Himalayan ordeal for fleeing nuns: Their crime was supporting the Dalai Lama, their treatment horrific. They told their story to Tim McGirk in Dharmsala

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THE Khampa tribesmen of Tibet have a reputation for being either saints or outlaws. The Buddhist nuns trying to escape from Tibet were not sure to which category their guide belonged. Of fearsome appearance, he wore a long dagger hidden inside his furs. He was supposed to lead the nuns on a perilous winter journey over the Himalayas to Nepal. For this service he had demanded most of their money.

On the outskirts of Shigatse, the last town before their ascent across the glaciers and snowfields near Mount Everest, the guide had taken 800 yuan from Ngawang Yandol, one of the nuns - equal to three months' salary for most Tibetans. Her two companions had little money and were hoping to cross the Himalayan snows, trailing the guide's party, just out of eyesight. But the guide spied Ngawang Kyizom and Lopsang Dolma, hiding behind a boulder.

'If your friends don't cause trouble,' he grumbled to Yandol, a pretty, 22-year-old nun, prone to shy giggles. 'They can come along for free. Just remember, if the Chinese soldiers catch us, don't tell them I'm the guide. Otherwise they'll kill me.'

The nuns were ill-prepared for their icy odyssey. For food, they had only some strips of dried meat and tsampa barley. They all wore canvas shoes. Each woman had only a few jumpers, an overcoat and a blanket. The trek to Nepal usually took 25 days, but their Khampa guide knew that, in December, bad weather could blow in. If his party got caught in a blizzard, the nuns would surely freeze to death.

'He hurried us along. At some places there were Chinese guards, and we had to walk at night with no torches. The Chinese were so close that if one of us coughed, they would've grabbed us. We never had any fires, and we slept wherever we could - on sand, rocks and snow,' said Kyizom, a woman whose nomad upbringing had toughened her to Tibet's hostile winters.

Their zig-zagging route took them near Mt Everest. They traversed narrow, dizzying ledges where a body could tumble for an eternity before it struck rock, ice or river. 'For two days we had to walk inside a stream. At first it hurt like a thousand needles, but after a while my feet just went numb. The canyon walls were too steep. There was no other way but to go in the water,' said Yandol. They fought, bowed against the wind, across 20,000ft passes, until finally, on the 17th day, when their food was gone, and the nuns could walk no more, they sighted the low, green hills of Nepal. The nuns hugged one another joyfully.

Their happiness was short- lived. The Nepali police they first encountered demanded a bribe, or the nuns would be sent back to Tibet. The nuns had no choice but to pay, but were arrested anyway. They remained in a Kathmandu prison for several days before aid workers arranged their transfer to Dharmsala, India, the home in exile for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader.

The nuns had two motives for braving the Himalayan trek: they wanted to practise their religion under the guidance of the Dalai Lama, whom many Tibetans believe is an embodiment of the Buddha. The nuns also wanted to tell human rights groups about the torture, the beatings and humiliations that they had suffered inside Chinese prisons.

Their testimony gives the lie to claims by the Peking authorities that it is improving its human rights record in Tibet. The Clinton administration is threatening to revoke China's 'most favoured nation' trade privileges unless it stops persecuting dissidents and begins to show respect for Tibet's religion and culture. The nuns' revelations cast doubt on China's willingness to ease its abuses in Tibet.

Yandol, Kyizom and Dolma and a fourth nun, Tenzin Choekyi, 24, who fled on her own, were jailed for denouncing, in the most timid way possible, China's repression of Tibetan culture. Kyizom's protest against the Chinese lasted only 90 seconds, just enough time to shout 'Long Live the Dalai Lama' and 'Free Tibet' at the entrance to the Jokhang shrine in the capital, Lhasa. Then she was dragged off by Chinese secret police.

For her outburst, Kyizom was kicked, beaten, jabbed with an electric cattle prod on her tongue, breasts and thighs, and jailed for three years without a proper trial.

Dolma, a round, elfish nun with a broad smile was imprisoned at the age of 15 for a public protest. 'I knew I had to do something after I'd heard that the Chinese arrested one of the nuns and cut her breasts off,' she said. Nothing so barbaric happened to the 15-year-old. Perhaps she was spared worse treatment because of her youth, but Dolma was kicked and beaten during three days of interrogation. One human rights activist who recently visited Tibet said: 'These prison guards watch a lot of kung-fu films and it seems they like to show off what they learn on the prisoners.'

The other nun, Choekyi was subjected to a torture known as the 'flying aeroplane' in which her thumbs were tied diagonally across her back and she was suspended from the ceiling and beaten. She, too, was jolted with the electric cattle prod. 'They forced me to stick out my tongue and then they shocked me with the cattle prod. I was dizzy with the pain. When I collapsed, they held me up again and gave me another shock.'

Choekyi, Kyizom and Dolma were all locked in one of Tibet's most notorious prisons, Gutsa, near Lhasa. It was there that they met another nun, Dawa Hansum, who had taken part in a 1989 pro-independence demonstration in the Tibetan capital. In prison, Hansum lifted her shirt and showed the other nuns how her Chinese tormentors had cut off one of her nipples using scissors. 'They also nearly severed one of her toes. It was just dangling there,' said Dolma.

When they were released, the Chinese banned Choekyi, Kyizom, Yandol, and Dolma from going back to a convent. Nuns as well as monks have been at the vanguard of the Tibetan protest against Chinese rule, which began in a 1950 invasion. Human rights groups say 77 per cent of prisoners in Tibet are clergy.

In their new Dharmsala convent, the four women were bent over a fire, joking as they fried twists of dough for Tibetan new year celebrations. Fresh snow had fallen on the Himalayan peaks above the nunnery, beyond them Tibet. 'I don't hate the Chinese,' said Dolma, finally. 'I just hate what they're doing to us.'