One day the Chinese occupying forces announced: “Children are allowed to work!” It was no longer a matter of collecting firewood or cow dung, but of proper work organised by the Chinese authorities. Tendöl was assigned to the Jokhang, the most sacred temple in the centre of Lhasa, which was partially destroyed.
All Buddha statues had already disappeared. It was said that the Chinese transported the copper the statues contained all the way to China to manufacture cartridges. The Tibetan children had to clean and tidy up. Everywhere they noticed traces of blood.
Tendöl heard that Tibetans had been murdered in the Jokhang by nails being pierced into their heads...the brutality was boundless. This was the time after Mao’s death when the Gang of Four tried to seize power in China.
After almost two years Tendöl was thrown out of school and assigned to a road construction group. As a butruk she was promised that she could complete an apprenticeship two years later. As expected, the promise was not kept, she spent almost five years at the road construction camp of Po-Tramo.
Together with many, mostly Chinese youths, she was taken on a three-day bus trip to Kongpo near the border with India. Chinese youths also had to work on road construction in order to obtain the right to attend school or to receive vocational training. They were divided into groups of 400; there were not more than two or three Tibetans per group.
Tendöl had friendly relations with her Chinese companions and, thanks to them, was better fed in Po-Tramo than in the usual all-Tibetan labour camps. They received work attire and were able to wash in the evening. They lived in large tents, had to build their own wooden bedsteads and were guarded day and night by soldiers.
In the yellowing photos, amidst rhododendron bushes, Tendöl seemed to be in pretty good shape and looks surprisingly robust. “We spent a lot of time outdoors and had enough exercise,” she remarks, ironically.
But the work was hard. Girls and boys had to chisel, blast, carry or smash stones day in, day out. The only free time they got was when the weather was so bad they couldn’t work. Hundreds of young people died of exhaustion or injuries and were buried on the spot. Tendöl’s hands were always sore. Once a nail had penetrated her foot; hardly able to walk, she still had to work.
The road blasted through the steep mountain gorges of Po-Tramo was a secret government project involving five brigades of soldiers and workers, each with over 5,000 people. The Chinese not only built roads, they cut whole forested mountains bare and transported the timber to China. After a few years the huge area became completely barren, Tendöl recalls.
In contrast to Lhasa, this area in Kongpo bore dense forests. In the past, it was said, you could ride here for days without seeing the sky. The region was rich in apricots, and the meat of the wild boars supposedly tasted like apricots. The Chinese had created an environmental destruction of mammoth dimensions. Kongpo was practically deforested then. The rich vegetation of this southern Tibetan landscape disappeared forever.
During all those years Tendöl could not confide in anyone. She told no one that her mother was in prison and pretended that her aunt was her mother. In the tent, she slept like a foetus with her legs and arms gripped tight to protect herself. She overcame this habit but many years later. She still hasn’t forgotten how she cried herself to sleep every night until the pillow was completely soaked.
She longed for her beloved amala, of whom she had heard nothing for ages. She hid the photos of her family in her belongings. But she never gave up. She fought and tried to do good deeds so that her mother would survive in prison. She got up earlier than the other inmates and lit the fire. In the evening, she boiled water and prepared the footbath of the Chinese guards. Together with a Chinese girl she distributed the food.
Like all the other camp inmates, she had a card with her achievements on it. Tendöl is the most industrious, it said. But it did her no good, because she was a Tibetan and a butruk on top of that.
Mao Zedong died on 9 September 1976. Tendöl had heard days before from her Chinese colleagues in the camp that the “Great Helmsman” was seriously ill. Among the Tibetans, someone owned a small transistor radio, and they all searched for information in Chinese broadcasts. They heard funeral music everywhere and saw the Chinese in tears.
“We understood that we Tibetans also had to cry to avoid problems, even though the news of Mao’s death actually brought joy to our hearts,” Tendöl recalls. They rubbed sand and dust in their eyes and the trick worked. The Tibetan youths who were supposed to build roads cried as bitterly as the Chinese and in Mao’s honour they also attached a white wool rose to their work clothes, and wore a black ribbon around their left upper arm.
In the fall of 1979, Tendöl and two Tibetan girls from the work brigades in Kongpo spent a Chinese holiday in the nearby town of Po-Tramo. There they met a group of men wearing traditional Tibetan chupas. On hearing the girls speak Tibetan, one of them asked, “Are you from Lhasa?” They replied, “Yes.”
“What are Lhasa girls doing in such a remote place?” a man wondered. On finding out that Tendöl was Namseling’s daughter, they told her that he had passed away. Tendöl was immediately in tears. They gave each of the girls 200 Yuan (approximately three months’ wages in road construction).
The girls understood that these Tibetans had come from India and they were overjoyed, 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. Amongst the members were the Dalai Lama’s brother, Lobsang Samten, and also his brother-in-law.
Chinese officials later questioned the girls intensively about what had been said. Tendöl told them that her father had died but never admitted that they had received money which would have entailed a severe punishment.
Excerpted with permission from A Childhood in Tibet: Tendöl’s Story, Thérèse Obrecht Hodler, Penguin Viking.
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