Part I. Before the Years of Sorrow
Chapter 1. Childhood in the Land of Flowers
Chapter 2. From Nyarong
Chapter 3. Family and Traditions
Chapter 4. Memories of Karze
Part II. Invasion and Imprisonment
Chapter 5. The Advent of Communism
Chapter 6. Forgotten Promises
Chapter 7. Desperate Battles
Chapter 8. Arrest
Chapter 9. "We Will See that You Suffer for the Rest of Your Life"
Chapter 10. Gothang Gyalgo
Part III. Lotus in the Lake
Chapter 11. Pouring Water on a Stone
Chapter 12. Reunions
Part IV. An Unstilled Voice
Chapter 13. Liberalization
Chapter 14. Freedom
Chapter 15. "Testimony for the Dead and the Living"
Epilogue: The Wheel of Time
Appendix: Historical Summary
Glossary of Names, Places, and Terms
Resources on Tibet
This book is a moving testimony of both the suffering and the heroism of the Tibetan people. It mostly concerns Ama Adhe, who spent twenty-seven years of her life in Chinese prisons. She and the members of her family were imprisoned because they participated in the Tibetan resistance movement that started in the early 1950s. It is people like them who have given the Tibetan struggle its impetus and endurance.
I am happy not only that people will be able to read Ama Adhe's story, but also that she survived to tell it. Hers is the story of all Tibetans who have suffered under the Chinese Communist occupation. It is also a story of how Tibetan women have equally sacrificed and participated in the Tibetan struggle for justice and freedom. As she herself says, hers is the "voice that remembers the many who did not survive."
I am convinced that people who read this book will come to understand the true extent of the suffering of the Tibetan people and the attempts that have been made to eliminate their culture and identity. I hope that as a result some may also be inspired to lend their support to the just cause of the Tibetan people.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
There are few stories that can be told that match the one you are about to read. It is the heroic story of one woman who sustained her human dignity, integrity, and compassion in the face of immense degradation and suffering. Imprisoned for twenty-seven years for her resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, this extraordinary woman, Adhe Tapontsang, bears witness to the ongoing tragedy of the Tibetan people through the lens of her own experience. Unfortunately, the conditions described within this book have not disappeared; the hardships that Adhe tells of continue to prevail for the millions of Tibetans still living in Tibet.
My involvement with this story began in the summer of 1988. My friend Joan sat on the steps of her garden in upstate New York, showing me photographs of herself with her Tibetan friends in Dharamsala, India--the Himalayan village that became the headquarters of the Tibetan Government-In-Exile shortly after His Holiness the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet in 1959. It was in Joan's garden, among the roses and daylilies, that I first heard of the terrible struggle and betrayal of a brave people overwhelmed by the calculated Communist invasion of their previously independent land.
Joan, knowing that she would soon die of cancer, had decided to spend her last days in Dharamsala, among the people she had come to love. As we said good-bye to each other, standing by her garden wall that summer day, I realized I would never see her again. She passed away in India the following winter.
The next spring, I visited Dharamsala for the first time, partly to meet the friends of whom she'd spoken so highly and partly to offer whatever help I could to the Tibetans. During that visit, I had the opportunity to meet with Tenzin Geyche, the personal secretary of the Dalai Lama, and to explore how I might be of service. When I returned to Dharamsala in the spring of 1990, the human rights officer of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, Ngawang Drakmargyapon, introduced me to one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever met: Adhe Tapontsang.
At our first encounter, both Adhe and I immediately felt a deep affection and an inexplicable bond, which has deepened over the years. Adhe now considers me her adopted daughter. Likewise, I address her with the respectful and affectionate term "Ama," or mother, as she is known throughout the Tibetan community. She requested at that first meeting that I take the time to write down her story with special attention to the details that she wanted to relate; this included describing not only the wounds of her besieged land, but the precious memories of an ancient culture she had known before her arrest. Moved by her chilling story and her inspiring strength and integrity, I agreed to set down her tale, beginning with her idyllic childhood, through her long imprisonment, torture, and eventual release.
