Tibetan Refugee’s Story of Being a Child in the 1989 Lhasa Protests

Before, I thought that the Chinese were so wonderful … so nice … then when I saw them actually beating people, killing my own people, I thought, they are so ruthless, so cruel in their hearts.
~Tashi, Tibetan refugee

This is the remarkable story, in his own words, of a 16-year-old Tibetan refugee, Tashi, who was a child observer of two of Lhasa’s most intense independence demonstrations and who was incarcerated for attacking a Chinese man at the age of thirteen. Tashi told his story to YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon in a series of interviews conducted between August and December 1995, in Dharamsala, Northern India. In order to protect both Tashi and his family, who remain under Chinese rule in Tibet, his real name will not be used. The same applies to the interviews’ excellent translator, Jigme.

The 1987 Demonstrations: Carrots and Innocent Questions

Tibetan Photos -- Two Boys -- Not Tashi of this storyI think it was on the first of October in 1987, which was one of the first demonstrations in Lhasa since the Cultural Revolution. I was about eight years old.

On that day, my mother sent me to the market to buy some carrots. On the way to the market, I was just hanging around, and I saw people were gathering and people were shouting “Po rang zen sangmayin,” which means “Complete Freedom for Tibet,” and “Chinese out of Tibet.”

At first, I saw all of these things, and I all could think about was that I wanted to get my carrots and go back home.

After that demonstration in 1987, all I saw and all I heard was that the participants had been mostly nuns and monks, who were very highly respected in Tibet. Then I was very curious about why they were demonstrating, so I asked my parents why so many monks and nuns had been arrested and killed, and why all these horrible things had happened.

All my parents told me was that that had been a very good thing, but they never told me in detail. They were very afraid that I would go to participate in another demonstration, or something like that. Then, all the time, they just said, “Don’t go, and don’t join that,” I think it was because they were very afraid, and out of their love and affection. Also, I was very small.

Lhasa, March, 1989: Blood in the Barkhor School Courtyard

In 1989, I was ten, and in school at the Barkhor Primary School. I don’t remember the exact date, but I think it was in March. One morning, around mid-morning, we were in class, and we heard a riot going on, a lot of people shouting. When the riot started, me and my classmates were very curious and wanted to see what was happening, so we ran to the windows.

We saw wounded nuns and monks, and lay people as well, being dragged into the school courtyard, through the school gates. We couldn’t see the courtyard itself from our second floor classroom, so I went downstairs to get a look at the injured people in the courtyard.

Of the people that I saw that were wounded, some were shot in the leg, some had been grazed by bullets on the stomach or leg. Some cloths had been tied around people’s legs, above the wounds, to stop the bleeding.

Some had been beaten on the head with electric prods and different kinds of sticks, and were bleeding everywhere. Some people had been shot in the stomach, or something, and they were just bleeding everywhere, so I couldn’t see exactly.

It was difficult to see the wounded people who’d been dragged into the school because the teachers were telling us to get back into the classroom. Also, when I was downstairs, looking at all the people injured, crying, and shouting — all these terrible things — at some point, I just couldn’t look anymore, feeling so scared and sad at the same time. So I went back, around a corner, for a while, until I couldn’t help myself and went again to look.

Back in the classroom, through the window, we could see the Chinese military shooting tear gas into the crowd. There were so many police and military. A few of them had sticks and electric prods; most of them had machine guns. They were wearing helmets and carrying shields. They were shooting.

Of the people who were demonstrating, the people in front actually weren’t getting wounded as much as the people in back. I think maybe they were protected by protector deities or something. There was one Khampa man who got a tear gas pellet caught inside his chuba [Tibetan cloak, tied at the waist], and he panicked, jumping and shouting that he was burning, that his eyes were burning. Some people threw some water on him, but it didn’t help.

At first, there were more demonstrators than Chinese; later on more and more Chinese military and police came and the people had to retreat. The people escaping from the back were captured, beaten on the spot, and ruthlessly thrown into special trucks. There were some people escaping in the distance who were being shot, some in the head or stomach.

Jampa Tenzin -- Tibetan monk who rescued other monks from burning police stationI saw people lying on the ground, not moving, but I wasn’t sure if they were dead or not. I did hear people shouting that our people had been killed, and women crying.

