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Last Updated: Monday, 24 February, 2003, 13:00 GMT
Gurkha hopefuls undeterred
By Joanna Nathan
in Nepal

Gurkha soldiers in the British army
The Brigade of Gurkhas has fought many battles

Former Gurkhas from Nepal who served with the British Army have lost their fight for equal pay and conditions with other British servicemen and women.

But it seems unlikely that the ruling in the High Court in London will deter new recruits.

Back in their small, impoverished Himalayan nation, competition to sign up for the famed Brigade of Gurkhas is still fierce.

Each year over 20,000 young men compete for just 200 places in a knockout-style contest, and it is an uphill battle.

It is more than a little humiliating to come last in a race in which everyone else is lugging 35 kilograms of rocks.

But then the teenagers who stream past me, up seemingly endless steps, are the very cream of Nepali youth.

And they are competing not for mere pride but the opportunity of a lifetime - the chance to be a Gurkha soldier in the British Army.

Final battle

In a nation where average income is under $300 a year, the large houses of retired servicemen offer a highly visible incentive to fight under a foreign flag.

My village has no facilities, no electricity, no bus, no communication
Lila Ram Rai

These 17-22-year-old hopefuls streaming past under stone-laden wicker baskets, or dokos, are therefore bearing the hopes of whole families.

Not that such a burden is any excuse for bad manners.

"Good morning madam," each and every one cheerily cries, after they spot me gasping for breath, and before I am left for dead.

Altogether each year, over 20,000 applicants compete to join the famed brigade with 1,000 finalists culled from months of regional selection rounds.

It is this final few that I watch battle it out in a British army compound in the shadow of the soaring Annapurna mountain range.

Poverty

The prize they all seek: one of 230 positions in the British Army, or one of 100 places with the Singapore Police.

Gurkha soldiers on training exercise
Gurkhas have won many awards for bravery

The vast majority of the youngsters are drawn from the traditional warrior castes of remote hill villages in the Himalayan kingdom.

As such, the doko race - up a 350-metre-high hill - is actually seen as one of the knockout contest's easier rounds.

Only one youth casts off his basket before the end of the climb and very few fail to make the 35-minute cut-off time.

Most amazingly of all, to someone flushed beetroot-red with the effort, nobody else seems to show the slightest sign of exertion within minutes of finishing.

Indeed, in a crisp, checked shirt, 21-year-old Lila Ram Rai looks as fresh as if he has just arrived for an office job.

It is his second attempt to join the Gurkhas and, under age rules, his final chance.

When I ask why he is so desperate to join, he tells me starkly: "My village has no facilities, no electricity, no bus, no communication."

Eager relatives

He is one of 13 hopefuls from this remote hamlet to have made an arduous four-day journey to the final selection and has already seen seven friends fail to make the cut.

Gurkha soldier
Gurkha soldiers are renowned for courage in battle

Keen not to share their fate, he hastily re-shoulders his load upon command and heads back to base for a quick goat curry breakfast.

The rest of the day sees squads of young hopefuls, all clad in large numbered bibs, march briskly between English tests, maths quizzes, hearing checks and chest X-rays.

The facilities on offer are simple, with bathing in a nearby river and large dormitories, each sleeping 150 young men on thin mats.

But, as a British officer helpfully points out, numbers do ease each morning as those who have failed the previous day's tests are shown to the gate.

Here they must emerge into crowds of relatives who are eager NOT to see a familiar face!

'Try again'

Many of these anxious assembled fathers and uncles have served as Gurkha soldiers themselves, meaning it is not just a question of money, but tradition.

The tradition stretches all the way back to 1816, when fighters from the then powerful city-state of Gorkha were signed up by the British in India.

Gurkhas, as they have become known, have since fought in every major conflict involving British interests, and more than lived up to their ferocious motto: "Better to die than live a coward."

These village youths all tell me that if they do not make it, they will try again as many times as they are allowed.

For myself, however, having failed to meet the time limit in the doko race even without the rocks, there will be no second chance.

Madam's calves do protest far too much.




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