During our early interviews, Ama Adhe and I sat on two beds in a stark room in the refugee reception center in Dharamsala, accompanied by the human rights officer, Ngawang, who served as our translator. I listened with amazement as her story unfolded. When speaking of her youth, she closed her eyes, and her face was transformed into that of a laughing, lighthearted child. In contrast, reminiscences of her own incredible suffering were told with hardly any emotion. I struggled to maintain a similar degree of equanimity when, for example, she showed me a finger disfigured by the insertion of bamboo shoots beneath the nail. Throughout all of our interviews, the only times Ama Adhe cried were when she recalled the misery of others‹the many family members, friends, and strangers whose tortures and terrible deaths she had witnessed.
The matter-of-fact tone with which Ama Adhe recounts her horrifying experiences is at times almost unsettling. However, the reader should understand that this tone is a reflection of the Tibetan language and culture itself. It has often been noticed by foreigners that Tibetans are disinclined to speak of their own lives in dramatic or tragic terms. This may be because dwelling on one's personal misfortunes implies self-centeredness--an undesirable trait from the Buddhist perspective that pervades Tibetan society. The selflessness implied by Ama Adhe's strikingly straightforward tone may be what enabled her to survive the horrible events she relates in this book.
Ama Adhe and I hope that this book will serve as a voice for the Tibetan people in the remembrance of the many who have not survived and who continue to be threatened by the ongoing Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Although the circumstances of her life are tragic, the wisdom, strength, and courage that Ama Adhe sustained through those many torturous years place her among those rare human beings who would not turn their backs on those in need or repeat a doctrine they did not believe in. To Tibetans, Adhe is a symbol of courage and determination; to me, she speaks for a people who against great odds valiantly maintain their culture, their religion, and their inner freedom.
I have traveled a long distance from the land of my youth, from the dreams and innocence of childhood, and have come to see a world that many of my fellow Tibetans could never have dreamed of.
There was no choice but for me to make this journey. Somehow, I have survived, a witness to the voices of my dying compatriots, my family and friends. Those I once knew are gone, and I have given them my solemn promise that somehow their lives will not be wiped out, forgotten, and confused within a web of history that has been rewritten by those who find it useful to destroy the memory of many I have known and loved. Fulfilling this promise is the only purpose remaining in my life.
As a witness, I have prepared long and carefully. I do not understand the reason that this has come to be my part to play; but I understand very well the purpose of what must be said. Although the world is a bigger place than I had dreamed, it is not so large that all its inhabitants are not somehow connected. Sooner or later, actions make their way in a chain of effects from one person to another, from one country to another, until a circle is completed. I speak not only of the past that lives in me, but of the waves that spring from the rock thrown into the water, moving farther and farther until they reach the shore.
I am free now. There are no guards outside my door. There is enough to eat. Yet an exile can never forget the severed roots of beginnings, the precious fragments of the past carried always within the heart. My greatest desire is to return to the land of my birth. That will not be possible until Tibet is once again the land of her own people. At this time, I am considered an outlaw by the Chinese administration because I have chosen not to lower my head and try to forget the years of slavery that so many of my people have endured.
But I can remember back beyond the years of sorrow...looking outside the window of my present home in Dharamsala, I can see a mountain illumined by the evening moon. Though it is beautiful, it reminds me of another, greater mountain below which my early life unfolded.
I grew up in freedom and happiness. Now those memories seem to belong to another time, to a place far away. As I pass through the hours of each day, my heart remains with the memories of my family and friends whose bones have become part of a land now tread by strangers.
In 1987 the time came for me to leave my native land. In order to do this, it was necessary to convince the authorities that I would soon return and would speak to no one of my life's experiences: of the destruction of so many lives through torture, starvation, and the degradation of slave-labor; of so many monasteries, the ancient treasures of which were desecrated and stolen for the value of the gold they contained; of the countless thousands of monks, nuns, and lamas who died in the labor camps; of my own family, most of whom perished as a direct result of the occupation of our land.
As I prepared for my journey they told me, "It is not good to die in a foreign land. One's bones should rest in the land of one's birth." My heart agrees, and it saddens me to live with my people in a community of refugees. Yet, the heart of a culture lives in its people. Its preservation resides in their willingness and freedom to carry on its traditions. It is only in exile that I am free to speak of my life's joys and sorrows. Until my land is free, it is in exile that I must remain.
