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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 April 2007, 00:49 GMT 01:49 UK
The UN's South Asian workhorse
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

In the third of our series on peacekeeping today, we look at the South Asians who have earned both respect and a living as the backbone of the United Nations' Blue Helmets.

Gen Fazle Elahi Akbar (first from left) lifts a little girl on a visit to a school in Sudan (image by permission of Gen Akbar)
Gen Fazle Elahi Akbar of Bangladesh led UN forces in Sudan

The deaths in a bomb attack this week of four Nepalese contractors working for the UN in Afghanistan came as a tragic reminder that much of the world's peacekeeping work involves South Asians.

As of March 2007, 123 Indians, 95 Pakistanis, 80 Bangladeshis and 56 Nepalis had been killed on service.

These four nations regularly figure among the top five contributors of personnel to UN missions and make up about 40% of troops, police and staff on the ground.

South Asian peacekeepers range from combat troops and engineers to medics, and a 103-strong Indian force made history this year in Liberia as the first all-female police unit on a UN mission.

So why are there so many with the UN and are they any good?

Prize posting

At the beginning of his UN service in Haiti in 1995-96, Nepalese policeman Sushil Kumar Khanal saw a well-known judge being gunned down in broad daylight in central Port-au-Prince.

Nepalese policeman Sushil Kumar Khanal with his family today
It's every Nepalese policeman or soldier's dream to serve with a UN peacekeeping mission
Sushil Kumar Khanal

On another occasion he came under fire chasing gunmen who had been on a killing spree.

He had joined the mission in the face of stiff competition, he told the BBC News website.

"It's every Nepalese policeman or soldier's dream to serve with a UN peacekeeping mission," he says.

"There's so much competition but also rampant favouritism and nepotism."

Haiti, he says, meant hard eight-hour shifts but good living facilities, even swimming-pools for the UN police, and on days off they would go on picnics and outings to nearby beaches - a real pleasure, he remarks, for people from landlocked Nepal.

The salary of $85 a day helped him build a house in Kathmandu and send his children to decent schools.

"[Without Haiti,] I don't think my savings from my service at home would have helped that much - whatever we make here is hardly enough to survive," he adds.

Taking command

Fazle Elahi Akbar, a former general in the Bangladeshi army, detected a "preferential hierarchy" biased towards the West during his first UN assignment, as a military observer in Iran/Iraq in 1988-89 (Uniimog).

Gen Fazle Elahi Akbar (first from left) in Sudan with unnamed official (image by permission of Gen Akbar)
[In 1988] my team and I had no formal training or understanding about peacekeeping whatsoever
Gen Fazle Elahi Akbar
former Bangladeshi army general

Sixteen years later, the "situation had changed dramatically" for South Asian officers and Gen Akbar was commanding up to 10,000 troops on his own mission, the UN force in Sudan (Unmis, 2004-05).

Also, whereas the Bangladeshis went to the Gulf in 1988 "with no formal training or understanding about peacekeeping whatsoever", pre-mission training is now standard for the country's forces, he says.

In Sudan, Gen Akbar found his greatest challenge to be convincing the warring north and south that the UN was a fair arbiter, especially as being a Muslim aroused suspicion in the Christian and Animist south.

BBC graph

"One should have a sound understanding of the mandate, the local security situation and the cultural environment, as well as determination and patience to win the hearts and minds of the local population," he says.

Peacekeeping in Sudan was hard work for the troops, he adds.

Health hazards were constantly on their minds, recreational activities were non-existent and, with poor telecommunications, troops suffered from low morale and homesickness.

Peacekeeping is a "much-desired assignment" in Bangladesh too, he says, but it is equally important for the country's image abroad.

Maj Gen Patrick Cammaert, until recently commander of UN troops in eastern DR Congo, commends the professionalism of the South Asian soldiers who made up most of his force.

Indian and Pakistani troops, for example, are "extremely well prepared for winning the hearts and minds of the local population and applying force at the same time", he told the BBC News website.

Interview with Sushil Kumar Khanal conducted by Surendra Phuyal in Kathmandu. Interview with Gen Fazle Elahi Akbar conducted by Waliur Rahman in Dhaka.

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