As a child, this Tibetan woman was forced to face 22 years of Chinese oppression
One day, the Chinese occupation forces announced, “Children are allowed to work!” It was no longer a question of collecting firewood or cow dung, but of a good job organized by the Chinese authorities. Tendöl was assigned to Jokhang, the holiest temple in central Lhasa, which was partially destroyed.
All the Buddha statues had already disappeared. It has been said that the Chinese transported the copper contained in the statues to China to make cartridges. Tibetan children had to clean and tidy up. Everywhere they noticed traces of blood.
Tendöl learned that Tibetans had been murdered in the Jokhang with nails pierced in the head … the brutality was limitless. It was the period after Mao’s death when the Gang of Four attempted to seize power in China.
After almost two years, Tendöl was kicked out of school and assigned to a road construction group. As a butruk, she was promised she could complete an apprenticeship two years later. As expected, the promise was not kept, she spent nearly five years at the Po-Tramo road construction camp.
Along with many young people, mostly Chinese, she was taken on a three-day bus trip to Kongpo, near the border with India. Chinese youth also have to work in road construction to obtain the right to go to school or receive vocational training. They were divided into groups of 400; there were no more than two or three Tibetans per group.
Tendöl had friendly relations with her Chinese companions and, thanks to them, was better fed at Po-Tramo than in the usual all-Tibetan labor camps. They were given work clothes and were able to wash themselves in the evening. They lived in large tents, had to build their own wooden box springs, and were guarded day and night by soldiers.
In the yellowed photos, amidst rhododendron bushes, Tendöl appeared to be in fairly good condition and looks surprisingly robust. “We spent a lot of time outdoors and got enough exercise,” she remarks wryly.
But the work was hard. Girls and boys had to chisel, blow, carry or crush stones day in and day out. The only free time they had was when the weather was so bad they couldn’t work. Hundreds of young people died of exhaustion or injuries and were buried there. Tendöl’s hands were still sore. Once a nail had penetrated his foot; barely able to walk, she still had to work.
The road through the rugged gorges of the Po-Tramo mountains was a secret government project involving five brigades of soldiers and workers, each with more than 5,000 people. The Chinese not only built roads, they also laid bare entire forested mountains and transported timber to China. After a few years, the huge area became completely sterile, Tendöl recalls.
Unlike Lhasa, this area of Kongpo was home to dense forests. In the past, it was said, you could ride here for days without seeing the sky. The area was rich in apricots, and the meat of wild boars was said to taste like apricots. The Chinese had created environmental destruction of gigantic dimensions. Kongpo was then practically deforested. The rich vegetation of this southern Tibetan landscape is gone forever.
During all these years, Tendöl could not confide in anyone. She did not tell anyone that her mother was in prison and claimed that her aunt was her mother. In the tent, she slept like a fetus with her legs and arms tight for protection. She overcame this habit but several years later. She still hasn’t forgotten how she cried to fall asleep every night until the pillow was completely soaked.
She longed for her beloved amala, whom she hadn’t heard in ages. She hid her family photos in her belongings. But she never gave up. She fought and tried to do good deeds so that her mother could survive in prison. She got up earlier than the other inmates and started the fire. In the evening, she boiled water and prepared the Chinese guards foot bath. Together with a Chinese girl, she distributed the food.
Like all the other inmates in the camp, she had a map with her accomplishments on it. Tendöl is the most industrious, he says. But it didn’t do her any good, because she was Tibetan and a Butruk on top of that.
Mao Zedong died on September 9, 1976. Tendöl had heard a few days earlier from her Chinese colleagues in the camp that the “great helmsman” was seriously ill. Among the Tibetans, someone had a small transistor radio, and they were all looking for information in Chinese broadcasts. They heard funeral music everywhere and saw the Chinese people in tears.
“We understood that we Tibetans also had to cry to avoid problems, even though the news of Mao’s death actually made us happy,” Tendöl recalls. They rubbed sand and dust in their eyes and the trick worked. The young Tibetans who were supposed to build roads wept as bitterly as the Chinese and, in honor of Mao, they also tied a white woolen rose to their work clothes and wore a black ribbon around their left arm.
In the fall of 1979, Tendöl and two Tibetan girls from Kongpo’s labor brigades spent a Chinese vacation in the nearby town of Po-Tramo. There, they met a group of men wearing traditional Tibetan chupas. Hearing the girls speak Tibetan, one of them asked, “Are you from Lhasa?” They answered: “Yes”.
“What are the girls of Lhasa doing in such a remote place?” a man wondered. Upon learning that Tendöl was Namseling’s daughter, they told him that he had passed away. Tendöl was immediately in tears. They gave each of the girls 200 yuan (about three months’ salary for road building).
The girls understood that these Tibetans had come from India and they were delighted, recalls Tendöl. But it never occurred to them that they had met the first Tibetan fact-finding delegation to Tibet sent by the Dalai Lama. Among the members were the brother of the Dalai Lama, Lobsang Samten, as well as his brother-in-law.
Chinese authorities then questioned the girls extensively about what had been said. Tendöl told them that his father was dead but never admitted that they had received any money which would have resulted in severe punishment.
Extracted with permission from A childhood in Tibet: the story of Tendöl, Thérèse Obrecht Hodler, Viking Penguin.