Within my heart lies the memory of a land known as Kham, one of Tibet's eastern regions. In voicing my experiences, I hope that the culture of my homeland as well as the horrendous suffering and destruction imposed on its people will not continue to be easily dismissed as a casualty of what has often been termed progress.
Childhood in the Land of Flowers (excerpt)
Even now as I close my eyes, I can recall my first memory--laughing, spinning, and falling in fields of flowers beneath an endless open sky. Playing among the flowers was our favorite summer pastime. My childhood friends and I would take off our boots and chase each other. Then we looked to see if a specific type of flower had gotten caught between our toes. To us this meant that we must run again through the part of the meadow where that flower grew. We loved to roll about on the hills, breathing deeply the fragrance of fresh earth and blossoms. We looked closely at the many different forms and colors of the flowers: so delicate, yet they had claimed this region as their own. In summer, such a vast variety of every color and shade inhabited the meadows that it was difficult for us to identify them all. In fact, our land was known as Metog Yul, or Land of Flowers.
The Tibetans in our region of Kham were nomads and semi-nomadic farmers. In summer, most farming families like mine took their herds to graze in the mountains. When this season arrived, the people of my village and various family members from outlying areas packed all our necessary belongings on yaks and mules, and journeyed to the nomadic mountain regions to graze our animals. There, we would stay from late June to October, camping in the grasslands and high alpine meadows of the Kawalori Massif.
Sometimes we children asked our parents to provide us with utensils, tea, and food, which we took to wherever we were playing and used to prepare our own refreshments. First we collected dry wood and built a fire, and then we made the tea. As it began boiling, we felt as if we had really accomplished something. I always remember the food we children shared together in the meadows as being more delicious than what we ate at home with our parents and elders.
My friends and I discussed things we had overheard from our parents' conversations. We recalled pilgrimages our families had taken with us, describing to each other the various sights we'd seen on the way. Another favorite topic was the apparel and jewelry of our older sisters. All of us eagerly awaited the day when we could wear our own jewelry of silver, gold, and semiprecious stones. At mealtime our parents called us, but we pretended not to hear and continued playing, teasing each other, and sharing our dreams.
My father often sat with his friends discussing their various interests and enjoying chang, a popular barley ale. In the late afternoons, having grown tired of play, I loved to sit at his feet. He often gazed in the direction of the Kawalori peaks. Just the sight of those mountains often inspired him to raise his cup in a toast and sing:
Upon the snowy peaks the lion cub is born.
O mountain treat gently that which is your own.
May the white mountain be mantled always with eternal snow,
And may the mane of the snow lion grow long.
I would listen to my father and ask him to sing those words again and again. He explained to me that Kawalori, or "Eternal Snow," is the name of a great Himalayan deity who resides within the mountains, and that the land on which we stood was his domain. Memories of my father have become intertwined with the recollection of that mountain's snowy peaks. He taught me to love them as he did, illumined as they were with ever-changing sunlight, or silhouetted by the moon, surrounded by clean, ice-laden winter winds and the swirling mists of autumn and spring.
We had many friends among the region's nomads, who were known to us as drogpa. They were a simple and very hardy people, suspicious of strangers, but true friends once their confidence was won. The nomads were very independent, preferring the open grasslands to the protection and confinement of towns. They were comfortable in even the harshest weather, residing their entire lives in large tents woven of yak hair. At seasonal intervals the nomads packed up their sturdy tents and moved their herds to new pastures. They relied almost solely on their herds for sustenance, for they did not farm and never saw the value of eating vegetables. They felt the growing of "such grass" for human consumption to be a foolish waste of time, and they found it humorous that people would give up the freedom of the open spaces to grow something that should rightly be eaten by yaks.
The only time the nomads came down from the mountains was when they wanted to trade, to pay yearly taxes in animal products, or for the purpose of pilgrimage. The tribes had their own hereditary chieftains and lived according to their own tribal laws. Though they spoke a dialect somewhat different than our own, we could understand each other.
