Two Fijian families mourn soldiers killed days apart

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They were born within months of each other on the same remote South Pacific island where they grew up fishing and playing rugby. They died three days apart, separated by hundreds of miles, fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the families of Ranger Anare Draiva and Gunner Samuela Vanua, both 27, were mourning in their home town of Suva, Fiji. Akesa Draiva, 52, surrounded by relatives and pictures of her smiling son, said she was proud he had been in the British Army. His death they simply had to accept, she added. The family had one request of the country he had served ­ that he be buried with full military honours ­ and had asked the British High Commission if that was possible.

The pair were among 2,000 Fijians in the British Army, the largest foreign component after the Nepalese Gurkhas. They are famed for their physical strength, spirit, good humour and rugby skills.

Ranger Draiva, of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, had been back from Iraq only a few months when he volunteered for Afghanistan. Last Friday, he called his mother in Suva, saying he was worried about the dangers in the volatile southern province of Helmand. He asked after everyone in the family, including his older sister Talica, 30, and brother Solomoni, 24, then said he would phone again soon.

Hours later, three officials from the British High Commission came to Mrs Draiva's home and told her he had been killed by insurgents who attacked the platoon house in Musa Qala.

Ranger Draiva's commanding officer, Lt-Col Michael McGovern, said the battalion was mourning the loss of a "superb, strong and courageous soldier".

His mother recalled another side of him. "He had a beautiful smile. He was a jokey person, a great character. That was the most important thing about him, his laughter and happiness."

At Ratu Sukuna Memorial School, he excelled at volleyball, rugby and athletics. His cousin Pio Ratuwaqa, 36, said: "Before his father [a staff-sergeant in the Royal Fiji Military Forces] passed away three years ago, he said he wanted to follow in his footsteps. His father encouraged him to join the British Army, to go higher than him."

In January, he returned home to enjoy his mother's fish in coconut milk, visit friends and break the news he was off to Afghanistan. As he left, his mother gave him a traditional Fijian whale's tooth as a talisman and reminded him to work hard, pray and call home.

"He would call twice a week," she said. "He explained the difficulties they were facing in Afghanistan."

Days later, High Commission staff appeared on another doorstep on the outskirts of town to see the family of Gunner Vanua, of 4 Regiment, Royal Artillery who was attached to 12 Regiment RA. He was on a patrol supporting a Danish reconstruction team training Iraqi police. As they returned to base he was killed by a roadside bomb near Ad Diyar, north of Basra.

His commanding officer, Lt-Col Jon Campbell, described him as a motivated young man with an "excellent attitude, infectious cheerfulness, conduct and confidence".

Sammy to his friends, he joined the British Army four years ago and had already served a tour of Iraq, and volunteered to return.

* A British soldier killed in Afghanistan died trying to save the life of a comrade injured in a mine explosion, his commanding officer said. Cpl Mark Wright, 27, of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, was named by the Ministry of Defence, along with L/Cpl Paul Muirhead, 29, of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, who died from wounds sustained during a Taliban attack on 1 September. They were among three British soldiers who died in Afghanistan on Wednesday.