Troubled Times: Voices of Tibetan Refugees, Part 1

Troubled Times: Voices of Tibetan Refugees, Part 1

Dollu fled to India in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy Tang Danhong)

In the summer of 2010, writer and filmmaker Tang Danhong and the young Tibetan translator Sangjey interviewed older Tibetan refugees in India, people who had fled their homes as the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibetan areas and slowly tightened Beijing’s grip. Some of the interviewees joined the Tibetan volunteer army Chushi Gangdruk in its armed rebellion against the Chinese Communists, with the aid of the CIA. Others told harrowing stories of imprisonment, flight, and survival. The refugees Tang interviewed called this period Dulog Yung, the “Troubled Times.”

Last summer, Tang began to publish some of the interviews, translated by Sangjey into Chinese, on her blog, Moments of Samsara. Today, CDT begins a weekly four-part series of excerpts from three interviews, translated into English.

Tang hopes to make a documentary from the interviews, and welcomes correspondence from filmmakers via Twitter at @DanHongTang.


Dollu was born around 1931 in Golog, Amdo (Golog Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai). She fled in 1958 and arrived in India five years later. Today she lives in the Dekyiling Tibetan Settlement in Sahastradhara, India.

Tang Danhong interviewed Dollu in 2010. The full Chinese transcript of Dollu’s interview is available on Tang’s blog.

My name is Dollu. This year I’m 79 years old, so I must have been born in 1931. I was born in Golog, and lived in a place called Tang Hege. My parents were herders and had seven children. My oldest brother was adopted by relatives. I was the youngest child, and am the only one from my family to who made it to India.

My father herded livestock and went to Ngawa and Garze to do business. Our mother was responsible for the milking, making yogurt and butter, herding, and preparing manure. We had about 2000 sheep and more than 300 yaks. By the grace of those animals,we never had to worry about clothing or food. Anything else we needed my father would obtain through trade. We didn’t farm, as our livestock provided all that we needed.

When I was a child I liked to chant, to go with the grownups to hear scripture read, to pay homage to the sacred mountains and shrines, and to sing love songs with the other children. Even though I am so old now, every time I think of my childhood I can’t hold back my tears. I received endless love from my parents and lived a life of freedom on my own land, with clean water and clean soil. Today I live at the Dehra Dun Dekyiling Tibetan Refugee Settlement in India, far away from my home, in another country. The language is different, the food is different… I suppose this is my fate.

When I was about 18, around 1948 or ’49, the Han [Chinese] Communists arrived in Golog. They lied to our tribal leaders, saying they needed to set up an army barracks in order to protect us from horse thieves. The chiefs agreed and gave them land that allowed them to set up camp on favorable terrain. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also set up camp near my hometown, in Darlag County. The chiefs didn’t know what the Han were planning. If they had been a little more clear-headed at that time, we could have easily driven the Han away. Not only did the leaders allow the Han to come, but they let them occupy our region. That was the beginning of the end. The situation was the same throughout Golog. It was all the fault of those chiefs.

After the Han came in, they gave the poor people a bit of money, so they were all very happy and thankful, and said the Han were good. All of the Golog chiefs gathered at the Han barracks in Darlag, where the Han told them to come live there and gave them a wage. The Han gave those leaders lots of silver, so much that some of them had to use mules to carry it all back. So the leaders also spoke favorably of the Han. Everybody said the Han were good. Perhaps when our chiefs said this, they had been fooled by the Han Communists. The Han also paid Tibetans in silver to transport their supplies. Lots of Tibetans helped, even my husband.

One day, my family’s lama, Garab Lama, said to my husband, “Don’t help in transporting those supplies again. Give your ox some rest. You all have already made a mistake. The money you make helping the Han doesn’t have any value.” Actually, there were some who said the Han had already occupied our land, that there was no way it could lead to good, that their arrival was definitely not a happy occasion, that Buddhism would be destroyed in Tibet. In the end, these warnings proved correct. But back then many people were intoxicated by silver.

