remember hearing stories my mother told me about dangerous political times
in China, first during the Japanese occupation of China and World
War II, and then after the revolution led by Mao Tse-tung.
Her account seemed so oddly nonchalant (maybe she did not want to remember;
maybe she did not want to burden me) that the stories felt as if they were
about someone else.
It wasnít until I met Sonam Dekyi
on the streets of New Delhi, India, did I learned the true nature of political
oppression. Dekyi is the mother of imprisoned musician Ngawang Choephel,
a Fulbright scholar who had journeyed back to his native Tibet to video-tape
traditional Tibetan music and culture.
Her son was reported missing in Tibet
in August 1995. Dekyi waited 14 months to discover he was still
alive, but that he had been jailed in a Chinese prison in Tibet on
charges of espionage. He is accused of spying on behalf of Tibet's
exiled leader, the Dalai Lama and "a certain foreign country" -- apparently
an allusion to the United States.
Since then, the 62-year-old Dekyi has
campaigned continuously for the right to see her son. Her fight has
attracted global attention; thousands of appeals have been forwarded to
Chinese authorities. Hunger strikes were begun in Ngawang Choephel's
name. All are met with silence.
Hansa Natola, an Italian supporter
of the hunger strikers, introduced me to Dekyi, who was sitting alone
on Parliament Street, handing out petitions and leaflets in English
and Hindi, flanked by a crude lean-to tent that faced the luxurious Park
Dekyi left her home in Mundgod, in southern
India, last June and began living on the streets of the capital, appealing
to anyone who would listen for her son's release. She pulled out an 8"
x 10" color photograph of him to show me, wrapped her arms around
the frame, pressed against herself and began to cry, explaining the details
of his arrest. Natola and I soon began to call her "Mom," and paused
daily to greet her in the traditional Tibetan way of putting your hands
together as in prayer and saying, Tashi Deleg - good day.
In many ways, Dekyi's facial features reminded
me of my mother's. After I finished photographing her nightly candlelight
vigil I put down my cameras, sat down with her and massaged her back.
Even though we had no common language, "Mom" held her hand up in front
of her, as if she were praying, letting out a sigh of relief
each time I loosened a particularly tight muscle.
See the RealVideo of Sonam Dekyi,
produced by Ruthie
Click on the appropriate
During her effort to find her son Dekyi
contracted tuberculosis, but she discounts her health problems, saying
she is an old woman who only wants to "meet my son one last time before
While researching the Tibetan hunger strike
in the United States on the Internet I learned more: Years ago, this
mother had escaped Chinese brutality carrying two-year-old Ngawang on her
back over the Himalayas to freedom in India. Dekyi devoted her life
to caring for and educating her only child in a Tibetan refugee camp.
Her efforts paid off; Ngawang's passion for Tibetan arts surfaced
in elementary school. He taught music at the Tibetan Institute for
the Performing Arts in Dharamsala. Later, he earned the prestigious
Fulbright scholarship to study ethnomusicology in the United States at
Middlebury College in Vermont.
Ngawang always felt a duty to preserve
the cultural identity of Tibet through its music and performing arts.
At 30, without telling his mother, he armed himself with a video camera
and tape recorder and entered Tibet, knowing a returning Tibetan exile
could be imprisoned on the slightest provocation.
Before Ngawang's arrest he gave his video
tapes from two months of travel to an American traveler, fearing they would
be confiscated if they were found in his position. The tapes show
old men on mountain tops performing opera to the wind, little girls singing
nursery rhymes and lamas doing wrathful dances to chase off demons.
"In 16 hours of Mr. Choephel's video footage,
not a single scene exists indicating that he was involved in any political
activity whatsoever. His extensive photographic record shows he was solely
engaged in cultural documentation," according to John Ackerly, president
of the International Campaign For Tibet in Washington, D.C. (http://www.savetibet.org)
After I left India, Notala and I conducted
a long - distance interview of Dekyi: Natola asked the questions
of Dekyi through a translator, then e-mailed the results to me in
the United States. Here is our conversation. Parliament Street,
New Delhi, India, May 3, 1998
Why did you decide to leave your home and come to Delhi to live on the
A: The reason I came here to Delhi is
that my son, who is a musician, was studying music in Tibet, and the Chinese
caught him and imprisoned him, giving him a sentence of 18 years. Now I
have totally decided to leave my home and protest here. I would like the
Chinese to release him immediately. If not, I would like them to
allow me to visit him. The only thing I know is that I am now 62-years-old
and I am suffering from tuberculosis and I know that I donít have many
years to live. I also know that my son is totally innocent, the only
thing he was doing was Tibetan music, thatís all.
