Lumley receives ecstatic reception on Nepal visit

For months they have followed her every move with rapt attention from the other side of the world, but today the Gurkhas of Nepal finally got to meet a woman that many of them have come to regard as a goddess.

When Joanna Lumley stepped out of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport this afternoon she was greeted by hundreds of elderly Gurkhas and their families, many of whom had travelled down from their mountain villages to greet the 63-year-old actress.

In the coming days she will meet many thousands more ex-servicemen who fought in Britain's wars but were denied the right to settle in the UK until a campaign led by former Gurkhas and Lumley finally forced the government into an embarrassing u-turn earlier this year.

Holding placards with slogans such as "Ayo Goddess Joanna" and "Gurkha heroes welcome our British heroes", those gathered to meet the Absolutely Fabulous actress on her first visit to the Himalayan republic draped her in reams of traditional marigold garlands and scarves as a mark of respect and gratitude.

The actress responded by shouting "Ayo Gurkhali!", the Gurkha's traditional war cry of which translates as "The Gurkhas are coming!" By the time she finally made her way through the crowds and into a waiting car you could barely see the former model's head, buried as it was under tens of colourful scarves.

Lumley is regarded as something of a hero in the world's youngest republic because of the pivotal role she played in the campaign to allow those who fought for Britain to settle here.

Previously only Gurkhas who retired after 1997 had been eligible to apply to settle in the UK. The Nepali soldiers had long asked the British Government to give all those who served in the army the right to retire in Britain but it was only once Lumley joined the campaign that the Government, faced with growing public outrage, finally backed down in May.

Lumley's decision to fight for Gurkha rights came after Tul Bahadur Pun, a Victoria cross-winning Gurkha who once saved her father in battle, was denied permission to come to Britain to receive medical treatment because he had "failed to demonstrate strong ties with the UK."

As the crowds surged around her outside the airport, she referred to Bahadur Pun's bravery by stating: "I think I wouldn't have been born without the Gurkhas. My friends of Nepal, I am your family."

Nepal itself has responded in kind by giving Lumley and her fellow campaigners something closely resembling a state visit. The actress is being accompanied by the lawyers who fought a series of High Court battles against the Government, Peter Carroll, a long term Gurkha campaigner and Dhan Gurung, Britain's first Gurkha counsellor.

During the six day visit the group will meet the country's prime minister and president before heading to the mountainous Gurkha villages where thousands are expected to meet her.

Bhagirath Yogi, a producer at BBC Nepali, said Lumley's visit was generating intense excitement inside Nepal. "Joanna Lumley has become very well known in Nepal because of her Gurkha campaign, she's already a sort of celebrity there," he said. "Most Nepali papers have been following the visit very closely, they're fascinated by her."

Speaking before she boarded her plane to Nepal the former model turned comedy actress said she intended to use the trip to understand more about the living conditions of Gurkha veterans who fought in the British army over the years. "I feel so humbled by the fact I'm going to meet so many ex-Gurkhas and their families and see where they are and how they live," she said. "Just to be in that country is such a privilege. I don't think it can be anything other than wonderful."

Krishna Bahadur Rai, vice president of Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organization GAESO, said yesterday: "The recent victory of the Gurkhas in their struggle obtain the right to settle in the UK came about because of the effort that Joanna put in for the cause. Because of her contribution, we have named her 'Nepal's daughter'".

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