At this time, the Han hadn’t yet intervened in our lives, and none of our daily activities had been restricted. If a Han came to my house to look around, he’d just say he wanted to buy livestock or a horse. But we didn’t like what they did, and felt discomfort stirring from the bottoms of our hearts. For example, they would cut all of the bushes on the mountains to make charcoal. Some Tibetans were tight on money, and if they ran out of fuel they would also cut down shrubs—but only a little bit, they wouldn’t cut everything. And the PLA would hire poor Tibetans to do the chopping, and soon every hillside was cut bare. They would burn day and night, non-stop. At that time I’d already married into my husband’s home, and the second I’d leave our tent I could see thick smoke billowing by the banks of the Yellow River…

The Han also hired poor people to go out into the wilderness and gather bones—cow horns and what not—which they’d take to their barracks and burn. I heard they used it to make silk. The poor people collecting the bones were very happy, because they could exchange them for silver. They also hired poor people to go to the army camp and slaughter livestock… In short, to do things that Tibetans didn’t normally do. It made people uncomfortable.

At that time, my elder brother, the one who was adopted, killed some Han people. One day, my brother and four of his companions were on the road, and they came across five armed Han, but they didn’t look like soldiers. My brother’s crew killed all five, buried them out in the wilderness, and took their guns. They killed them in order to take their guns and horses—at that time, guns were very expensive. The rest of us had no idea that they had killed those Han men, not until two or three years later, when I heard that my brother was captured in Xining while on business and then taken to jail in Darlag. One time I went to visit him in jail. He said, “Don’t worry about me, I am reaping what I have sown. I don’t get beaten here, and the food is decent.” He really didn’t look so bad. My brother had a large family, and his children were already grown. He gave me a letter to bring to his children that told them not to worry, that all was well in jail.

After that, the Troubled Times began. I never saw my brother again.

*         *         *

One day, when I was 24, I heard my husband say that a “change of circumstances” had swept many regions. Han would soon be convening every tribal leader in Golog , and the chiefs had no choice but to go, since they had all accepted silver from the Han earlier. All of the leaders present were detained—not a single one escaped—and were taken to some horrible place.

After news of the chiefs’ capture came back to us, the men of our tribe said, “All the money we’ve saved is useless if the chiefs have been captured! We have to buy guns and horses and prepare to flee.” It was clear to us that we had no way to resist the Han for more than a day or two. We would never be done killing the Han. And so, before collectivization began in Golog, our tribe had already acquired horses and guns, getting everything in order.

A year later–I don’t know who lead them–our tribal soldiers got into a skirmish with the PLA on a mountain not far from our village. They only fought for a few hours before some of our men had been killed and most of the rest had surrendered. Had out chiefs not been captured, all of Golog would have united, and we might have been able to resist for a few days. Of course we would have lost many men, but so would the Han, and at least we could have held them off for a few days… We fought only one battle and were defeated in a single day.

After that defeat, our tribe started to flee. It was myself, my husband, my mother-in-law, my daughter, my husband’s two monk brothers Dongsar Lama and Dorkun Rinpoche, the family of my husband’s eldest brother, and their relatives Chonyi and Sawor. My daughter couldn’t walk yet. That night, we hid ourselves on a mountain until the sun went down. Our first destination was a place with huge mountains and thick forest called Wana. Most importantly, we’d heard that Wana wasn’t under Han occupation.

My family had many cattle and sheep. On the day we fled, only the animals that could keep up came with us. The rest were left behind. We hurried them along to the river bank opposite Wana. By nightfall there was a heavy rain, and the river raged so fiercely that we couldn’t cross. Lots of people from other tribes in Golog had also made it to this point, and we were all crowded at the river bank. Then the people from Wana shouted across to us, “Wana has already fallen!” Some from our side yelled back, “The Han are catching up to us!” Everyone panicked and started to cross the river. We made the horses go first, then grabbed their tails. First my husband and his brothers took their mother to the other side, then they came back for my daughter and me. Finally, we all made it to the other side. Fortunately the Han didn’t continue pursuing us.

Two or three days after we arrived in Wana my entire family joined us there, including my mother. Wana was a small place, and refugees has scattered their campsites everywhere. I rushed to find my family. The next day, the PLA came after us again, breaking my family apart. We quickly ran off. I haven’t seen my mother or other relatives since that day.

