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The Will to Survive: One Man's Harrowing Escape from Tibet

August 3, 2009

July 31, 2009
Rebecca Novick, Huffington Post

As a child growing up in a remote village in the mountainous region of
Kham, Tsewang Dhondup loved to listen to the heroic fables recounted by
the local elders. But Tsewang's own story is the stuff of legend, and
might well end up woven into local lore and marveled at by Tibetan boys
for generations to come.
Everything about him confirms the reputation of the Khampas, as the
people from his area are called, renowned for their swash-buckling vigor
and warrior spirit. Sturdily built with large expressive eyes, a
generous smile and mass of thick black hair, the 39-year-old Tsewang
seems full of life in his stark room at the Tibetan refugee center in
Dharamsala, India. The name Tsewang, means 'longevity,' but from his own
account, it is incredible that he is still alive.
Tsewang was born into a family of farmers, in Danko (Ch. Luhou) Country
in Kardze (Ch. Ganzi) prefecture, Sichuan province. He never went to
school, but his natural intelligence led him to enjoy some success in
business, as a clothing salesman and restaurateur in Lhasa. In March
2008, he had just returned home to celebrate Tibetan New Year with his
family, when the protests erupted in the capital. The reaction in his
village was electric:

"The feeling was that this was the time -- that Tibetans can't live like
this anymore and we have to do something. We might lose our lives, but
at least our death will have meaning. I heard people say that the
Tibetan situation is like a patient in agonizing pain. If he can't
recover, it's better to die sooner than later."

The violence perpetrated by a few Tibetans against Chinese citizens was
repeatedly played on state television while the city's massive and
largely non-violent protests were covered only in the international
press. Tsewang claims that he didn't hold any particular resentment
towards the average Han Chinese. "Some Chinese people told me that back
in their hometowns, they can't earn enough to survive no matter how hard
they work. They came to Tibet to try to make a better life for
themselves. I understand this." But his feeling towards the Chinese
authorities -- particularly the government -- was an entirely different

Tsewang's own grandfather had been jailed for eight months at the age of
71 just for possessing a photograph of the Dalai Lama. It's this kind of
treatment, says Tsewang, that inspired the 2008 protests. "Everyone
knows the risks they take when they protest. But we feel like we're on a
sinking ship. We're going to drown anyway, so it's better to just jump
into the water."

Through television broadcasts of Voice of America that he watched in
secret with his family, Tsewang heard the Dalai Lama's teachings on
non-violence. This is the reason there were so few Chinese casualties
during the demonstrations that swept across the Tibetan plateau in 2008,
he says.

"He is like the sun for us. We can't disobey him no matter how badly the
Chinese treat us. It's not because we Tibetans are weak that we don't
resort to violence. We put ourselves in a very vulnerable situation by
demonstrating the way we do."

It was through Voice of America that Tsewang learned about the Dalai
Lama's Middle Way approach that aims for "genuine autonomy" rather than
independence. "To be honest, what I want is independence," he says. "But
I think it's important for Tibetans to follow whatever His Holiness the
Dalai Lama says."
On Monday, March 24th, Tsewang was among over one hundred volunteers
working on a hillside laying a water pipeline to Jogri [Chogri]
Monastery below. At around four in the afternoon, they heard some
commotion from the town of Trehor, about 2 kilometers away. Tsewang had
been waiting for the demonstrations to hit his hometown, and he knew
that this was it. From where they were standing, he could make out a
number of maroon robes, and determined correctly that the protest was
being led by nuns from the nearby Ngangong Nunnery. (The 200 Ngangong
nuns had been joined by about 50 nuns from Khasum Nunnery.) Then Tsewang
heard gunfire.
Without exchanging a word, everyone dropped their tools and ran down to
the monastery where they had parked their motorbikes. All of them,
including the monks, rushed in the direction of the town. Those who
didn't have transport simply ran as fast as they could.

