Sonam Dekyi is 59 years old, is suffering from tuberculosis and poor health, and has just one wish before she dies: to see her son, Ngawang Choephel, who has recently been sentenced to 18 years imprisonment by Chinese authorities.
Sonam Dekyi fled Tibet in 1968. Heavily pregnant at the time, she made the treacherous journey across the Himalayan mountains with two year-old Ngawang on her back. On the way Sonam gave birth to her second child but the baby did not survive the journey.
Sonam had to leave Tibet without her husband. He planned to follow his wife and son later but when he attempted to flee he was caught by Chinese authorities. He was subsequently detained and tortured. Since that time Sonam has heard nothing of her husband. As she struggled to bring up her son in a foreign country she had no idea whether her husband was alive or dead.
When Ngawang left home in June 1995 he did not tell his mother he was visiting Tibet for fear of worrying her. He said instead that he was visiting Ladakh, India, and would be home in October. When Ngawang did not come Sonam Dekyi searched for him in Tibetan Settlements in India and in Nepal, without success.
On 10 January 1997, Sonam Dekyi made an impassioned appeal to the international community at a press conference in Delhi to urge China to allow her to visit her son in prison:
“With profound grief and sadness, I the aged mother of an imprisoned son, have come here from the Tibetan refugee camp of Mundgod, South India to address the media. I hope that through you, the governments of the world and the international community will be informed of the woeful story of an old Tibetan mother. I appeal to all of you to save my only son Ngawang Choephel who is presently imprisoned in Tibet.”
“… Being a single parent to my child, I have devoted my whole life in caring for and educating Ngawang Choephel. I love him very much and he is my only hope and I am wholly dependent on him …
“I am certain that the Chinese government’s charges against my son are totally baseless. They have accused my son of spying for the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. But the Tibetan government did not send him to Tibet. Being his mother, I am the only person in this world who knows my son very closely. Ngawang is interested only in traditional Tibetan music and has spent most of his 30 years in the pursuit of Tibetan music and dance …
“I am aging and my health is worsening day by day. I long to see my only son before I die. I wrote a letter to the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi on December 5, 1996, requesting permission to see my son. There has been no response. I again visited the Chinese Embassy yesterday and met the First Secretary, Mr. Huo Zhongquan. He said it will take at least three to four months to seek permission from the authorities in “Tibetan Autonomous Region”. I cannot wait that long. I am old and ill … I am worried and do not know what to do. Please help me save my only son …”
On 12 January Sonam Dekyi led a peaceful silent procession in Delhi to draw public attention to her appeal. Two days earlier, in Dharamsala in northern India, 1500 people joined a candlelight vigil and offered prayers in support of Ngawang Choephel.