Dechen is a sixteen-year-old girl from a small village in central Tibet. In 1995, she visited a friend of hers, a nun, in Lhasa, where the two prayed together and prostrated at sacred sites. Before Dechen left, her friend asked that she carry some papers with her to her village. On the way, Chinese police arrested her, seized the papers and detained her at the police station. Though Dechen, then twelve years old, could not read or write, the police accused her of authoring the papers and interrogated her for more than an hour: ‘First they checked my handwriting but since I couldn’t write, they hit me only once. . . . They hit me with a stick, and they kicked me. Usually, if you don’t listen, they use an electric shock.’ Eventually, they released her. But for the next month, they continued to recall her to the station almost daily, each time detaining and interrogating her for many hours. Shortly after these sessions ceased, Dechen left her village permanently to join a nunnery in Lhasa.
In 1998, police arrived at Dechen’s nunnery and ordered the head nun to denounce the Dalai Lama and surrender any pictures of him. Dechen and another young nun decided to flee to India, where they hoped to pursue their religious studies freely. But two hours from the Nepalese border, police apprehended them and took them by Jeep to a detention center. There, they imprisoned the fourteen-year-old Dechen and her friend in a single cell packed with sixty others, mostly children but also some adults. The cell had one toilet. Despite the cold, the guards provided no blankets. Dechen was not charged, offered counsel or permitted to contact her family. For the next month, police repeatedly interrogated and tortured her. They kicked her in the stomach, slapped her face and deprived her of food for days at a time. Finally, they released her, and soon afterwards she managed to escape to India.
Dechen’s experiences are neither unique nor unusual. Many Tibetan children, some as young as nine years old at the time, suffer confinement, torture, beatings and verbal harassment. Detention and torture typically result from perceived political dissent or attempts to flee Tibet. Suspicion of involvement in Tibetan nationalist activities often subjects children to the same tortures that Tibetan adults suffer:
Beatings with metal rods, electric shocks with cattle prods, solitary confinement, forced labor, deprivation of food, light and water, and suspension in painful or contorted positions.