If I die, it's nothing
Nuns had little influence in pre-occupation Tibet but they have led 55 of the 126 known pro-independence protests in Lhasa in the past six years – and the authorities have responded with particular brutality, adding sexual torture to their array of repressive tactics. ZIMPA PHARMO is 23 years old and looks shy and withdrawn. I wonder if I am going to get more than two words out of her. But as she tells her extraordinary story her whisper grows and her narrative comes cascading out, like a strong-flowing river.
There were seven of us. We carried posters saying ‘Freedom!’ and ‘Go back to China!’ and chanted slogans. The security forces attacked, seizing some of the nuns. But I managed to run away. As a soldier came towards me I threw a stone and hit him on the head. The other soldiers caught me and beat me with an electric cattle prod until I lost consciousness. By the time I got to jail I could not stand up.
They started interrogating me. I told them I was fighting for our freedom. They told me they would kill me in a week’s time. I said: ‘Good. Many monks and nuns have died. If I die, it’s nothing.’
I was taken to the hospital where the soldier I had injured was being treated. He had lost a lot of blood and I was forced to give him my blood. I was very weak when I got back to the jail. They stripped me naked except for a pair of transparent white underpants. Urine was poured over me and excrement forced into my mouth, nose, eyes and ears.
Afterwards I managed to get hold of a small knife. I decided that before they killed me I would kill one of the soldiers. I threw the knife at him, but missed. To punish me they stabbed me in the arm with the knife.
Another day they applied stinging leaves all over my whole body. Again I was beaten. Many officers came to see me. They asked me: ‘Who told you that Tibet was for Tibetans? Tell us names and we will punish you less.’ But I refused.
Then they showed me a film of a young monk being crucified. He was shouting for freedom while they were doing it. Then they poured kerosene on him and set him alight. The soldiers clapped when he died and the film ended. They told me the same would happen to me. I was so angry but I was tied up and there was nothing I could do. I was forced to watch the film every day for the next three days.
They told me they had changed their minds, they would punish me for many years and then kill me. I was tortured for two hours, every day, for a month. There was a machine which made my body very hot.
After that they put me to work cleaning the soldiers’ toilets with my bare hands. I did this for one month. During this time I also cleaned the officers’ jeeps. One day I was told that some important officers were coming to see me. But only one showed up. To my surprise he was Tibetan. He started asking me questions and when I answered, his eyes filled with tears. He started planning to help me and another nun escape in one of the jeeps we were cleaning. We hid in the back while the driver, also a Tibetan, drove us out of the prison.
We soon had to leave the jeep and continue on foot. We headed for the mountains, walking at night. Seven days later an old peasant discovered us. He said: ‘You are the escaped nuns aren’t you?’ We denied it. But he took us to a shelter and gave us his own clothes to keep warm. We were very weak by now. Every day he would bring us tsampa to eat. After ten days, when we were stronger, he brought us heavy clothing and wigs and showed us the way over the mountains to India.
Once in India we were taken to Sikkim jail. It was really nice there. They treated me well, gave me nice food. I was really ill and they gave me hospital treatment. I stayed there for three years. On my release I came here to Dharamsala. My health is still not good. I get very depressed and my concentration is bad. Now I’m taking part in a rehabilitation programme for torture survivors and I’m hoping that will help.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7