix of ethnic Chinese and Tibetans; men and women were kept in separate areas.
Gutsa is a temporary prison, where people are detained until Chinese officials give sentences. Then, they are taken to Drapchi prison in the Lhasa area. I was in a cell with three other nuns. I was kept there for nine months. The torture by prison officials began immediately and did not let up.
When we arrived at the prison we were subjected to many hours of violent interrogation. The officials called us “splittists” and “counter-revolutionaries.” We were subjected to severe beatings and forced to do prison labor. The interrogators liked to beat us with iron pipes and sometimes with electric cattle prods. They would tie us up and take turns beating us. They also attached live electric wires to our tongues. They even tied us up in a very painful “airplane” position, where our hands were tied back and hung from the ceiling. It felt like my shoulders were being pulled out of their sockets.
I was only 13 and very small compared to those men. They threw me around like a toy, back and forth across the room. They didn’t care how young we were or whether we were female. They tortured children the same way they tortured adults. They also tried to scare us by showing us pictures of a very scary dark place. They said, “If you resist, we will put you in this place.”
Once, when they were torturing me with electric shocks to my neck, I instinctively ripped the wire off and threw it to the ground. A Chinese guard pointed a gun to my head and said, “Now you are going to die.” They didn’t care that I was a small child. The men doing the torture were usually Tibetans who worked for the Chinese. But the man who put the gun to my head was definitely Chinese. He was very angry and wanted to shoot me.
When they would begin torture sessions, I would try to stand still, hold my ground and be strong. But when they hit me on the head with iron water pipes, I couldn’t help falling down.
The guards would try to find out who were the leaders among the prisoners. They would constantly try to make us accuse each other or confess that what we did on behalf of Tibet was wrong. But we would all band together to resist them. We all told them, “It is me who is the leader.” And, of course, they would beat us even harder for that defiance.
Under those harsh prison conditions, as a very young nun trapped in a horrible environment where every day would bring more suffering, how did you not lose your faith or develop hatred for those who were persecuting you?
My parents were very spiritual. I was brought up from a young age learning about religion and how to pray. They also told me some things about the political situation our country was under. For that reason, I never lost my faith or became overwhelmed by hatred or fear. I knew the Buddhist teachings emphasize always doing good for others. I never stopped praying. What I had learned from my parents kept me going. Even though I was very young, I was strengthened by my beliefs in my country and my faith. That is what kept me focused beyond the daily suffering that I was subjected to.
Did you have any contact with your family while you were in the prison? How did they know what had happened to you?
During the first three days I was alone in the cell. I had no blankets and it was very cold at night. My family knew right away that I was arrested because there were many witnesses to the incident. Neighbors told my parents what had happened. My parents tried to visit, but the Chinese officials at the jail would not permit that. They finally were allowed to make contact with me, but it was very infrequent. Part of the reason that the officials did not want people to witness us was because we were physically beaten so badly.
Ordinarily we did not have soap or towels to wash with, but when higher-level Chinese officials would visit the prison (bringing media with them for propaganda purposes), we had to put on a show to give the appearance that we were being treated humanely. The guards collected money from us, our own personal money, to buy soap and towels and blankets for us to display in our cells, which were set up very nice for such occasions.
During the visits, the officials would take a lot of photos of us to show the outside world that we had good living conditions. But when the delegations departed, the guards would take all of those items away. They would only take them out for us when official delegations were about to arrive. We would receive the soap and the towels and put on a show once again.
After nine months, when you were released from the jail, were you able to return to the nunnery?
I was not permitted to return to the nunnery. So I went back to my parents’ home, similar to being under house arrest. My father and brother were arrested for political reasons and my mother had passed away while I was in jail. At home, I was always watched by police and could not contact friends. But after around one year, I felt compelled to protest again. So I arranged with some others to protest in the Barkhor area of Lhasa. As soon as we began calling for Tibet’s freedom, the police took me away once again. This time I spent more than 11 years in Drapchi prison.
Please explain how you and the nuns in your prison cell recorded the songs in Drapchi Prison that became known around the world as symbolizing the Tibetan people’s struggle for freedom.
In 1992, not long after I was arrested again and taken to Drapchi prison, twelve of us nuns were held in a small cell with very little sunlight. There were 14 of us who volunteered to sing into a tape recorder that had been smuggled into the prison by a fellow prisoner. In Drapchi, male prisoners who had skills were taken outside of the prison during the day to perform labor for the Chinese. The prison was divided into male and female sections. However, one of the male prisoners was able to provide the tape recorder for us.
When we recorded the songs, secretly at night, it was not our intention to spread our message to the world outside of Tibet. I did not know much about the world because I was still young. But we wanted our awful situation and our love for our country to be known to the Tibetan people. For some of the songs, we made up the words and the music. But for the other songs, although we made up the words to tell our story, the music was taken from what we had heard in Chinese movies.
How did the “singing nuns” learn that people in the outside world were listening to your tapes?