"Tibetans have a lot of respect for monks and nuns. When we heard the
shots, we all felt a strong urge to go and protect them. I knew I might
end up in jail for the rest of my life or get shot myself, but I didn't

Tibetans in Kardze prefecture possess a keen sense of national identity
along with a fierce loyalty to the Dalai Lama. The region is referred to
by Beijing as "the neck of Tibet". If you can get your hands around
Kardze, they say, you can control the entire plateau. Tsewang says that
the Tibetans in this area that borders China proper, feel a
responsibility to hold the line of Tibetan pride for the rest of the
nation. Months after protests had died down elsewhere, people were still
shouting outside government offices in Kardze.

"I felt so inspired by the way the people reacted," says Tsewang. " I
realized that the pain I had held in my heart all this time and my
hatred of the Chinese government was shared by everyone around me."

Tsewang rode into Trehor in a convoy of over a hundred motorbikes. The
town was packed with motorbikes. There was nowhere to park, so Tsewang
simply left his in the street and ran in the direction of the cries of "
Tibet belongs to Tibetans!" and "Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet!" He
slipped into the crowd of about 300 and marched with them down the main
street. No one carried Tibetan flags or banners. All the people had to
wave were their fists.

The demonstration had been joined by people of all ages, young and old.
Tsewang saw children as young as six. They were surrounded by about 200
People's Armed Police, some of whom were randomly hauling people out of
the crowd and beating them with iron rods. Every time they saw this,
Tsewang and others would rush over and forcefully drag the demonstrator
away from the clutches of the police and back into the safety of the
throng. This crude strategy proved surprisingly effective. "The police
weren't able to arrest a single person," Tsewang proudly recalls. But it
was difficult for him to see unarmed people being beaten
indiscriminately. "I was very close to a couple of Chinese soldiers. It
would have been very easy for me to kill them." It was his devotion to
the Dalai Lama that held him back. "It's not that I don't have the
courage to fight," he is quick to point out. "But I felt restrained by
His Holiness' words."

The people spontaneously headed towards the police station--a symbol of
their discontent. By the time they got there, the police had begun
resorting to more extreme measures to make their point. Along with tear
gas, about five policemen were firing live ammunition from the station
roof into the crowd. More police were shooting from behind a large iron
gate. Tsewang says that about five people were injured (later reports
put the number closer to ten). None of them sought professional medical
help for fear of arrest, but instead would return to their homes to
receive whatever treatment they could.

When the firing began, a gap formed in the crowd as those directly
outside the gate ran for their lives--all except a 21-year-old monk
named Kunga, one of the 200 monks from Chokri Monastery who had joined
the demonstration. Kunga found himself caught in the open, right in
front of the police gate. He was immediately shot and slumped to the
ground. Tsewang rushed to help him. "There is a Tibetan saying, when a
rabbit is picked up by a vulture it's useless for the rabbit to petition
the sky. But like the rabbit, I found myself calling out in my mind for
the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama." Another man appeared and
together they began to carry the monk away. Tsewang felt a searing pain
in his left side and knew he'd been shot. He took only two steps before
he was hit by another bullet in his left elbow. "Blood was rushing out
of my arm like a water fountain and I began to feel dizzy." Just before
he lost consciousness, Tsewang managed to call out, "Someone help this
monk!" Kunga later died from his wounds.

It was at this point that Tsewang's friend and distant relative, Lobsang
Thupten, appeared on his motorbike, grabbed Tsewang, and pulled him onto
the seat between himself and another protester. The three men sped out
of town as fast as they could, pursued by a police vehicle.

Tsewang was drifting in and out of consciousness. Just before the turn
off to their village, he and Lobsang observed an odd phenomenon. "You
won't believe me," says Tsewang, "but it was as if time sped up. It
became very dark all of a sudden. We continued going straight, but the
police weren't able to see us any more and they took the road towards my
village." The men stopped at another village further on and hid Tsewang
in a prayer room. Someone did their best to bandage his wounds while
others constructed a makeshift gurney out of bamboo poles and a blanket.
Four men volunteered to carry Tsewang up into the mountains.

The morning after the protest, the authorities launched a door-to-door
search for Tsewang's body. Eyewitnesses had assumed that he'd been
killed and international human rights groups were reporting his death
around the world.
The men with Tsewang decided only to travel by night but they had no
flashlight and they were walking in difficult terrain. "They carried me
for six nights straight. Every time they stumbled, the pain was
excruciating, but they were incredibly careful," Tsewang recalls.

