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Tibetan Foothold

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On March 17th 1959 the Dalai Lama fled to India and the Lhasa uprising began. Eleven days later the Chinese replaced the Tibetan Government by a military dictatorship.


The United Nations passed an ineffectual resolution ‘demanding respect for human rights in Tibet’ but the invasion created an influx of Tibetan refugees into the surrounding countries.


Dervla Murphy had spent the first six months of 1963 cycling from Dunkirk to Delhi (the story for this journey is in her book Full Tilt). Whilst recovering from heat stroke she met a refugee worker by the name of Jill Buxton who invited her to visit one of the transit camps/schools at Dharamsala. For the rest of the year Murphy worked to help these refugees adjust to their new lives.


She was very taken with the Tibetan children, or Tiblets as she calls them.

All they wanted was to be picked up and cuddled, and their unselfconscious revelation of this basic need disarmed me.

Their consideration for and politeness to each other positively makes me feel I’ve moved to another planet. I haven’t yet seen them quarrelling over anything.


On visiting a nursery and finding the teachers were absent she observed two ten year olds taking the class whilst the rest of the children were copying on to their slates. She also remarks on the ‘complete equality between the sexes’ and how she could draw comparisons with a modern Western community, only to remind herself that this equality is relatively new to our society but has ‘always been taken for granted in Tibet’.


Murphy writes with warmth and compassion, producing a humorous and moving account of the day to day, the life and death of refugee life. She meets the Dalai Lama, cycles through the Valley of the Gods, and spends a ‘strange’ Christmas with the Malanis – ‘an autonomous community of some 600 people who live on a 9,000ft plateau, independent of all outside influences’. It is estimated that the Malanis have been living on their plateau for about 5,000 years.


Written in diary form detailing each day’s challenges and rewards, her energy and commitment shine through. On her last diary entry she contemplates the refugee predicament.

most people depend, perhaps more than they realise, on the stability of that material and moral environment which gives shape and significance to individual lives. Even when families leave their homeland for years at a stretch the consciousness that they belong there in a special sense, and can return in time to their own niche, makes for security and self-assurance. Therefore the sudden violent dispossession accompanying a refugee flight is much more than the loss of a permanent home and traditional occupation, or than the parting from close friends and familiar places. It is also the death of the person one has become in a particular context, and every refugee must be his or her own midwife at the painful process of rebirth.

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    • By Tay
      Like a lot of people when I was ten I had plenty of ‘ambitions’ – flying to the moon, meeting Norman Wisdom, driving a steam train, getting a kiss from a young lady called Lesley who sat opposite me in primary school. Well apart from the kiss the rest just passed me by in that strange thing called life.
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