Rebuilding Kosovo: Poverty is our army's recruiting sergeant

BRITAIN'S FOREIGN LEGION; The death of one Gurkha soldier will not stem the flow of volunteers from the impoverished Himalayan kingdom
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
t is easy to spot a Gurkha, apart from the mothballs in his uniform: ramrod posture, metronomic pace, parade-ground voice and a wristwatch reflecting the Himalayan sun.

Throughout the mountain kingdom of Nepal, the veterans of Britain's wars form the backbone of the country's establishment. The mayor of the town of Barpak, three days' trekking from the nearest roadhead, is addressed simply as "Captain". He and his comrades generally have better homes and more land than those who stayed behind. In an economy based on subsistence farming and barter, they have cash. Above all else, they have respect.

Which is why the death last week of Sgt Balram Rai while defusing Nato cluster bombs in Kosovo is unlikely to stem the flood of recruits to the army's ranks. While the West cringes from the thought of casualties in the Balkan wars, Nepalis know that risking their lives for a foreign queen and country is the only way to escape poverty.

You can see the hopefuls at any of the villages along the Darondi River, as it winds towards Barpak from Gorkha, the district capital and historic home of Nepal's reigning dynasty. Ignore the barrel chests, common because of the thin air, and the thick, powerful legs, strengthened by carrying loads along trails wedged between cliff and chasm. Look instead for the bulging biceps, developed through an unrelenting regime of press-ups and displayed by sleeveless T-shirts.

I met Calloo two weeks before he went off to be tested by a British recruiting officer. Failing that, he would try for the Indian army, he said, and as a last resort his own country's forces. It's hard to imagine him as one of the world's most feared professional soldiers. His face seemed almost permanently creased by a broad grin and he relished simple practical jokes and scatological humour.

Apart from the military bearing of the veterans, these people do not look like trained killers. Their warm, open gentleness contrasts sharply with the stern, aggressive hostility one might expect from a nation of mercenaries. There is no sign that this is a violent culture. Even the trademark Kukri knife, which looks like a cross between a short, sharp boomerang and a bent machete, is used mostly for chopping wood.

Calloo's home, Barpak, on a 10,000ft ridge, surrounded by terraced corn fields, appears charming to the rare Western visitor. There can be few places where people seem friendlier, happier and more hospitable. The streets, paved in rough stone, turn into racing streams during the monsoon rains. The village even has modern amenities: electricity, a phone, two communal taps providing clean water and a school.

But look closer. Shelves in the village shop carry a sparse supply of essential manufactured goods. The staple, monotonous diet is dal bhat, a lentil soup poured over rice. Though they won't starve, children fed only this may never grow enough to meet even the Gurkhas' minimum height requirement. If anyone falls ill, the nearest nurse, never mind doctor or hospital, is three days away. They don't make house calls.

It would be nice to think that development aid could change all this but the record to date has been patchy. An attempt to build a switchback road for mule trains up the final day's 3,000ft ascent to Barpak took hundreds of terraces out of agricultural production, and within a year had a two-foot deep gully down its middle. Angora rabbits - bred in hutches like battery chickens - were struck by disease months after aid workers left.

Into this idyllic destitution come the British officers, distributing pension cheques and offering a better life. For my friend Calloo, fatherless, with a mother to support and a sister's dowry to pay, there is no real alternative. I'm sure it was the same for Sgt Rai, on whom a wife, two children and elderly parents depended. Britain is fortunate to have such brave men in its service. If only they came by choice rather than necessity.

Comments