A Tibetan former nun in her thirties has given a harrowing account of her rape by Chinese Peoples Armed Police (PAP) officers after she was caught attempting to escape from Tibet near the border with Nepal. Although the incident happened four years ago, in September 2005, the pattern of abuse the former nun describes is consistent with other reports of the treatment of Tibetans caught attempting to escape into exile. Numerous Tibetan sources report facing torture and hard labor when caught by PAP border security during the journey into exile or from Nepal, although cases of rape appear to be less common.

The Tibetan woman, who has now arrived in India and asked for full details of her identity to be withheld, told ICT that she was first detained in a village near the border called Kuchar in Burang (Chinese: Purang) County, with another six people from her village in Ngari Prefecture, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), including two children. They were arrested by the PAP border security at the border and taken to a border security facility somewhere near Burang County. Tenzin, 38, had escaped earlier into exile so that she could practice her religion freely. She was educated at Bir Suja school run by the Tibetan government in exile for three years, then moved to a monastery in Dharamsala where nuns can also study.

In 2005, her father became very sick and her family asked her to travel back to Tibet to see him. She did so, and stayed there for three months. It was when she was attempting to escape back to India that she was detained by PAP security.

Tenzin said: “About two weeks after I returned to see my father, they [the local authorities] somehow came to know that I came from India. Then they started visiting my house very frequently and asked me questions like: Why did I go to India? What is the reason to come back again? They also took me to a place that looks like an army barracks and also to the township headquarters for interrogation. The Chinese authorities are increasingly suspicious of Tibetans who attend Tibetan government in exile-run schools and religious institutes, as they consider them to have been influenced by ideas of separatism.”

Tenzin continued: “It was so disturbing that I could not stay in peace. When other people go back to their country, it is supposed to be a time of happiness and family reunion. But for me and for all Tibetans, there is no way that we can enjoy family reunion and moment of happiness of returning to our homelands. It is like a hell of the world, I really mean that, all those ordeals I faced it is really like hell in the world. I don’t think that even after I died, I would know such an ordeal.”

Tenzin prepared to escape and traveled to the border area of Burang where she and her group were stopped by five soldiers at a checkpoint. Speaking in Chinese, they told Tenzin and the others to get out of the car and show their identity cards. They were then taken to a nearby army barracks, which Tenzin describes as being at least two hours drive away. She said: “I was taken to a very dark room. There was one Tibetan soldier, who asked me if I was a nun” [Tenzin’s head was shaved, but she was wearing laymans clothing].

I replied yes, then he said: “You are Dalai’s running dog, you betrayed our great nation. They then beat me with whatever they had in their hands, with batons and army belts. Later on I could feel nothing as my body was numb due to the beatings and kicking, and I fell unconscious , but what was worse than the beating was to hear a Tibetan soldier calling me Dalai Lama’s running dog. How can a Tibetan do that?”

Tenzin found herself in another cell, handcuffed, when she regained consciousness. They had separated her from the group she was with and began to interrogate them all separately, asking why they had come back from India.

After five days of interrogation and beatings, Tenzin and the rest of the group were transferred to a detention center. She says: “For many days they locked me up in a solitary confinement cell which was big enough for only one person. Both my arms and feet were handcuffed to a wooden bed. Then one night the light was switched off, and two prison guards came into the cell and told me that I had to take some medicine. I said I was not going to take any medicine. I thought that time that they were going to kill me by giving me that medicine. So I struggled to shake my head while they were forcing to put the medicine to my mouth but they forced me to swallow it down by pouring water into my mouth and blocking my nose by pressing it. [The type of medicine or drug given to Tenzin is not known.] After that, two guards went out and chatting with each other outside the cell. Then moments later they came in, and I sensed something bad was going to happen, I screamed as loud as I could in the hope that someone would come to stop them. But all was in vain, one of the guards covered my head with his coat and was trying to stop me from screaming while the other raped me. Later I fell unconscious. I dont know if that was because of the medicine they gave me or out of fear. I could not feel anything, especially the lower part of my body.”

