'They made us the poorest of the poor' say Gurkhas

They celebrated victory in their fight for the right to live here. Now the Gurkhas feel betrayed and exploited. Terri Judd hears their grievances

In a gentle voice that belied his former rank as a sergeant-major, Gyanraj Rai spoke of the plight of his fellow Gurkhas. Sitting in his cramped flat at the top of a dilapidated block in Reading, the white-haired ex-soldier explained that the men who once served Queen and country proudly were barefoot beggars in their homeland.

"They deserve a fair pension," he said, before a fleeting moment when his eyes became steely: "If it is not sorted out some of them are going to go on hunger strike to the death."

Last summer, the Gurkha community celebrated a David and Goliath victory when, led by the actress turned goddess Joanna Lumley, they forced the Government to make a U-turn and to allow them to settle in the country they served.

But the jubilation has soured. The Gurkha community, once noted for its dignified battle for equal rights, has shattered into angry divisions, punctuated by accusations and counter-accusations. Each group is accusing the others of ripping off the veterans. In the words of one of them, they have become the "milking cows". Ms Lumley has maintained a public silence.

Gyanraj Rai insisted he'd warned campaigners that to fight for settlement rights in the UK without increasing the Gurkhas' pension (20 per cent of other British soldiers) would draw veterans to the UK to claim more money.

Many have been drawn to Britain with promises of pension subsidies, housing benefits and free health care. But they have been forced to place themselves deeply in debt to fund the hundreds of pounds they need for visas and plane tickets and have failed to appreciate that – with the difference in the cost of living – any additional benefits here will still leave them impoverished with families to feed back home. Campaigners insisted that if they had been given equal pension rights along with settlement rights, most would have chosen to stay in Nepal.

"They made us the bravest of the brave, then they made us the poorest of the poor. They sent us home almost barefoot. Thousands of veterans have died of malnutrition and lack of medication. They would rather stay in Nepal but they are penniless so they are borrowing money, selling their cows and buffaloes to come here," explained Gyanraj Rai, of United British Gurkhas Ex-Servicemen's Association (UBGEA).

Pig farmer Dirga Bahadur Sunuwar, who arrived two weeks ago, explained that, as a Rifleman discharged from the Gurkha Transport Regiment before 1975, he was not entitled to a pension. When the law changed, the 63-year-old borrowed £10,000 in the hope of bringing his family to Britain. The visas for three of them cost him £2,300. Yet elderly, unskilled and unable to speak the language he was unlikely to get work and would have to rely on benefits.

Ten days ago Minister for Veterans Kevan Jones ordered an inquiry after accusing the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Association (Gaeso) in Nepal of taking a donation of £500 from each veteran and giving them false expectations about Britain. In turn the organisation has levelled similar accusations at others.

This week Deepak Maskey, general secretary of the UNGEA wrote to the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, calling on him to investigate every organisation involved in dealing with the Gurkhas insisting it was likely to reveal evidence of organisations "illegally charging enormous fees from innocent Gurkha veterans adding to their destitution". The only thing that appears to unite the Gurkhas is the fact that they all accuse the British government of extortionate visa fees of between £585 to £870 for each veteran and dependent wanting a settlement visa. Add on the airfare to Britain, they explain, and it amounts to the equivalent of an annual salary in Nepal.

Gurkhas who retired before 1997, when the regiments relocated to the UK from Hong Kong, were granted the right to settle in the UK last summer. But their pension remains around one-fifth of other soldiers.

At the British Gurkha Welfare Society (BGWS) office in Farnborough where he has worked as a live-in caretaker since arriving three weeks ago, former Sgt Gajindra Rai, 50, explained that he hoped to find a job so he could bring his wife Sumitra, who is suffering from ovarian cancer, to Britain.

Gaeso, he claimed, had charged him £900 – including the visa fee – for advice, adding: "They talked about lots of benefits and housing but I have found nothing. I am very angry. I feel very betrayed to have been given the wrong information. I am very lucky the BGWS helped me."

Former Colour Sergeant Meg Bahadur Gurung, of BGWS, said they were having to pick up the pieces and did not take money: "Quite a few of the older generation come to Heathrow expecting a vehicle to pick them up and take them to a house."

At their offices in Aldershot, Gaeso members insisted rival associations were trying to tarnish their good name unfairly and denied taking anything but voluntary donations.

Beneath a photograph of Ms Lumley, former Cpl Dhanpal Rai, said: "We are unhappy [about] these allegations. The MoD must fairly investigate whether the allegation is true." He continued: "It is BGWS that is collecting money. " He denied that they were giving veterans false ideas of what they could expect in Britain.

All the organisations agreed that the way to solve the situation was to give Gurkhas equal pension rights.

But last night the MoD insisted that the Gurkha Rifleman's pension was equivalent to that of a GP in Nepal, adding: "Gurkha pensions can be paid from the age of 33, up to 27 years before a British soldier with the same service would begin to receive anything. In the year 2000, Gurkha Pension Scheme (GPS) pensions were doubled and have since received an annual rise for inflation."

As for Ms Lumley's silence, Deepak Maskey wrote to Mr Straw: "There is no need for people like Mr Kevan Jones MP to point fingers at Ms Lumley... as I said, the whole mess was created by the MoD UK and the only difference now is that it is being publicly exposed by Gurkha veterans' arrival in the UK."

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