We had no idea that the songs would be sent outside of our country. But the prison guards began asking the prisoners who had recorded the songs. However, they did not tell us about the impact of the music, because they did not want to give us hope or boost our morale. Through the monthly visits we received from our families, we began to learn that our songs had become very well known outside of the prison.
I wrote some of the songs and other prisoners wrote other songs. Eventually the officials found out that it was my friends and I who were singing on the tapes. As a result, my prison sentence was extended by six additional years. Other nuns were punished in a similar manner. We were not beaten. I suspect that this was because our songs described the beatings and torture we received in the prison. And the guards probably became reluctant to physically torture us at that time.
When the other nuns and I were taken to the court to receive our extended sentences, there were police with guns on each side of us. Ordinarily, they would not have been so careful to make it appear that we were not being abused. But because of our songs, they did not know what to do with us and feared that society and people outside of Tibet knew of our situation.
We understand that you and other nuns continued to show resistance to the communist officials’ efforts to break your spirit of patriotism for Tibet and loyalty to the Dalai Lama. During the 1993 to 1996 time frame, international human rights organizations reported that some of the nuns in Drapchi went on a hunger strike.
My cellmates went on a hunger strike out of solidarity with a slightly older nun and me. We were both put in solitary confinement for our protest actions – we were punished for protesting when an official Chinese delegation visited the prison to inspect and make false propaganda about our living conditions. While the other nun was slightly older than me, she was similar to me because we are both physically very small. We protested while the Chinese officials inspected us by shouting, “Freedom for Tibet!” I told them, “We are not permitted to show respect to our own religious leaders. Why should we show respect to Chinese officials?”
This was during winter, which is very cold at the high altitude in Tibet. I was put in a dark solitary cell wearing only a shirt… no sweater or coat. And part of my punishment, to make an example of me, was that each day I was forced to stand outside in the courtyard in the snow. I was forced to stand up straight in the freezing cold. If I slumped a little bit, the guards would beat me. I responded to their abuse by protesting more vocally for freedom. The other nuns witnessed this and worried about my health. They chose to go on a hunger strike in solidarity with me. And they asked the prison guards to release me to their care. For that series of events the Chinese added eight more years to my prison sentence and kept me in solitary confinement.
The solitary cell was very small, with only enough room for a bed and an exposed, open ceiling for the guards to keep watch. If I stood up, I only had the length of my feet between the bed and the wall. It was like being in a box.
During the day it was dark, and at night the guards turned on a light and would constantly check on me… depriving me of sleep was another way they tried to mentally and physically break me. Each day they only fed me a steamed flour bun and a little bit of mostly water vegetable soup. I would receive the plain bun in the morning… except for the vegetable soup that was all. Occasionally, they would give me a little bit of tea.
They did not permit me to take a blanket into solitary confinement, so I was always very cold. In my cell, there was only a thin mattress that I would wrap around myself. I could not sleep because it was so cold, and my health continued to deteriorate. It was so cold at night that the water in the tap in my cell would turn into ice.
What did you do to survive mentally during this harsh period of confinement?
I tried to constantly say my prayers. I concentrated so much on the prayers and was so focused on the need to finish numerous repetitions of long prayers that I had memorized, it seemed there was not enough time in the day to finish them all. I just kept my mind concentrated on my Buddhist prayers. Sometimes I was so focused on my silent chanting that I would forget it was mealtime and would skip eating whatever they would slide into my cell.
I also hand wove mala [rosary] beads out of threads that I unwound from my shirt. To hide what I was doing from the guards, I unraveled thread only from the bottom of my shirt while I quietly recited my prayers. [Ngawang reached into her purse and handed us the delicate rosary made from the red threads of her prison garb.]
I would try to say 1,000 prayers before lunchtime. I was very anxious to carefully complete my prayer cycle, because if the guards caught me praying I would be in trouble. They could take the mala away and punish me, probably by not giving me a meal.
After six months in the solitary cell, I was sent back to the regular prison. Although I had the company of other nuns, our conditions were very difficult. In that cell there were spiders and huge rats, and all sorts of other bugs everywhere. At night, the rats would crawl over us while we tried to sleep. Sometimes they would bite us. We were very afraid of being bitten by them.
What happened in 1998 when the Chinese guards at Drapchi opened fire on the prisoners?
On May 1, 1998, on a Chinese holiday, the guards were forcing many prisoners into the courtyard. They were conducting a ceremony where, for the first time, they raised the Chinese flag inside the compound. They wanted everyone present at the ceremony to show respect to their flag. The other nuns in my cell stayed inside and watched events unfold in the courtyard below through our cell window. We could see clearly.
At the ceremony, there were both criminal prisoners and dissidents. While the Chinese were raising the flag, two of the criminal prisoners started shouting, “Freedom for Tibet!” Then the Chinese started shooting. We could see prisoners who were hit by bullets, lying on the ground bleeding and shaking.
Immediately, Chinese guards rushed into our building and grabbed us. They pushed us down into the courtyard. We watched prisoners being beaten and falling down. Some people were shouting, “They are killing our prisoners.”