The Tibetans were so angry and emotional about that that they kept on demonstrating, even though people were getting injured and killed. When I saw those wounded people, I was trembling, feeling very sorry for them.

At the same time, I was feeling very afraid. I wanted to go out and join them, but I was so afraid of fighting the Chinese. There were so many of them, and they had guns and everything.

From the window of my class we could see directly the police station, just so close to the school. Especially from the window of my class, we could see everything that was going on down there. I saw a lot of people, a lot of things going on … people shouting …. Some people were snatching the guns from the Chinese, and throwing them down on the ground. I was thinking, “Oh, shit, why don’t they pick up the guns and shoot back?”

That was all I was thinking about because I was, you know, feeling very emotional, there was so much anger and so much going on in my head that I wanted the Tibetans to shoot back. But when I arrived in India, I heard a lot of things and I thought, “Oh, that was right, the non-violent approach to freedom is very good.” I realize that now.

Near the police station, there were Chinese shops belonging to some communes, some of which were burned. I didn’t see anything that was going on inside, but I saw people go inside. Among those people that went in were some of my friends who escaped from the class somehow.

Later on, I heard from them about what had happened inside. Inside the shops, they [the Tibetans] drank some cokes and beer, because they were thirsty. And there was one Khampa man who touched the money box, but another man came over and grabbed the money box and poured kerosene all over it, then burned it. My friends, telling the story, said, “It was so great. We were thinking that we were definitely going to win the fight if something like that could happen.”

Then later on, I saw the demonstrators fleeing, using different routes. Some were just going around the school, some were escaping by a small path below the school. The wounded people inside the school were taken out the back door of the school, the people carrying them saying that they were bringing them to the hospital.

Other people, unwounded, who had just been hiding in the school, just jumped over the wall and escaped. The Chinese actually didn’t come inside because the gate was locked. Maybe they thought since it was just a primary school ….

The students were kept in the school until the parents came to pick them up. Sometime after lunch, maybe 2 or 3 PM, my mother came to pick me up. I asked my mother where my father was, and she told me that he was home. When we arrived home, we found that my father wasn’t there.

We waited for him, and in the evening, he finally arrived home with a very sad look on his face, and a very heavy heart, saying, “Today, we lost a lot of people’s lives, and a lot of people were arrested.” He looked extremely sad. My mother prepared dinner, but they didn’t eat anything. I was starving, though, and ate a big dinner.

Having seen that demonstration brought some changes in my mind. Among the people who were participating in the demonstration, I saw that there were some kids the same age as me, and I was really impressed, and amazed to see that.

I was thinking, “Oh, they must know a lot,” and I felt very ashamed that I didn’t know anything about the history, because at school all you are taught is about the “Great Motherland,” and the “Great Liberator, the People’s Liberating Army”, all this junk. The demonstrations changed all that for me.

Before, I thought that the Chinese were so wonderful … so nice … then when I saw them actually beating people, killing my own people, I thought, they are so ruthless, so cruel in their hearts. I couldn’t believe that they could be so cruel to other people, living beings just like them. I was thinking that they had no compassion.

I asked my parents about the history, and why it happened, but they didn’t tell me much. But I really developed some hatred against the Chinese, you know, no matter if it was police, military, or ordinary people.

1989 – 1990: In Kongpo with Grandfather

After the demonstration in ’89, I think it was in March, the school was closed for a few months. At that time there were a lot of things going on, military on the streets, martial law. So my parents were very afraid for me, and decided to send me back to Kongpo, where I was born. I was sent back there, and began attending a school in Kongpo.

In Kongpo, I lived with my grandfather. When I first arrived, my grandfather was very curious about what had happened in Lhasa. He asked me about the demonstrations, and I told him everything that I’d seen and heard. He was so moved that he was crying.

Then my grandfather told me a lot of things about what was going on before the Chinese came to Tibet. He said, “since the Chinese came, what has changed? A lot of bad things. Before the Chinese came, the people had good lives. Some were poor, but still they were happy.” My grandfather himself had a very good life, he said, but he was also talking about other people who were not rich at all but still were happy.