Tenzin considered trying to kill herself, but says that her feelings of guilt about the two children in the group were too strong. When she asked the guards to let her meet the children, as she was responsible for taking them to India, the border guards told her that because she had tried to make the children Dalai’s running dog she deserved what was happening to her.

Tenzin was transferred to a police department in the Ngari region for seven days and then to a labor re-education camp, láodòng jiàoyng , abbreviated láojiào ). This is a system of administrative detention that is generally used to detain persons for minor crimes such as petty theft or crimes against the state for periods of up to four years. Re-education through labor sentences are given by police, rather than through the judicial system. One of the Tibetan officials told her: “Your brain became very dirty and needs to be cleaned. You betrayed our nation by becoming Dalai’s running dog. So you have to clean your thoughts. You are going to a labor camp, where you will study and work, and you have been sentenced to three years.”

She said: “For the first eight days in the labor camp, they locked me in a solitary confinement [cell] with hands handcuffed, and no any water at all, except a small amount of food that was hard to eat. After that, they (the prison authorities) told me that I had to study and work, and undergo military training as well. The study that they meant is that I had to confess what I did was wrong, actually I did nothing wrong but having been to India, and be obedient to what they say.”

Tenzin became very ill in prison due to the poor conditions, torture and lack of food. She says she was finally released after approximately a year because the authorities feared that she might die in prison. Her family spent almost all of their savings, approximately 20,000 yuan ($2,900) on medical treatment for Tenzin. She says: “After some months of treatment at different hospitals including the People’s Hospital in Lhasa I was well enough to go home. But my mind could not be at peace, because officials came to visit my family so often. They told me that whenever I had to leave town, I had to report to the township leader.” This intense surveillance and kinds of restrictions are common for released prisoners, and lead to the escape of many into exile. Monks and nuns who have been imprisoned are not allowed to return to their religious institutions on release.

Tenzin says: “Later the protests broke out in Lhasa [on March 10, 2008], which is something that we all should be proud of, but at the same time, all those educated Tibetans, those Tibetans who love Tibet, those elites of our ethnic group, have been killed, detained, and have ‘disappeared’, that is a big loss. Our hearts are broken.”

Following the protests in March 2008, increased numbers of troops were deployed across the plateau and restrictions intensified in most areas.

Tenzin and her family were vulnerable due to Tenzin’s earlier period in detention; former political prisoners are commonly singled out by the authorities at times of tension and frequently returned to custody.

Officials began to visit Tenzin’s home once a day and pressed her to denounce the Dalai Lama. “In order to avoid saying anything, I told them that my health was failing due to the intimidation, and I went to a hospital in Lhasa for two months.”

Tenzin realized that she could no longer stay in Tibet, and despite the risks would have to escape again to India. She arrived in exile three months ago. Due to the rape in prison that she refers to as the ‘incident’, without using the specific word, she is unable to be a nun again. She said this week: “Thanks to the blessing of Three Precious Jewels [a Buddhist term referring to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Buddhist community, sometimes referred to as ‘The Teacher, The Teaching, The Taught’], I made it to India this time. It is my bad fortune to be out of the wheel of Dharma [the spiritual path], as I can no longer be a nun. Maybe it is my karma, but still I am happy now that I can be here near His Holiness once more.”

Monks and nuns form a high percentage of the numbers of Tibetans who escape into exile each year, due to the Chinese government’s repression of religious practice and teachings in Tibet. On arrival in exile, Tibetan monks and nuns are allocated places at different monasteries and nunneries in India run by the Tibetan exile authorities. While previously around 2,500 to 3,500 Tibetans have made the dangerous crossing across the Himalayas into exile in Nepal, and from there to India, each year, the number was dramatically lower in 2008. This was a result of intensified security in the border areas due to the crackdown against the protests beginning in March, 2008. In around September, 2008, after the stepped-up security throughout China during the Olympics period, more Tibetans began to attempt the journey despite increased risks. Given the continued violent repression and stifling political atmosphere in Tibet, it is possible that more Tibetans may see no other alternative but to seek to escape Tibet in 2009 and beyond.