The Great Gurkha Race
Published in The Guardian 6 December 2005
Most Nepalis live on about £1 a day. A Gurkha soldier earns around £1,000 a month. Little wonder the country's young men will do whatever it takes to join the British army.
There is no morning light as the first begin to assemble. The air is chilly and they shiver in thin tracksuits and flip-flops outside the black and gold metal gates of the British Gurkha camp in the town of Pokhara, Nepal. By 6.30am, as the sun begins to rise, 143 youths are lined up, waiting to hear their number called. Each of them is standing on the precipice of a potentially life-changing moment. If they succeed, they will enlist in the British army. For those who are chosen, they will receive a salary of around £1,000 a month, a guaranteed 15 years of service, possible promotion and a good pension. In a country where the average income is $1 (58p) a day, the "British camp" is spoken of in reverential tones. This is the place in Nepal that can change things for ever.
Today is the beginning of a process known as "central selection", where boys from across the whole of the country come to vie for one of the highly sought-after places in the British army. This year there are 230 army positions available, and a further 77 with the Gurkha contingent of the Singapore police. Over four separate days, a new batch of boys passes through. These 572 candidates have been whittled down from 15,106 original applicants. During a three-week period, the majority will have fallen away following a gruelling series of tests that culminates in the infamous doko, one of the most arduous military selection tests in the world. Only those recruits who are fit enough and determined enough to run 5km up the foothills of the Himalayas, while carrying 25kg of rocks on their back, will be deemed worthy of joining the British army. In a land of incredibly hardy people, accustomed from early childhood to working the scrubby soil on death-defying slopes, only the very toughest will make it through.
As they pass through the gates of the camp, adorned with crossed Gurkha knives known as kukri, parents and family members clutch on to the chain-link fence, catching a last glimpse of the son who holds all their hopes. Some of these parents have sent their sons to one of the dozens of "training academies" littered around the town, which claim they can help boys prepare for selection. Many have no money to help at all, though sometimes some villages club together. They dream of the remittances he will send home, of how he could put new roofs on their houses, buy them goats or buffalo, maybe help them to move down from their harsh life in the foothills of the Himalayas into Pokhara or Kathmandu.
Some of the young men have tikka daubs adorning their foreheads as a token of good luck. Many have travelled hundreds of miles cross country, alone. In the past, they would walk for days; now most come by bus, the army paying their travel expenses. One or two are the sons of richer families, turning up on the back of a shiny new motorcycle. Whatever their background, their nervousness is palpable.
One by one they pass through the gate as their number is called, some clutching sports holdalls, others carrying a plastic laundry bag, the only thing they can afford. As they go in, identities and documents are checked and double checked by the Gurkha officers. It is not unusual for a potential recruit (PR) to pretend to be someone else, to affix a photo of themselves on to a younger man's identity card. PRs must be aged between 17½ and 21. With so much at stake, cheating is common.
Each bag is searched at least twice for hidden stashes of steroids, dextrose or other performance boosters. Hands pull out pants, gym kits, towels, hats, dog-eared books. The young men stand by, clutching school leaving certificates wrapped in plastic.
Once past the gate, the first thing the wannabe recruits are given is a bib with a number on it. They will wear this at all times until they leave the camp or are enlisted. They are asked to hand over any medicines, foodstuffs, shaving foam, bottles of aftershave, Tiger Balm, prickly-heat powder. One boy reluctantly gives up a cash and carry-sized box of Lucozade tablets.
Major Peter Hill, the camp's second-in-command, is in charge of recruiting. Speaking in fluent Nepali, he warns the young men that they must be honest and fair, that whatever they have been told outside the camp - at the training academies by agents, known as dalals, seeking backhanders - selection is based on merit alone.
"You are here today because you all have done very well in regional selection. You have been selected from thousands and thousands of young men," he says. "You are not here because of paying money to the dalals. You don't have to pay any money to join the Gurkhas. It is in your own hands - you simply have to perform well. Nobody will help you but yourself.
"We are fair to all of you. We do not favour any castes, all castes are the same here. You have to be honest. You cannot cheat or hide, you will be identified and will be sent out of the camp." They are asked if they understand this. The boys shout: "Yes, sahib!"
The reason these youths are here is not hard to divine. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with 82% surviving on less than $2 a day. Almost 50% of children under five, according to the charity Human Rights Watch, suffer from malnutrition. Literacy is only 44%. Employment figures are impossible to calculate thanks to the underdeveloped, agrarian economy, but lack of employment is an important factor in the huge recruiting appeal of the Gurkhas.