He said that before the Chinese came, “we had complete freedom; we could go anywhere we wished if we had the money. We could go to India if we wanted; we could travel freely inside Tibet itself. Before I die, I want to see His Holiness, but I can’t get the passport. I’ve waited for ten years, and still it’s impossible to get it.”

I stayed there for seven or eight months, and some time after the Tibetan New Year, Losar, 1990, my grandfather received news from my mother that my father had been arrested by the Chinese for political reasons. She was in need of money, and asking her father to send her some.

Several months later, my mother came to Kongpo, where I was living with my grandfather. Actually, she arrived with a man, but she came to my grandfather’s home alone. As they were talking, the man arrived, and he later proved to be my mother’s new husband. They decided to bring me back to Lhasa to get me into a school there, and they took me back to Lhasa.

1990 – 1992: Life on the Streets

Tibetan Photos --   Barkhor from Jokhang RoofAt the time I moved back to Lhasa, my new father was involved in the wool business. He was doing quite well, and the business was getting bigger and bigger. He started making business trips to China.

Once, he left, saying he’d be gone for a month, and he left enough money with my mother for one month. He took the rest of his money with him, because he was going to do a big business deal. A month later, he hadn’t returned. Even after two months, he still hadn’t come back. The money he left my mother ran out, and she had to borrow some money from friends.

More than two months later my new father came back to Lhasa. He told my mother that all his wool had been seized by the authorities, who had said that something was wrong with his paperwork. Then he asked my mother to return to China with him for a reason that was unclear to me, maybe to ask, to beg, that some of the money be returned by the authorities.

They returned to China together, and I was left with a relative of my new father, who was a tailor. I stayed there for a while. Then some counter-revolutionary leaflets were found in the tailor’s home, and he was arrested. Then I was left alone with the tailor’s wife, who was a horrible woman. I had to eat her leftovers, and things like that.

I was very sad, and all the time I was expecting my mother to come back. But three months went by and they still didn’t return. It was during this time that I began hanging out on the street, because I couldn’t stand to stay with that terrible woman.

I just left the tailor’s home, and was living on the street, and came to meet some street boys, some Khampas. I began to steal, but I didn’t want to steal anything from Tibetans, so I only stole from the Chinese store owners. I fought with the other street boys, and started to smoke and drink, things like that.

One day I was walking alone with some dogs, down the street, and I heard someone shouting, “Tashi!,” and when I turned back, I saw that it was my mother. I was so happy, and very sad at the same time. I ran up to my mother and hugged her, crying, and said, “I missed you so much.”

My mother saw me in those dirty clothes, with long dirty hair, and she was so sad, and she was crying. She asked me why I hadn’t stayed with the tailor. I told her that the tailor had been a very kind man, and that he’d treated me very well, but that the wife was terrible, and that I was going hungry there, so I left and just lived on the street with some friends.

My mother took me back home, and my normal life came back again. But it wasn’t long before things began to go badly. Since my new father’s business had gone bad, he had a lot of debts and he began to drink. People were always coming by our home, demanding repayment of loans, but my parents couldn’t pay. So my father got very depressed, and started drinking. Then my mother was sad, and they started to fight almost every day. I also became sad and depressed and I started staying with my friends, just coming home the next day to pick up my school bag to go to school.

1992 – 1993: In Juvenile Prison with Buddhist Nuns

One day with some friends, we skipped school to go swimming. At the riverside, there was one goose, and we were very hungry, so we killed the goose, broke its neck. One friend suggested a restaurant he knew where we could take it to cook and eat it.

At that moment, a man came along with a bicycle cart full of pork. When he saw the goose lying there dead, he started shouting, “That’s my goose! You killed my goose!” He was very angry, and he came over to confront us.

He was Chinese, and we thought, okay, he’s alone and we are together, so we can fight back. So we started fighting, and he was losing, so he tried to escape, to run away. Then we were chasing him with stones, and the youngest of us hit him in the back of the head with a stone. The man fell down on the ground and we beat him some more. We took the watch on his hand, and the money from his pockets, as well as the pork on his cart, which we sold.
After all that, we went back to swim. The police came while we were swimming, and we were arrested. They sent us directly to prison, but the police in the prison said, “Oh, those kids are too young,” and sent us to another prison called the Juvenile Re-education Center. I was thirteen at the time.

