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. The huge number of protests that subsequently erupted throughout the region were largely ignored by both. 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 matter.
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 hesitate."
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 carrying Tsewang decided only to travel by night but they had no flashlight and 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 each 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 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."
Tsewang (front) and Lobsang
Photo: Lhakpa Kyizom
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 is no longer around? 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.