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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Story of Tsondue

August 6, 2008

A Tibetan monk in exile breaks his silence
Annalisa Merelli
Peace Reporter (Italy)
August 4, 2008        
Tsondue is a monk at the Kirti monastery of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala.
He looks like every other monk -- shaved head, habit, rosary -- if it
were not for some intensely serious and above all serene quality in
his glance that he directs, most of the time, toward the floor. He is
seated in a room with three other younger monks. While they speak, he
listens with a great deal of attention and takes notes in his
notebook. When it's his turn to speak, everyone in the room gets up:
they join their hands in a sign of prayer to offer their benediction and leave.

Tsondue begins to speak: his voice is hoarse, low. These are the
first words he has spoken in four years. He made a vow of silence, a
silence to which he will return at the end of our conversation. He
speaks softly, emphasizing his words with gestures; every time that
he ends a sentence, he smiles, and, with a slight inclination, thanks
you for listening. He is forty-two but seems younger, not so much
physically as in his attitude.

"I come from Golog, in the province of Amdo, in Tibet, where I spent
my childhood with my family of nomadic shepherds. My mother died when
I was eight years old, my father when I was sixteen. I remained an
orphan; I followed my nomadic tribe for another three years until my
entrance into the Kirti monastery of Nawa. There, at the age of
nineteen, the possibility of studying was given to me for the first
time in my life. At the time I did not know how to read or write, and
entering the monastery I would have wished to dedicate the next ten
years to study. Ten years," he repeats with the enthusiasm of that
moment that still flickers in his eyes.

"But things happened otherwise. In 1989, four years after the
beginning of my life in the monastery, a wave of protests burst forth
in Lhasa and spread throughout Tibet. With the other three monks, I
was ready to take an active part in the demonstrations, but—before
that was possible—the police struck me while I put up a poster in
defense of the Dalai Lama, and I was arrested. Ten of them questioned
me, trying to extort the names of my companions from me. Following my
stubborn refusal to denounce them, I was beaten and tortured."
Tsondue still carries the marks of that episode on his hands, arms,
and back. "While they beat me with clubs," he recalls, "the policemen
derided me, telling me that the Dalai Lama would certainly hasten to
save a man so courageous. The mockery, even more than the physical
pain, rendered the situation intolerable: I fainted a number of times."

"After a month of interrogations I was condemned to two years of
reclusion in the prison of Nawa. In prison I passed the time with
Chinese prisoners, who for the most part came from other regions of
the country. After a life passed in complete isolation in respect to
the Chinese population, in the solidarity that derives from sharing
the same suffering I made friends with the Chinese."

"Once released, I returned to my monastery, but I was kept under
strict surveillance. My room was subjected to periodic searches, in
the last of which, in 1994, the police found a photo of the Dalai
Lama and asked me to appear before the commissariat the next day.
That night, alone and without warning anyone in the monastery, I fled
over the mountains of Golog, where for six months I hid from the
police sent after me. Then, the last night of the year, I escaped
toward Lhasa and there, with an friend, I paid a guide who conducted
us across the border of Nepal. Afterwards, I took refuge in India.
 From then," he speaks while sadly shaking his head, "I have never gone home."

"My feelings are hopeful. In the past I reached the point of wanting
to kill those who had arrested and tortured me and forced me to leave
my home; when I left Tibet I was full of rage. Then, however, I had
the luck to hear the teachings of the Dalai Lama and I finally
understood: no benefit exists in violence, in any case, for either of
the two parties. I succeeded in pardoning all those who had done evil
to me. Now I have only compassion for them because I realize that
they are victims, just as I am and my people -- victims of
conditions, of ignorance, of politics. I pray every day for the
arrival of the moment in which Chinese and Tibetans can restore the
history of brotherhood that they constructed by living side by side
for centuries."

With a last nod, Tsondue smiles, gets up, and goes toward the door.
Before leaving, he stops and looks me in the eye. This look, resolute
and serene, is now completely focused on me: "Tell my story," he
asks, "Please." And he adds: "I don't want whoever listens to take my
side because as long as opposed sides exist, peace will not exist. It
is necessary that everyone understands, for himself, which is the
road to truth and liberty." Then he nodded his head slightly and,
with a slow step, left -- returning to his silence.
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