Lockdown in Lhasa, 2021

“Tibetans don’t have that kind of right”

A refugee's account of life in Tibet, from her family's struggles during the Cultural Revolution to lockdown in Lhasa

Throughout 2023, Free Tibet’s research partner, Tibet Watch, has been conducting a series of interviews with a group of newly arrived Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, northern India, who escaped from occupied Tibet.

Due to its length, we have divided this latest account into three parts. Parts two and three are also available on our website.

In this first part, the refugee, a forty-year-old woman from central Tibet, describes her background. Born into a family labelled as “class enemies” by the Chinese Communist Party, her father, the first in her village to serve the Tibetan Army, was sent to prison after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. She also describes her family’s suffering  during the Cultural Revolution and how she would read a copy of the Dalai Lama’s biography, My Land and My People, which was kept hidden in a sack of grain. This section concludes with more recent experiences of lockdown in Lhasa, where the local population faced stifling restrictions.

This interview was conducted on 21 September and is the sixth in the series (previous testimonies can be found here: I, II, III, IV, V). The following account is in her own words. We have kept her identity anonymous and omitted a few geographical details for security.

Family history

I went to school up to seventh grade. Then I dropped out of school.

The reason for my decision was my family background. My family had close connections with religious figures. After His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans fled Tibet, my father was imprisoned for seven years in a jail in Lhasa, in the name of being reactionary. After his release, my family endured immense suffering due to our family background. Our family was labelled “reactionary” for our past family connections.

Our family endured humiliating struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution. A brother of my grandfather disappeared and was never found again after the struggle session. My sisters and brothers all have limited rights. During the land redistribution, I was denied land rights.

Religious scriptures are burned near Jokhang Temple in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution (Museum of Tibet)

When I was in seventh grade, I learned that I had no right to enrol in a military unit due to my family background. I felt that nothing was going to work in my favour even if I continued my studies because of my family background. So I left school and worked for a few years on the farm. It was difficult to find a good job.

Then I contacted an old friend from school and moved to Lhasa. I found a job in a restaurant and worked there for a year. After that, I worked as a saleswoman in a mall.

I had a deep longing to escape from Tibet and the wish to get an audience with His Holiness since when I was young. I didn’t know how to get out of Tibet. I was young and didn’t understand how to organise my escape plan and route.

I tried to find a way out four times before the COVID pandemic and I hosted dinner for someone a couple of times in the hope that he would help me with my plan. He turned it down afterwards.

Then I met a person who works in the railway sector, and he helped me find a route and a person who could help me. I paid about 20,000 yuan for that.

I then went to XXX on my own. He was waiting there and there were lots of armies patrolling in the area. I hid out in a restaurant for two nights.

Then I walked for four days in the rain with the helper till the border. It was very difficult. My family background and the stories I heard from my mother left a huge impact on me and I felt that there was no future to stay back for.

My mother used to share with me her life story and struggle. My mother had a copy of the biography of His Holiness, My Land and My People, hidden in a sack of grain. When I was young, I read it a few times. She found out afterwards that I was reading it and told me to never again take it outside home as it would cause trouble if the authorities found out; our families were already being closely watched by the authorities.

Book cover of My Land and My People, the autobiography of the 14th Dalai Lama

My brothers used to tell me about those people in our family, who were charged and subjected to struggle sessions, and have these days achieved some position and power. He still remembers and recognises all the people who were involved during the painful times. All of my brothers are tall and strong. They cannot join the army even if they wish because of our family background. Things were a little better though after the Cultural Revolution.

My father was the first from our village to join the Tibetan Army. The amulet that he wore during his military service is still with our family. If my father was alive now, he would be 84.


Experience of COVID-19 lockdown in Lhasa

“I heard that for two weeks approximately 80 to 90 dead human bodies were burnt daily at the cemetery behind the Drepung Monastery” 

From 8 August to 21 November 2021, lockdown was abruptly imposed in Tibet. We were notified a few hours before the actual start of the lockdown. I thought it might last a few days or a week at the most, so I bought a week’s worth of vegetables and rations. But it went on and on for three whole months. The price of vegetables rose sky-high, and people had no choice but to buy at whatever price they were charged.