During our summer stay in the nomads' region, we camped in comfortable yak-hair tents like theirs. It was a very peaceful time. Aside from tending the herds, there were not many responsibilities, and we spent the season enjoying the company of family and friends. During the summer the whole mountain was full of animals‹cattle, horses, sheep, and goats of the camping families. We also had 25 horses and a herd of about 150 cattle, an average size in Kham. We kept mostly dri, or female yaks, from which we obtained milk and the fine butter used both for cooking and as fuel for our lamps. Dri butter was so important to our culture that it was considered a proper offering in the temples and was used as an exchange in trade or even as payment in taxes.
Toward the end of October it was time to pack our tents and make our way down into the valley. My friends and I would sit one last time among the dry and fading wildflowers, looking around at the great open expanse. Some of us would not meet until the next summer, and so the parting was difficult, but we assured each other that when the snows melted, undoubtedly we would be together again.
After some time, one of Pema's men, Lhoyang, broke down under torture and gave my name as one of the people who had helped the resistance fighters. Jughuma's assistant, Paljor, had been enlisted to work as one of the Tibetan translators for the Chinese. He came up to our camp in the nomadic regions to warn me that I might be arrested and that if that happened, I would be subjected to public manhandling by people I might not have liked before or who didn't like me. He admonished me, "You will suffer if you don't accept the Chinese and keep your mouth shut." He promised that he would try to cover for me by saying that I had never opposed the Chinese system.
As I gazed at the beautiful meadows around me, I wondered if this was the last time that I would see them and feel the freedom of the high mountains. As a child, I had never conceived of leaving this place. It was a most important part of me. I'd always felt that I belonged to the meadows, as did the flowers, the clouds, and the brilliant stars that filled the night sky above our evening fires as we laughed together and told stories of our land. I thought of my happy childhood friends with garlands of flowers in their hair and remembered how free we were in our innocence. I recalled the loving care of my brother Jughuma and the security of his company and how we had laughed as we rode together, sharing our special understanding.
I refused to bring more fear to those who were close to me, and so it seemed there was no one to whom I could speak of my fears and uncertainties. I remembered how my husband had died an early death at the Communists' hands; and I knew that, like him, there was nothing I could do to change my destiny. I could only wait.
Every night, I held my children close to me and wondered when my time would come. I looked hard at their faces and tried to memorize everything about them. At any moment, I might be taken away from them and I did not know when‹or if‹they would be returned to me. My little daughter was only one year old. My son, Chimi Wangyal, now three years old, could not stand to be separated from me. He could not remember his father. Even though he was just a young child, he had somehow developed a very protective instinct toward me.
I wondered what kind of life my husband and I might have been able to give him if we had managed to escape to Lhasa. What would become of this sweet child when I was taken away?
Very early in the morning of October 16, 1958, I arose. Little Chimi was just waking up. I hugged him and dressed him in his tiny yellow chuba, securing its red sash and adjusting the cloth above it, as he stood sleepily looking into my eyes, gently holding onto my braids. Then I glanced at my still-sleeping daughter and smiled. Suddenly, the sound of barking dogs attracted my attention. Lifting the tent flap, I saw six armed Chinese policemen and three Tibetans. "They're here to arrest me!" I thought, and my legs began to feel weak. As they came closer, I realized that Paljor, Jughuma's servant, was among them.
One of the Tibetans ordered, "You must come with us now." I told them that it wasn't possible because I could not leave my children. At that point, first one man, then several more came forward and started beating me. They kicked and hit me, and I was struck very hard on my right ear. I fell on the floor and was tied with rope. As they tied me, my little daughter, now awake, laughed happily as she sat on the bed. She must have thought that we were playing a game.
My son kept crying, screaming, and calling, "Ama, Ama." He kept trying to reach me to grasp my dress, but the soldiers kept pushing him back, kicking him hard with their boots. Looking up, I saw that Paljor was in tears. He tried in vain to comfort Chimi, whose eyes were wild with fright. I still refused to walk, insisting that I couldn't leave my children, and so they dragged me outside. Everyone had gathered outside their tents, and they begged them not to take me. But it was useless. Pulling the ropes, they dragged me along the ground a distance of about one kilometer to Karze Day-tshal monastery.
As I was being taken away, I could hear my women friends crying and my children's voices calling from a long distance. For a while, it was possible to see the small terrified figure of my son running, trying to catch up, and calling to me. I do not know how I didn't die then and there.