The head of that prison was a woman and she told the man in charge of us that the prison was actually quite full with nuns, and they didn’t really have room. But that woman knew the police officer quite well, and she told him that she’d take us anyway, as a favor to him.

Three days later, my parents had been informed, and came to the prison with some things for me — clothes and food. My father told me not to worry, that he would get me out. But two days later, some policeman came to where they were holding us six friends, and told us that we’d all have to stay there for three years.

My father went to everyone to try to get me out. It turned out that the police chief was a man with whom my father had had some trouble while doing business. The police chief seemed to be taking some kind of revenge on my father by keeping me, the son, in prison for three years. My father went there again and again, arguing with him, telling the chief that he was making a big deal out of nothing, that we were just six school kids, too young to be sentenced to three years. The Chinese man had been seriously injured, but he didn’t die.

That prison was supposed to be for juveniles, but actually, there were far more nuns than juveniles. We were something like 60-70 kids in all, and all the rest were nuns, old and young, all different ones, more than 120 I think.

Maybe because someone had once tried to escape and was discovered, there were very serious rules for the nuns. They were separated from each other. Each day they changed who was in a cell together, putting a different group of ten nuns in each cell every day. They were not allowed to talk openly. If they were found talking together, they’d be separated or beaten, different things like that.

The nuns wore their robes but they weren’t allowed to shave their heads, or they’d be beaten. Some of them had been in prison a long time, so they had long hair, sometimes below their shoulders, or even as far as their waists.
In jail, I had one nun friend — I met her at the water spout for washing clothes. She had a problem — she was maybe crazy — but everything in her mind was for Tibetan freedom. She had been arrested in the October 1987 demonstrations. Really, I don’t think she was crazy —  she just acted like that so the Chinese wouldn’t punish her so badly. She knew I wanted to learn more about Tibetan independence, so three times she wrote me letters teaching me about the freedom movement. I would be very happy to see her now, here in Dharamsala.

In that prison, the families could visit once a month, and the nuns made chimiguti [nine-stringed bracelets symbolizing, at that time, Tibetan freedom] to give as little presents. But the guards would search them, and if they found the chimiguti they would not allow the nun to visit her family that month.

One time, four boys escaped — they were maybe 15 or 16 years old, because they were pretty big, but not yet 17, because at 17 they used another prison, for older guys. Two days after they escaped, the Chinese caught them. Then they were badly beaten.

For one whole day, we see them hung by one arm, by handcuffs, on the gate, their feet not touching the ground. I talked to one of them four days after that — we were cleaning — and his hand was still red and swollen.

One day, I was singing in our cell, by the barred window. We weren’t supposed to do that, so the guard came. He said, “You’re a happy, lucky guy, aren’t you?” Then he said, “Come out,” and he make everyone in the cell come out — there were 16 of us.

He took a wooden stick, like a bat, and made us stand in a line facing him, like in the army, you know, and beat all of us, even the ones who were sleeping when I was singing. It was my fault, but he beat all of us. 
When they beat you, you couldn’t cry out or show pain, because they would beat you more. The guards hit us wherever they wanted — in the head, or arm, or leg.

Once, in one of the cells, my friends and I were under the long, wooden sleeping platform, looking for cigarette butts, when we found a piece of paper, which we guessed had been smuggled in from outside for the nuns. It was a small message reading, “Do not lose your determination; don’t lose heart. We heard on the radio that His Holiness gave a speech saying that Tibet could get its freedom soon.”

When I saw that, and I saw all those nuns, I felt very ashamed because they were there for a worthwhile reason, and I was there for hitting a Chinese man and robbing him of pork and his watch.  I promised myself that once I got out, I was going to join the movement and do something great and worthwhile.

Three months later, Tashi’s father was able to secure his release from the prison and he returned to school. Shortly thereafter, Tashi escaped to India, “to study and to learn about the real history of Tibet.” Now, he studies English in Dharamsala. At age 16, he’s trying to put the past behind, follow the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and become, in his own words, “a new man.”
 
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