During the rest of our flight, I never heard a shred of news about my family. It wasn’t until the ’80s, when I went back home for a visit, that I learned that my family never escaped from Wana. Those that weren’t killed there were taken back for collectivization. My father’s younger brother and my older brothers and sisters were all captured, and everything they owned was confiscated. Two of my sisters were beaten to death during struggle sessions. When I was back home visiting family, I saw one of my sisters. One of her hands was deformed from being bound up during a struggle session.

We made it to the upper part of Wana along with quite a few other Golog refugees. At this point, some of us didn’t want to continue. They said, “We can’t keep running. The Han are everywhere, there’s no place to run. We’d better return home and let the Han collectivize us.” Others said, “You’ll die if you go back. If you keep running, you might die. So we should keep running no matter what, and see if we can’t escape.” And so some people turned back. But we still believed that before our last bullet was fired, we’d make our escape. More than 80 of us decided to continue our flight.

We drove our livestock north, on towards Changthang. Even if we saw a raven in our path, we would become vigilant, wondering if the Han were near. One day as we were hurrying along, we heard the sounds of an airplane. Before long, the plane was right above us flying low, and we could see Han standing on the tail clutching guns. With my daughter at my breast, I felt no fear. We had come so far, with the Han chasing us and shooting to kill. We were like cattle at the slaughterhouse door, ready to be butchered at any moment.

The plane didn’t drop any bombs. They just shot at us. They kept circling above us, only shooting when their tails were pointed in our direction. By then, we were scattered. The animals were even harder to hit. Most of their bullets hit the ground, and not many of us were killed or injured. Some of our men climbed up to the top of a hill and opened fire on the plane. We must have hit them, because all of a sudden the plane climbed and then took off. After that, no more planes came after us.

The plane attack startled our livestock, and they turned around to flee. There were also PLA soldiers pursuing us on the ground, and in our desperation we abandoned many animals. Two days had not yet passed before the Han came chasing us again, and we had no choice but to abandon many more things, including all of our food, in order to escape. Not only did we not have any food, but we didn’t have any water, either. For seven days we didn’t see another soul on the road.  Everything in front of our eyes blurred, until we couldn’t see clearly ahead.

We arrived in a vast, flat, sandy wilderness. There was no water there, and most of us were too thirsty to endure. The children were about to die of thirst. One day, we came to a place with thorny plants that had little red berries. As soon as we saw it, all of us—including our horses—we all burst into the thorns and wildly gorged on the berries. We gathered more berries and squeezed the juice into the children’s mouths, which helped them a little.

After walking for another stretch, we were all so hungry we couldn’t move. Somebody said we should climb up a cliff and jump off, letting the women and children go first and then the men. After all, that would be a better end than letting the Han capture us. Everyone agreed. The women all wailed in grief. We knew that if our husbands didn’t have us to worry about, their flight would be so much easier. I didn’t think too long about it. If so many women could decide to jump, surely I could, too. Besides, we had already been running for a long time, and our flight had no end…

Among us was an old man riding a yak. My husband suggested that we kill the yak for food and everyone else give the old man turns riding their horses. If we didn’t have our horses, we’d have no way to escape, so we couldn’t slaughter them. First we would eat the yak, then figure out what to do next. Everyone agreed. After we killed the yak, no one could wait for the meat to boil, so we just ate it raw. One yak was divided among 80 people, so everyone only got a little bit. Aside from the bones, we ate everything. We didn’t waste even a drop of blood.

*         *         *

I’m thankful that there are so many people in the world who support the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. But I don’t like the Han one bit. I hate the Han. In this lifetime I will never forget the pain and suffering, and all of our pain and suffering was caused by them, everyone knows that. They wrecked us Tibetans and Buddhism, killed our lamas, and left us destitute and homeless. The Han ought to know this.

Under normal circumstances, I ought to offer prayers and blessings to all living things. But, when I recite my daily prayers, I can’t offer any to the Han. We Tibetans didn’t ask them to come to Tibet, they forced their way in and created suffering. And they continue to tell lies and trick people. So I don’t think there’s any reason I should pray for them.

Translation by Josh Rudolph.


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