Scribbles in the Sky

Tashi Tsering's escape from Tibet

Based on a taped interview; original article written in October 1972 and
revised in May 2001 on 50th anniversary of China's first invasion of Tibet

by DAVID V. APPLEYARD

Back in 1972 there can have been few people in Britain who had experienced the kind of horror that the then 17-year-old Tashi Tsering from Tibet had known while still so young in his beloved homeland. Where he is now I have no idea, but the country of his birth remains to this day occupied by communist China.

The story which Tashi had to tell was of peace-loving people content to be themselves in a life of isolation on the Roof of the World. In 1959 an ever-increasing Chinese interference in the affairs of Tibet came to a head in the form of a ruthlessly cruel and bloody invasion. In an interview recorded in September 1972,Tashi recalled for me as best he could the development and fulfillment of this tragic event. When viewed from a personal level through his eyes, perhaps we can gain a more vivid impression of an episode which too many people know too little about.

Tashi was born in 1955 in a place called Gongdka, which lies to the south of the capital city, Lhasa. In those early days both his parents were involved in the most common form of employment, namely sheep-rearing in the mountains. The Tsering family lived in a quite ordinary stone, block-shaped building housing three floors; the first contained a kitchen, the second a bedroom, and the third and uppermost was a room for prayer. I began my interview with Tashi by asking if he could remember any signs of the growing Chinese domination and influence on his country during the year or so immediately prior to the invasion:

"One day I was out looking after the sheep when I suddenly saw these armoured trucks rolling along the road — in the direction of Lhasa, I think. And from that time onwards I began wondering what such vehicles were doing in my country — I had never seen anything like them on the road before. We had always known only donkeys and yaks. I was only about four years old at the time, but I recall it well."

Soon afterwards Tashi was to come face to face with the reality of the situation:

"It all started on 10th March 1959 at about four o'clock in the morning, when I was suddenly woken by the sound of gunfire and shells exploding around my house. I went quickly to the window and looked down on Lhasa. There I could see tanks moving slowly through the streets on the outskirts of the city and many hundreds of people running in front of them, dashing into the cathedral for safety. I rushed to my parents and found them already packing. I wondered what was happening. Our leader, the Dalai Lama, had decided to do the impossible: to escape from the Chinese by walking right across the vast Himalayan range and into India. We were to follow him. After about an hour we were ready to go. By this time the tanks had reached the central square of Lhasa and were firing directly into the cathedral. We could now see people rushing out of it and towards these tanks, but simultaneously the tank guns fired and many fell to the ground. The square turned into a pool of blood before our eyes, but still more and more people hurtled out of that cathedral in an effort to save those within, and in fact one tank was completely overturned and set on fire. A short time afterwards we saw another tremendous blaze going up, which must have been another tank. But then a huge rumbling sound echoed out, followed by frantic screaming as the old cathedral finally collapsed with hundreds of people trapped inside.
"Sadly we turned and started our long march up and over the Himalayas. I was still under five years old at that time and so I was strapped onto the back of a yak so that I wouldn't fall. We made our way along the narrow paths and up into the snow-covered mountains. The going was very tough as we could hardly see where we were heading, and we kept bumping into rocks and one another. As the darkness turned to gray we realized that we were in a desolate area which was very rocky and of too high an altitude for there to be any vegetation. Eventually we found a cave and hoped the Chinese were not on our trail. We soon found out, however, that someone was and so we huddled farther and farther back into the cave and hoped that our yaks had walked some distance away. But the sound of people and animals came closer and closer until a voice right outside our cave said: 'Let us rest here.' Those words were said in Tibetan! We went to take a look and found some of our neighbours, and in the morning sunshine we could see many small groups trudging up the snowy hillside.
"After resting that day, we all joined together and marched in procession through the next night, and the next night, and so on night after night, resting by day. With every passing day the way seemed to get harder, the road steeper and the snow thicker. The days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months. We had put on all our clothes, layer after layer, to counteract the intense cold, and we prepared ourselves for the most difficult part of our journey. It would have been foolish to attempt this in darkness and with bulky clothes on, and so we rested another night and then started off just before first light. As we trudged on we came to our first real barrier — a massive cliff-face with only a tiny icy ledge to negotiate it by. This would not normally have been too difficult because a yak is a sure-footed animal, but as we edged up and around the outcrop the ledge became narrower and narrower, until it was obvious that someone was bound to fall. We stopped and our group-leader told us to rope all the yaks together and ourselves to the yaks for safety. We continued to edge our way forward. Suddenly, my yak slipped and would have fallen to its and my death but for the fact that we were all tied together. The yaks in front staggered back but they held us and then slowly struggled forwards again, pulling my yak up onto the ledge. Many people and yaks slipped and were not as lucky as I was, usually because the rope couldn't stand the strain.
"All day long we climbed up that cliff-face and reached the top during the late afternoon. A great number of us who were less fortunate had to face a night on the freezing ledge, and many people fell that night and on subsequent nights. Food was also getting scarce and so we had to kill some of our yaks. It was a difficult decision whether to kill a yak to eat or to keep it alive to help us during the weeks ahead. In fact, many yaks had to be killed, but as we Tibetans don't like killing anything many more lived and helped us struggle on. We all learnt, nevertheless, to follow the yak's example and burrow down through the snow to find any herbs or grass that might be growing there. As we climbed still higher we could find no vegetation at all once more, and then we had to resort to eating boiled leather. We now had snow four feet deep to contend with, but at least we could see the highest point of our climb — the ridge and border between Tibet and Assam.
"As we trudged on through the snow, falling over hidden boulders, we suddenly heard a droning sound in the sky and caught sight of a Chinese patrol plane flying along the border. The pilot saw us, dived down and opened fire. We dropped to the ground and tried to cover ourselves with snow, but many ran towards the border, thinking they would be safe on the other side in Assam. The plane pursued them, firing almost continuously and killing many hundreds of people. When the plane had at last left, all we could do was pick ourselves up, collect our living yaks together, and then set off to cover the remaining distance to the border.
"Before we started our journey downwards, we could not help turning to look back into Tibet. We stayed there for a long time, each with his own thoughts: sadness at leaving his country; grief at losing a friend or relative; relief at soon being out of reach for the Chinese, and wondering when we would be able to retrace our steps into a re-united Tibet. We turned and started to walk downhill into Assam, towards freedom and an uncertain future."