Since 1996, Nepal has been besieged by a brutal civil war between the monarchist government and a breakaway faction of the Communist party of Nepal, known more commonly as the Maoists. Last month, the UN high commissioner for human rights warned of a "grave human rights crisis" in Nepal, highlighting the killing of civilians, disappearances, torture and crimes against children. While the two sides are currently under ceasefire, the conflict increases the pressure on potential recruits.
"If you live anywhere apart from a major town, you will be approached by the Maoists and they will seek to recruit you," says Hill. "So the situation for these boys is increasingly desperate and the result of that is they take desperate measures to be enlisted with us, whether they are legal or illegal."
But Nepal's troubled circumstances do not alone explain the appeal of the Gurkhas. Successful admission does, by any measure, offer a highly promising career. British army recruits get 15 years' guaranteed service; those who join the Singapore police, 27 years. But there is now a new draw. In October last year, after a campaign in the tabloid press, Tony Blair announced that Gurkhas with more than four years' service who retired after 1997 would be allowed to stay in Britain. This summer, after Gurkhas challenged, under the Human Rights Act, their inequitable treatment compared with a regular British army soldier, the government agreed to increase the Gurkha pension for retirement after 1997 from £95 to at least £450 a month, including a state pension.
"Some of them are now coming to be enlisted with a view to getting a red passport," says Hill. "I have to question their motivation. They don't understand they are taking on a life of danger, a very difficult life."
The association between the Gurkhas and the British army goes back almost 200 years, when they were adversaries following raids by the Nepali fighters into British territory in India. After declaring war on Nepal, a peace treaty was put forward by the British, who then sought volunteers for the East India Company's Army, which then formed the first Gurkha Brigade.
By the first world war, 100,000 Gurkhas had enlisted, fighting and dying in France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Gallipoli, Palestine and Salonika. During the second world war, there were 40 Gurkha battalions in British service. During these two wars, they suffered 43,000 casualties and won 26 Victoria Crosses - 13 by Nepalis and 13 by their British officers, more than any other regiment.
In 1931, Sir Ralph Turner wrote of the Gurkhas with whom he had served: "Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you."
The Brigade of Gurkhas became fully integrated into the British army in 1947. It's motto is, "It is better to die than live a coward", and over the years it has gained a reputation as a formidable fighting force. Gurkhas have more recently served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Last years PRs are now in operation in Afghanistan.
Nepalis are not, as a rule, tall people, but the minimum requirements of the recruits - a height of just 5ft 3in, chest measurement of 31in and weight of just 50kg (7st 8lb) - also take into account the country's poor nutritional standards. All the young men who get this far have already passed through regional selection, where the most obvious cheats - those wearing heavy rocks inside their shorts, or eating bananas or drinking water to increase their weight - are rooted out. Each young man must have reasonably high marks on his school leaving certificate, and be able to do 14 heaves to the beam, 75 bench jumps in one minute and 70 sit-ups in two minutes. He must have no more than two fillings and two gaps in his teeth, no perforated ear drums, he cannot be short-sighted or colour blind and he must have good English.
The biggest hurdle at Pokhara, the one that no one can cheat, is the medical. In a small room in the camp's med centre, anxious waiting boys sit bare-chested but for their bibs, their feet chattering against the floor with nerves. Behind a screen, two doctors are listening to hearts. Every now and again, they hear something and confer, bringing a panicked look to the young man's face. He will have to go for a chest x-ray before he takes part in tomorrow's physically strenuous British Fitness Test (a standard army mile and a half run that must be completed in less than nine minutes 45 seconds). For some, the end has come before selection has even begun. Those with heart problems, TB or other life-threatening or contagious conditions simply cannot stay.
"There's nothing they can do about us," says Major James Papworth, an army doctor based in Brunei. "They can't train for it. If they fail with us, they have to go home."
In this first heat today there are no medical failures, but by the next morning, 19 have failed to finish the BFT on time. Many boys, used to running up and down inclines, find it hard to straighten out their legs on the flat. Now, they are lined up with their bags, waiting to see who will be the first to leave. The numbers are called and they are consoled with a "Try again next year".
Ris Bahadur Thapa, 18, is crying as he waits to receive his travel allowance home. More smartly attired than many of the other PRs, he has come from Singapore where his father is a Gurkha with the Singapore police. "I grew up looking up to my father and I wanted to be like him," he says. "In Nepal, being a Gurkha is a big honour. I am really disappointed, I thought that I could clear this easily. My body just couldn't breathe. This morning I had a nosebleed." He fishes out a blood-stained hankie from his tracksuit pocket. "It was bad luck. My father will surely be disappointed because he had high hopes for me. I hope he will understand. My parents will probably make me stay in Nepal and do my training again. I will come back next year fitter and stronger. I want to make people here think that this year was just a fluke, that it was bad luck."