For the next fourteen months, the group hid in mountain caves, moving
their camp every month as a security measure. Every ten days, one of
them would go down to their village and return after another ten days
with fresh supplies. This routine made it was less likely that the
absence of any one of them would come to the attention of the
authorities. Having learned about Tsewang's condition, the local people
had begun making donations of medicine, including antibiotics. But with
no proper medical attention, after two months, Tsewang's wounds began to
rot and became infested with maggots. Lobsang used a razor to cut off
the dead skin. The process was sheer agony for Tsewang. "It was
unbearable. I took a stick and put it in my mouth and just bit down as
hard as I could."

For the first six months, Tsewang sat in an upright position and
couldn't move a single part of his body. He lost all the hair where the
back of his head rubbed against the rock. After eight months, he was
still only able to move his head. He was completely dependent on his
friends for everything. It was now November. The freezing temperatures
and heavy snow made the trip down and up the mountains even tougher. The
others were returning with frostbite, and he worried about the risks to
their health and security that they were taking on his behalf. Tsewang
began to think that it would perhaps be better for him to die than to
continue putting his friends in danger. "I began to refuse food and
medicine," he says. "But they kept encouraging me to keep up my resolve
to live."

After ten months, Tsewang could take a few steps with two people
supporting him. Only after a whole year had passed was he able to walk
unassisted. Now that he was less critical, three of the others would go
down together, leaving only one person behind to look after him. It was
when he was alone with Lobsang that Tsewang posed the question that had
been playing on his mind. "I had decided that I needed to tell the world
about the sufferings of the Tibetan people. I asked him if he would help
me get to India. I knew I couldn't make it without him."

The plan was to travel to Lhasa to find a guide who could take them over
the Himalayan border into Nepal. Lobsang knew that the chances of making
it even as far as Lhasa were slim. Tsewang and Lobsang's photo was on a
wanted list that was posted at every checkpoint between them and the
capital and a bounty on their heads. And, like Tsewang, Lobsang was
married with two children. It was possible that he would never see his
family again. But still he agreed to go. "Tsewang needed to let the
world know his story. I was being useful to the Tibetan people by going
with him."

Tsewang had somehow managed to survive for fourteen months,16,000 feet
up in the mountains, with untreated bullet wounds, in extreme pain,
living only on barley flour, butter and tea. "Sometimes it's hard for me
to believe that I lived through it all. I survived through sheer will
power and the collective courage and determination of those who cared
for me."

Now he and the man whom he would come to call 'brother' beat the odds
once again and made it safely to Lhasa after a ten-day journey by
motorbike. But at this part of his story, the usually animated Tsewang,
falls silent. He avoids recounting any specifics so as to protect those
who helped him along the way. "All I can tell you is that these people
are incredibly brave and generous. I will always be grateful to them."
But most of all, he is grateful to Lobsang. The bond between them is
palpable. "We have become so close. He is like my second eye."

Even today, Tsewang's home region is causing headaches for the
authorities. Radio Free Asia reports that on July 17, 2009, a man named
Yonten Gyatso--another native of Kardze--staged a lone protest in a
sports stadium in the town of Chamdo. "He ran a complete circuit of the
stadium while displaying fliers," said a source. "The people who were
gathered there cheered him on... In the fliers, the man gave his name
and called on others to protest for the cause of Tibet." Yonten eluded
the police for four days until his eventual arrest on July 21st.

Since the two men arrived in India in May 2009, Tsewang and Lobsang have
been trying to get their story out. Tsewang's dream is to testify before
the United Nations. "I feel obligated to speak out for those who can't."
Does he think that the Tibetan people will rise up again like they did
in 2008? "If the Chinese government doesn't listen to His Holiness the
Dalai Lama and don't give Tibetans basic human rights, then yes, it will
definitely happen again." And when the Dalai Lama dies? There is no
doubt in his mind that the gloves are off.
Translation by Pema Namgyal. Rebecca Novick is the founding producer of
The Tibet Connection radio program.
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