Once locked inside, no one was allowed outside – even if you were sick. Meanwhile, the preparation was very poor. There were extensive checks every day, and they barged [into homes] like burglars; sometimes banging at the doors in the middle of the night, and other times early in the morning to do nasal swab tests.

After a week of lockdown, we were running out of food stock. We had a neighbour, a Chinese couple, who had managed to get a white suit as a medical volunteer. So everyone in our residential area collected money; each family gave him 400 yuan and had them buy our food-stocks and other necessary items. And they bought everything and delivered it in the middle of the night.

Isolation centres were overcrowded. If one COVID case was reported from a residential area, all the people in that surrounding area – even those who were sick – without exception, were forcefully sent to isolation centres. That’s why those isolation centres were crowded.

Footage from inside a COVID isolation centre in Lhasa

I was sent to an isolation centre after one report of a COVID positive case came out in our neighbourhood. All of us were taken from there at around 9 pm on a bus. Although it’s only half an hour’s drive to get there, we reached in the middle of the night because there were many buses and they were circulating around the city, rounding up people from different areas.

When they found out that the isolation centre was crowded, we were taken to another one. But we were sent back to the previous isolation centre for the same reason we were taken there in the first place. At last, at around 6 am the next morning, after driving back and forth, we were finally forced to stay at a hotel.

Actually, it was a school, a middle school which had been turned into an isolation centre. It was already a crowded centre, and the food provided was mostly and only boiled vegetables.

What startled me most during lockdown was the difference in treatment between the Tibetans and the Chinese, the open display of discrimination between the Tibetans and the Chinese. All the shops – except for vegetables shops and pharmacies – were forced to shut down. Even then, Tibetan vegetable-sellers were not allowed to open their shops. Chinese migrants held a protest and they were later allowed to return to China. If Tibetans staged such a protest, I know they would not let go of us easily. 

Tibetans don’t have that kind of right.

Bodies of the deceased person weren’t returned to the family. In the Tibetan tradition, we have to do prayers for the deceased soul and there are instructions from Tibetan lamas to follow for the body’s cremation. But they cremated everyone [before the bereaved families could do prayers and rituals]. The lockdown caused so much misery…

Another shot inside a COVID isolation centre in Tibet

And I heard there were numerous cases of suicide too in and around Lhasa. My neighbour told me that a person committed suicide in the isolation centre they were in. I saw a video shared online of an old man jumping to death from a building. I think people were desperate and not able to deal with the long lockdown. Our Chinese shop-owner also committed suicide.

It was a difficult period for people who had come to Lhasa seeking medical treatment. There was an old Tibetan woman from Medro Gongkar who had come to Lhasa seeking treatment for her knee pain. Because of the lockdown, she was not able to visit the hospital. Moreover, because of the lockdown, she was locked inside a room with no sunlight. It was so damaging to her knee. She needed good sunlight for her knee to keep going.

We were forced to throw out all the butter and meat we’d kept inside the fridge at home. They claimed concerns of virus proliferation but we were given little sugar, butter, and meat. Small bits of tomatoes… And this was at the end of the lockdown!

Later on, after the lockdown restrictions were lifted, we witnessed the massive outbreak of COVID in Tibet, leading also to the loss of many lives. I heard that for two weeks approximately 80 to 90 dead human bodies were burnt daily at the cemetery behind the Drepung Monastery. It is unusual and many old-aged people lost their lives. This is because even those uninfected were put together with COVID positive patients in the same isolation centre. 

They killed more than two thousand yaks within a day in Damshung (当雄县 ) and that meat was shipped to different parts of China. A Tibetan shared a post asking people to pray because the government had ordered the mass slaughter of yaks- about 2000 yaks to be killed in one day.

Information supplied by Tibet Watch.

We are Free Tibet, and we stand with Tibetans around the world. For their homeland, for their future and against China’s brutal occupation.