After their border-crossing the Tibetans were met by the Indian army. They were given all aid possible under the circumstances and were put into camps.

"The food that they gave us was so different from what we'd been used to in Tibet, and many of my fellow Tibetans became very ill. I myself was fortunate, but my elder sister had to spend two months in a hospital financed by the Indian government. The extremely hot climate also took some getting used to."

Tashi's parents received general aid and clothes from the Indian state, but nonetheless, in order to survive, they had to take up almost the only kind of work available — road-building. Men and women alike were expected to work long hours heaving heavy stones from one place to another, and then to assist in breaking up the larger boulders into smaller pieces. This form of tough manual labour is best understood by looking into the face of one to whom it means the difference between living and dying, food and no food. It is very poorly paid, potentially dangerous and injurious, and above all it is ageing. Yet in 1972 road-camps represented almost all of the employment opportunities open to some 85,000 Tibetans living in India. These road builders, however, were actually the "lucky" ones; the masses who, through sickness, injury, old age or just plain bad luck, had been unable to find work were forced to lead a life of begging or starvation.

Tashi went on to explain how he had ended up in faraway England:

"There was a settlement and nursery school organized in a place called Dharamsala. I was fortunate enough to be chosen to attend this school and I stayed there for three years. Then one day the mother of our leader, the Dalai Lama, sent for me and told me that I had been selected to go to England."

In fact the then recently established Pestalozzi children's organisation, which in 1972 already ran children's villages in several countries of the world, had decided to offer a home to some of the Tibetan children living a life of hardship in exile in India. Tashi was chosen to start a new life at the Pestalozzi Children's Village at Sedlescombe in Sussex. There he was to grow up in an atmosphere of racial harmony, love and understanding, and with all the educational opportunities enjoyed by local citizens. I recall there were children in the English-based village from Tibet, India, Thailand, Nigeria, Jordan and Vietnam, and some of them attended the same grammar school as I did.

In the summer of 1971 Tashi Tsering returned to India to pay a brief but unforgettable visit on his family after seven years of absence. Developments and changes struck him hard. Perhaps most important, however, was the fact that the plight of 85,000 Tibetans, who had been robbed of their homeland but gained their freedom, had become known to such an extent that much more international aid had been flowing in to help them.

In 1972 Dharamsala had eight national housing projects sponsored by Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Switzerland and Germany. Nevertheless, this was India, not Tibet. Deep within Tashi’s heart, as within those of his fellow Tibetans, there burned the ever flickering flame of hope — hope that one day he might see his homeland on the Roof of the World once more and then begin life anew.

I ask myself how much Nixon's "ping-pong diplomacy" ever did for Tashi Tsering and his people? Several million Tibetans were, and still are, living in fear and oppression, their lives dictated by Beijing. All that the Chinese communists will tell you is of the splendid way they "liberated" the Tibetan nation from what they saw as a "backward religion". Well, we have now heard an eyewitness account of this "heroic liberation".

Concluding the taped interview, with a sigh of bitterness and some thinly disguised emotion, Tashi expressed his feelings in the form of a much loved proverb: "No matter how fiercely the evil wind may blow, it cannot extinguish the flame of truth."

There still lies strength in these words.