When we reached the monastery, they were angry with me for having refused to cooperate. They complained that I hadn't listened to them and had been unwilling to walk. One of the Chinese policemen said, "We can see that you are just a woman. Do you know what you have done? Now you will realize whether you or we have won. Now we will see how brave and strong you really are."
They tied my hands behind me, pulled them upward with a rope, and then suspended me from the ceiling. My arms felt as though they would break, and my chest felt very tight. Initially, all that registered in my mind was the sound of them laughing at me. Then the thought came that I mustn't say anything. I decided not to plead for mercy. Suddenly, everything below me started spinning, and I lost consciousness. Afterward, Paljor told me that mucus had been coming out of my mouth.
When I woke up, I was lying on the floor. Shortly after I regained consciousness, they came and pulled me to my feet. I was taken to the courtyard. While they complained that I would "never listen," they pushed me up onto a horse and again tied my hands from the back and then tied my legs as well. In that manner, they took me to Karze prison. As we went along, I had no balance and kept falling over to one side or another. Just before I fell off the horse, they would push me up again.
The first thing that they did at the prison was take away my chuba belt, bootstraps, the silk cords that tied my hair, my rosary, and my amulets. This, of course, was to prevent suicide. Then I was taken downstairs and put into a cell for women prisoners. Inside were four women who were staring at each other, afraid to speak. Conversation was not allowed. The female guard showed me one spot where I was supposed to stay. There was no type of bedding and no mattresses.
A wooden bucket in the center of the room served as the only toilet. There was no water available inside the cell, which was about nine by fifteen feet. It had no electricity or any form of lighting except for a small hole through which the guards looked. Every morning at ten and in the evening at five, someone would be allowed to go out and empty the toilet pot. The food given to the prisoners was quite poor and meager. There was no form of cleaning whatsoever.
Sometimes we heard people walking outside, and occasionally a child among them was heard crying. That sound always gave me a burning sensation in my heart. I hardly slept at night, and when I did, I dreamt of being with my children, embracing them, breastfeeding them, preparing their meals. In the morning, I woke up feeling completely lost, and wondered, "What is happening to them?"
Immediately after my arrest and imprisonment, they executed two Tibetans. In the early morning of the fourth day, I was called upstairs to an office where five Chinese policemen and a translator were waiting. I learned then that Pema Gyaltsen and I were being charged as two of the key rebels in the Karze region of Kham.
The head officer said, "You'd better distinguish between the black sheep and the white sheep. Now you must confess. If you don't confess everything, you will have a very hard time. Your children are outside with no one to look after them. If you tell us the truth, you can go."
They accused me of being the leader of the women's resistance. I told them that I knew of no one involved in any such thing, and I gave them several personal reasons that gave me cause to hate the Chinese. I told them, "My father died in your hospital shortly after he began speaking out regarding your policies. My husband died before my eyes. Look at what has happened to my brother and brother-in-law. Under these circumstances, what do you expect me to feel? Still, there was no need to involve other people in my actions." The head officer said, "We have already heard from your mother and your friends all that you have done. We are now just asking for the sake of formality."
During our resistance meetings, my friends and I had all promised each other never to divulge anything under questioning about what we were doing or even about knowing each other. Until the Chinese brought someone face to face with me who had been involved or who had known about our activities, I decided to say nothing.
While being interrogated, I was handcuffed, kicked, and struck with rifle butts all over my body. They forced me to kneel on two sharpened triangular pieces of wood with my hands raised above my head. Every time I lowered my arms, they struck my elbows with rifle butts. Somehow, though, I managed not to tell them anything.
The first interrogation ended. The senior Chinese policeman told me, "You should now consider whether you want to go back and take care of your two children or whether you would prefer to be executed. If you tell us what your mother has already told us‹how you people met, who the leaders were, who else was in the group‹then you can return to your family."
I was given three days in my cell to decide whether I wanted to go back to my children and my mother by informing on all the members in the group, or whether I was prepared to die for the sake of not cooperating.
When I was brought back upstairs, the senior officer said, "Now tell us what you have concluded." I responded, "You have given me three days to think over these two choices, but now I can only tell you that I have nothing to confess. If I concoct things, it won't do you any good, so what can I do? I have no names to give you. I have nothing to say."
