Thirty-three torturous years in Chinese prisons have left Palden Gyatso toothless, deaf in one ear and horribly scarred. His tormentors split his tongue with an electric cattle prod, broke his nose with metal pipes and tried to rip his eyes from their sockets.
"Even when they tried to pull out my eyes, there was one thing the Chinese guards could never take from me," said the 65-year-old Tibetan monk. "My belief in human rights and the memory of what I witnessed will burn inside forever."What he saw - and experienced - included being dangled above a fire in the heat of summer, having boiling water dripped onto his naked body, being yoked to a plow and handling human excrement to grow vegetables.
His head, arms and torso are littered with puncture marks, the result of being beaten by nails extended from thick wooden boards. His arms no longer fully extend - the result of too many shoulder and elbow dislocations. His wrists are scarred from self-tightening handcuffs. Rope burns mark his neck and arms. Long after its repair, his tongue remains scarred and cracked.
Gyatso has delivered his message of hope and stories of horror to the United Nations, Congress and to governmental bodies in England and Germany.
While in Minneapolis recently, Gyatso spoke through interpreter Thupten Dadak, executive director of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota and a former Tibetan monk himself.
A monk since age 10, Gyatso was 28 when he was arrested in 1959, at the climax of China's military invasion of Tibet. Labeled a "reactionary element," he was sentenced to seven years of hard labor. His crime? Distributing posters calling for Tibet's independence.
Yoked to plows like animals, Gyatso and fellow prisoners would till the prison lands for nine hours a day - until they became too exhausted to continue. They then were kicked and whipped from behind, urged by prison guards to continue working, Gyatso said.
Given only a cup of soup a day, Gyatso said he and other prisoners ate leather, animal bones, mice, worms, insects and grass. They survived, in part, on stolen food meant for pigs.
"The worst was when they tied a thick rope around our neck and pulled back our arms, dislocating our shoulders," he said. "They would tie us to a beam, beat us with metal pipes and wooden boards with nails until we could no longer control our bodily functions. Then they would dangle us above a fire.
"Right away, the guards wanted to see who would survive and who would die. And if they thought you might live, they would think of new ways to torture you, to humiliate you."
During the winter, the prisoners again were suspended in midair, naked, but this time doused with cold water. Their feet were chained with iron manacles, their hands cuffed while they were whipped and beaten with sharp instruments. Some literally lost their hands.
Gyatso (whose name translates to "rich ocean," Dadak said) escaped from prison with six other political prisoners in 1962, only to be captured near the Indian-Tibet border. After six months of beatings and having iron shackles on his wrists and legs, day and night, eight more years were added to his sentence. The leg shackles were not removed for two years, during which time Gyatso weaved carpets.
After completing his prison term in 1975, Gyatso said he was sent to a labor camp, 15 miles west of Lhasa, capital of Tibet. Four years later, he escaped in the dead of night to Lhasa, where he put up several posters calling for Tibetan independence.
"I was angry, hurt, full of hate for the Chinese Communists who had robbed us of our land and our culture," Gyatso said. "But I never wanted them killed. I never hoped that another country's army would come in and murder them the way they had done to our people.
"All I ever wanted was for Tibet to be free and to remind Tibetans and others of the injustices being done."
There are still an estimated 1,000 Tibetans being tortured in Chinese prisons. And on Aug. 26, 1983, Gyatso became one of them once again.
His one-hour trial without legal representation led to a nine-year prison sentence. No longer was he allowed visits by family members. He was beaten, poked with a cattle prod, scalded with boiling water and forced to witness the executions of two fellow prisoners.
Declaring "independence" On Oct. 13, 1990, he was transferred to another prison and immediately was sent to the prison's chief administrator.
"I see you have been imprisoned here three times," the man said. "Now what has brought you here this time?"
"I was arrested because I put up posters saying Tibet is an independent country, separate from China," Gyatso said.
"I will give you Tibetan independence," the chief administrator told him.
"He kicked me several times and then jammed an electric cattle prod into my mouth, knocking out three teeth," Gyatso said. "I passed out. When I came to, all of my teeth had fallen out, my tongue was split in half and I lay in a pool of blood and excrement in excruciating pain."
He received no medical treatment. He never had in previous incidents. He later was placed in solitary confinement and was beaten with rifle butts. Other political prisoners were stabbed with bayonets.
On Aug. 25, 1992, Gyatso was released from prison, a human skeleton. Thirteen days later, he fled Tibet for India, his current home. But before his escape, Gyatso bribed guards and secured some of the instruments of torture, which he brings with him to lectures.
"I look at these tools of torture, I look at these scars, I look at a mouth with no teeth, I see how my nose runs constantly after it being broken - and I think about what it means," Gyatso said.
"When I speak to Tibetans, or to groups of government officials throughout the world, I show them these things. They are reminders of the suffering going on, of the 1.3 million Tibetans who have been killed, of the political prisoners throughout the world. Even in these modern times, there are still people who don't understand the importance of human rights, of the honor of being a human being."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)