Q: Why this specific spot?
A: The reason I am here is that this is
a place where all people from all over the world come. In this particular
street I would like to appeal to every single person who comes here to
help me to get the Chinese to release him, or for me to meet him. I would
like permission from the Chinese government to meet my son who is innocent.
Q: I read in your appeal that you actually
went to the Chinese Embassy here to ask for a visa to enter Tibet, but
they told you to wait. Have you received a reply?
A: I went to the embassy in January 1996
and I met a tall looking person there and I asked him if he could give
me permission to visit my son. What he said is that I would have to wait
4 or 5 months. After that he would give me the permission. Since then,
I went back at least three times, and the last time I went was in August
1997, and again there was no word from them.
Q: Did you visit the Embassy alone or did
you go with someone?
A: The first time I went to the Embassy
there were three people helping me. The second time I went alone, and the
last time I went with my brother.
Q: What do you do with the petitions that
A: I plan to offer them to the United
Q: How many pages have you collected so
A: About one thousand.
Q: How long are you going to wait before
you present them to the United Nations?
A: I have been collecting these petitions
for almost one year. I am now planning to wait one, or two months, and
then present them to the U.N.
Q: Do you know whom to approach at the
A: I donít know whom I should be presenting
them to, but I plan to be taking the assistance of Indian, as well as Tibetan,
well wishers here.
Q: How long do you think you will live
here on the pavement?
A: I plan to stay here on the street until
some fruit comes out of this effort I am making;. Until my son is released
by the Chinese.
Q: Would you accept some kind of promise
from the Chinese government that your son will be released soon?
A: I cannot trust them 100%, so until
my son is really released I will not accept any promises. Only the day
when he is really released will I leave this place.
Q: There are many associations all over
the world who are working on your case. Are you in touch with any of them?
A: So far, I have no real relation
with any of these organizations. I am not able to know who is fighting
for him or not. As far as I am concerned, I believe that human beings out
of compassion will contact me and help a mother who has lost her son. From
my side, I am illiterate and I donít know how this functions and which
organization is working to release my son. I have no idea, not even how
I should contact these people. I am sure that people all over the
world are willing to help me out of compassion, out of kindness, out of
love, thatís why I am here on the street appealing to people. I believe
there are organizations attempting to help, but as far as I can see
there is no organization anywhere in the world who can even tell me where
my son is imprisoned, in which part of Tibet he is, or whether he is already
dead. If an organization can at least pinpoint that much, then probably
I would believe that there are organizations which are helping in this
issue. Until then, I know that I am an individual who is trying to get
my son released, thatís all.
Q: How do you survive living in the streets
in New Delhi? How do you get money?
A: In the past, for many years when my
son was alive and working, in India or in the United States, I lived off
him because my health is bad. I always lived on his earnings. Now
that I have come on the street...things are a little difficult, and so
I have gone to the Tibetan welfare officer in Majnu Ka Tilla in Old Delhi,
and I have received aid from him twice in the last two years for a total
of 1,700 rupees (about $42.50 US). With this money I actually can last
for quite a long time if it was just a question of getting something to
eat. I can live on 500 rupees a month (about $12.50 US). My expenditures
are mainly for the paper for the petitions, which cost quite a lot of money.
I also receive money from well wishers, and as a result I am alive. I have
enough money to eat and pay for the petition papers. The day I will not
have enough money I will go again to the Tibetan welfare officer, but recently
I have had no need to go back to him. Also I have received some money from
an Italian girl. She sent 1,500 rupees. Money will come.
That finance is difficult is just normal. I donít consider that as
an additional burden whatsoever.
Q: If you stay here much longer you
might die and then never meet your son again. How can we convince
you that your son will be released one day and that you might have to practice
a little more patience? This could save your life and your son could
also enjoy being with you again one day.
A: If all these organizations you
have been talking about will really help me to get my son released soon,
then I think I will be able to wait, whether here or anywhere else. But
if it is going to take interminably long then there is nothing really that
I can do. And then I think that I will also think of some more severe
desperate measures... When I lose faith completely that I don't think I
will meet my son this life, then I will commit suicide. But as far as where
I will do it, I will think about it and I will do it at the appropriate
Q: Is there something specific you would
like to say to anyone who reads your story?
A: I appeal to the compassion of everyone
all over the world to help a single mother to get her son released from
the Chinese government. I am sure that you know better than me whom
to appeal to, to your representatives, to your governments. These
are things that myself, an uneducated, illiterate old Tibetan woman, has
no idea of. And I just pray that all of you, people who have
been so helpful, might live forever.
Eugene Louie can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
San Jose Mercury News, 408-271-3660