A few days later, the Chinese ordered prisoners to attend another ceremony. We felt it was our responsibility to do something patriotic for Tibet. In the courtyard there were no political prisoners permitted, for fear more resistance would occur. Again, we watched from our window.
The ordinary prisoners who were being marched by the guards started chanting freedom slogans. We joined in from our cell window. Even though we had seen what had happened in the previous ceremony, we were determined to speak out for our country. We watched the Chinese begin to beat up on the prisoners. We were shouting, “Don’t put Chinese flags on Tibetan land!”
The Chinese officials sent police guards to bring us down to the courtyard. They burst into our cell and began beating us. The guards were so enraged and frantic to drag us down, they were breaking windows as they pushed and beat us.
In the courtyard, a few of us were thrown into the middle of the screaming crowd. The police were beating us unmercifully with electric prods and their metal belt buckles. There was blood everywhere, all over the ground.
After they dragged the prisoners out of the courtyard, they forced some of the prisoners to wash the blood off the ground. They filmed videos of the broken windows and the destruction, blaming it on the prisoners. And they made the prisoners pay for the windows that the police had broke.
Shortly after the incident occurred, international human rights agencies reported that five nuns in Drapchi died in their cells. The Chinese communists claimed their deaths were a result of suicide. What do you know of this incident?
I did not see what happened to the nuns who died following the police riot, because they were in another cell bloc. But I heard that they had been beaten so badly in torture sessions following the flag-raising incident, that their faces were extremely bloated. They were swollen so badly that people could not identify who they were; they looked so horrible.
At night the Chinese police would take those nuns, one by one, to a chamber to interrogate them. Then they would drag them back to their cell unconscious from the torture. The Chinese did not do that during the daylight because they knew the other prisoners would protest. Although their cellmates were afraid to say very much, I did learn that the 5 nuns died because they were beaten so badly.
At that same time, I was also in very bad physical condition because of the beating I had received in the courtyard. They were beating me savagely on the head. An elderly nun, who threw herself on top of my body to absorb some of the blows, saved my life. But I don’t recall what happened after she threw herself on top of me, because I became unconscious. The next thing I knew I was back inside of my cell being cared for by the other nuns. My head was very swollen. I couldn’t sleep for weeks because I was in so much pain.
From that time, I’ve had migraine headaches continuously. The Chinese did not give us any medical attention. We had to care for ourselves. I was given some Tibetan medicine by the nuns, who applied it to my head. That was all.
My health was deteriorating. There were many times when I couldn’t sleep. I had to sit or stand up because the pain was so severe. For two years, I was in pain until morning, unable to sleep for many, many nights.
The pain was so bad that some nights the Chinese guards would give me injections to put me to sleep. But they gave no medicine to heal the injuries that caused the pain. By the year 2000, [with Ngawang’s case known to the outside world and appeals being made to Beijing by the international community for her release] the pain remained very severe, but the Chinese would not admit the pain was caused by their beatings. They claimed I had the problem before I was arrested.
Even during that period, between 1998 and 2000, I continued to protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The guards would pull me into offices where they forced me to stand still while they hit and kicked me. But they did not go berserk and come close to killing me as they had previously done.
When I protested against Chinese rule, I would do so in a normal voice. Even when they angered me by trying to force me to denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I responded defiantly but in a normal voice. I remember an occasion when Chinese officials asked how I felt about the Panchen Lama [who was controlled by Beijing as a alternative to the Dalai Lama]. They wanted me to choose loyalty to the Panchen Lama. But I obviously said, “I am loyal to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” As you can imagine, I was punished for that. My prison sentence kept being extended. In 1998, the Chinese extended my prison sentence again, for six more years.
Were you surprised when the Chinese authorities released you from Drapchi prison on medical parole in October 2002?
I was not expecting to be released, and had no idea how many people and organizations outside of Tibet were seeking to help me. When I first went back into Lhasa, after more than a decade in Drapchi, I was surprised at how the city was changing. There are now so many Chinese people living in Lhasa. The Tibetan people are becoming a minority in their own homeland. This colonization will get more pronounced as the Chinese are completing a rail line from central China into Lhasa.
Arriving in the United States, I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support I have received from my fellow Tibetans, but also from my new friends in the free world. I greatly appreciate the assistance that the International Campaign for Tibet is giving me, especially to improve my health and receive assistance from good doctors. It is taking me time to adjust to this new atmosphere of freedom because I spent my life either under an authoritarian system or inside of a prison. I am very moved by the concern that the international community is showing in my case.
Even as I enjoy this freedom, I am concerned that many more Tibetan political prisoners, including my fellow nun Phuntsok Nyidron, are languishing in Chinese jails. I am currently compiling information about the conditions Tibetan prisoners are suffering under; I am committed to doing everything possible. I am appealing to the international community so that they too can be released and enjoy freedom. The Tibetan people are eagerly waiting for the day when they can see the return of their true leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to their homeland, with freedom, dignity and respect.