The interrogator replied, "You have chosen death for yourself." After translating this for me, Yeshi Dorje, the Tibetan translator, warned me in our own language, "If you don't tell them anything, they will kill you." Then the interrogator said, "So you still think that you are very brave and bold." He ordered the soldiers to handcuff me, and I was returned to my cell.
Conditions there were very uncomfortable. The floors were cold and damp, and the room smelled terrible. All these days I hadn't been able to breastfeed my daughter, and my breasts had swollen and were causing me pain. There was a pain in my right ear, and I found that I could no longer hear from that side. I constantly imagined that I could hear a child crying.
Because I was handcuffed, I realized the great extent to which a human being is disabled by not having the use of one's hands. Even to stand up made me feel uneasy. I could not even go to the toilet without someone offering to help me by lifting my chuba and holding me steady.
Some of the women in my cell had decided to risk whispering a few words to each other in the night. Their names were Lhaga, Lhamo Dolma, and Dolma Yagtso. These were my most compatible companions.
Lhaga, the daughter of Gyapontsang of Dhargye, was related to the leading families of the five Hor States, including the Sandhutsangs and the Chagzotsangs. The Gyapontsang family also had very close ties with Reting Rinpoche, the regent of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Lhaga had been given in marriage to the house of Beri Pon, and from that time she had been known as Beri Lhaga.
Lhamo Dolma was a nun who was known in the society as someone who could give good divinations. She was always consulted by the Khampas in her region when they were planning attacks and strategies. They asked her when and where they should fight in the mountains or whether they should surrender. For this, she was arrested and detained.
Dolma Yagtso, my third cellmate, was arrested after an incident that occurred in 1958, after the Tibetans had finally run out of arms and ammunition and were forced to participate in the communes being organized in Karze. The remaining lands, property, and animals of the Tibetans in our region were seized. People were made to work twelve to fourteen hours a day, and a system of political work-points was introduced. Each day, the amount of work each member of the commune had completed was tabulated, and the worker was awarded a certain number of points and a commensurate amount of grain. Party policy demanded that the people "tighten their belts," and this policy was enforced with the slogan, "Eat Less, Produce More." Every commune was required to meet a production quota fixed by the Party. If these quotas were not met, the members of the commune were punished. If the commune produced more than the production quota, they were rewarded with higher work-points. The workers were told that based on the work-points, in time they would receive currency and coupons that would entitle them to a certain amount of grain and small quantities of butter or oil.
The communes were required to hand over a portion of the food production as tax and sell another portion to the state for a very low price. Ultimately, the bulk of the communes' produce was sent to China. After the commune system was in place, the Chinese began the propagation of winter wheat, which they preferred, and the fields under barley cultivation decreased. It soon became very difficult even for Tibetans who were not imprisoned to obtain our traditional tsampa.
Communal kitchens were established. The food most commonly served was a watery soup with a sprinkling of vegetable parts that would ordinarily be thrown away, such as the parts of radishes that join the leaves. The commune workers lived in a constant state of hunger. Those who had more strength bore the responsibility of sharing what they earned with the aged and infirm. During those times, families could not have a fireplace; everyone was supposed to cook and eat their meals from a communal kitchen.
One day, the house that Dolma Yagtso was living in caught fire. She was blamed and charged with the possession of an illegal stove and cooking her own meals, and was brought to Karze prison.
When the prisoners were interrogated, for the sake of saying something, they spoke about very insignificant things. After four days, I was called again and did the same kind of generalizing. The interrogators got very angry and started manhandling me. I'd been continuously handcuffed for four days, and my hands were still cuffed behind my back. They kicked me so heavily on the thighs that a lump developed; it can still be felt thirty-nine years later.
As I fell to the ground, I was manhandled by seven or eight Chinese policemen. Except for Yeshi Dorje, everyone was hitting me where they liked. Sometimes they pulled my hair; other times they stood me up, then forced my knees down on pieces of sharpened wood. Once they inserted fine bamboo all the way under my second fingernail until the skin below the nail was broken at the base of the first joint. Pushing bit by bit, they tried to force me to give them information. However, the faces of my family and friends kept coming before me, and by now it was apparent t