Friday, May 2, 2008

Tenpa: the oldest man on the march

In 1959, after years of food shortages and misrule by the Chinese, the first great Tibetan uprising occurred. Tenpa, the son of semi-nomadic farmers from Kham Dege, Tibet, fearing for the Dalai Lama's safety, left his home in the dead of night for the capitol of Lhasa. He never saw his mother again and twenty-five years passed before he reunited with his father in Karnataka, India. He rode two nights and one day on horseback to Lhasa. “I went to defend His Holiness and all the Tibetans there.”

Upon reaching the city, he joined the Chushi Gangdruk, freedom fighters camped outside the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace. After a week of siege, the situation had become explosive. A few days after Tenpa's arrival, the Dalai Lama secretly fled into exile. In the days that followed, Tenpa witnessed the People's Liberation Army (PLA) attacking Tibetan demonstrators with machine gun fire and tank shelling from the two mountains overlooking the city. According to Chinese sources, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) killed 86,000 Tibetans. Tenpa witnessed many Tibetans drowning in the river or mud trying to escape. He fled to a resistance camp being formed on the outskirts of the city. About one thousand Tibetans from all walks of life met there: soldiers, old men, monks and teenagers. With limited resources, they were determined to fight.

Within a few days of the massacre at Norbulingka, the PLA attacked their camp from across the Kyichu river with machine guns and dropped bombs out of helicopters. Ammunition soon exhausted, Tenpa and his fellow resistance fighters had to flee, leaving 600 dead comrades behind. The fighters split into smaller groups to evade the helicopters and they decided to escape into Nepal via Mount Kailash. During their month long journey, nomads sometimes gave them food but mostly they ate the roots of wild grasses. Despite the danger, they lost none of their thirty comrades.

Upon reaching northeast India, they met Andruk Gompo Tashi, leader of the Chushi Gangdruk. He told told them they must work to survive. Tenpa joined a road making crew in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India making 1.25Rs a day. In 1962, the government in exile asked Tibetans to move to Karnataka where the Indian government had granted farm land to the Tibetan exiles. Tenpa took the free train ride south and started working an acre of land to grow vegetables with his new wife. Although the land was not as fertile as the Tibetan soil, he prospered and bought cattle to milk. He eventually had six sons and five daughters and still works on the farm at the age of 74.

He already participated in a 1995 peace march from Dharamsala to Delhi that was supposed to go onto Tibet. When he heard about the 2008 March to Tibet from the regional Tibetan Youth Congress, he didn’t ask his wife or children. He decided he was going and nobody could change his mind or tell him he was too old. Once arrested at Dehra in the Kangra Valley, he said, “I felt that now I am going to Tibet because now the issue has spread. I was excited to see Tibet under the spotlight.” After his release, he joined the second wave of marchers and now, aside from asthma flare-ups and occasional knee problems, he feels great continuing the march to his homeland.

His message to his people: “We have no freedom and we are living under the Chinese rule. It is the duty of every Tibetan to fight for Tibet’s freedom and not give up hope.”

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