Other boys sob, some choke back their emotions as they walk through the gates and out into the car-honking bustle of the town beyond.
One of those who makes it through - for now, at least - is Yam Bahadur Thapa, who is 19 and comes from the Syanjya district of Nepal. He says he likes "everything" about the British army: "They are smart and well disciplined." The Gurkhas from his area have "prestige", he says, and he wants to be like them. But it is not the reputation of one of the world's most fearsome fighting units that brings him to British camp, it is money. "Life in my village is just farming; there are no other sources of income. If I become a Gurkha our finances will go up dramatically and life will change. I would bring my family out of the village and get them a nice house somewhere else. There is no water, no electricity, no hospital in the village. I want to make my life completely different," he says. His English falters and he reverts to Nepali. "Camp is really quiet and very clean. I want to live like this."
Yam's village of Khali is more than two hours walk from the nearest main road. The path to it is a steep climb up a dirt track, past rice, maize and millet terraces, cutting through settlements of adobe houses. Farming here is for subsistence only and the land is hard to work: one set of rice terraces hangs perilously over a sharp cliff from which 11 people from the village have fallen to their deaths, one just two months ago.
At the Thapa family house, children are running around among the chickens and Yam's father, Thamanraj, is out in one of his fields with his father, Purnasing, cutting leaves to feed their animals. They have some black pigs, some goats and a few buffalo, just enough to feed this family of three adults and the four children still living in a small two-storey building. "God Bless This House" has been chalked across a wooden beam in English and tacked to the wall of the porch is a glossy picture of Tower Bridge. Another room has been lined with sheets of old English-language newspapers, and has a picture of Buckingham Palace pinned to the wall. Most of the family cannot read and know nothing of these tourist attractions. They are castles in the air.
Thamanraj Thapa explains why he has sent his son off to become a Gurkha. "We have so many difficulties. We do not have electricity, healthcare, proper education for the children, roads, transport. Other families in the village are sending their sons abroad to earn money but you have to pay an agent to get them a job and we don't have money to do that. The British army does not have agents, we don't need to pay them."
A while back, Yam travelled to Pokhara to stay with an uncle and improve his English in preparation for selection. "If he stays in Pokhara he has more access to information about recruiting. We sent him there so that he would be prepared beforehand," says his father. A few days before selection, his mother Uma journeyed to see her son, knowing that if he is selected she will not see him for at least three years. "I just wished him good luck. I didn't know what else to say," she says. "I can't do anything and I don't know anything. I am just praying that he should be selected."
"I am expecting him to be enlisted," Thamanraj says. "Before he moved to Pokhara he used to do all the farming jobs - carrying loads on his back, collecting firewood, grass to feed the cattle - so he will be fit and able to do the doko race. If he doesn't get in we will be really sad but there's nothing we can do. We will be upset for a few days. But we will ask him to try again. All our hopes are resting with him. If he gets selected I will have a party. I will have a big goat and chop off its head. If he gets in, I will cry with happiness. I have never cried with happiness before."
The toughest part of the selection process without question is the infamous doko race. With 25kg of rocks suspended in rattan baskets - dokos - on their backs, stabilised by a woven band worn round the forehead, the recruits pound along a mountainous 5km route, which they must complete within 55 minutes. Shave 10 minutes off that time and a recruit has a very good chance, but those last five minutes can mean desolation.
At 7am, the assembled young men are given the off and they push and jostle each other as they make for the best route across the paddy fields. Some lose their balance, fall over, their doko baskets pulling them to the ground, but this is a frantic, momentous race and they scramble back to their feet. They move up steep steps, avoiding the buffalo droppings that pepper the route, up through the morning haze, past the clouds to the point where the crisp white peaks of the Annapurna massif and the sacred mountain of Macchapucchre are visible. Many of the applicants, thanks to a lifetime on these mountains, have powerful calf and thigh muscles, but for some it is a terrible struggle. The torture of the route and the pain of such weight on their shoulders is cut into the PR's sweat-sodden faces. Families and friends gather at the side of the pathway, clapping and shouting them on.
At the finishing line, exhausted and drenched, the young men must wait in line to have their dokos reweighed. Each basket should contain exactly 25kgs of rocks - any less and the runner is out. Only after the weigh-in are the PRs given a drink and a blanket for warmth.
Number 16, the first to finish, completes the course in 39 minutes; the last, number 113, takes 56 minutes, though he insists on completing the race. But there is something odd about number 16, who also won his heat of the BFT. He says he is 20 but he looks old for his age, and Hill has his doubts about the victor, who will be questioned further by the recruiting officers.
Yam Thapa does not do as well as he expected. He comes in 102nd out of 130 runner , and says he is too upset to talk about it. It doesn't look good.
Over at the medical centre, there are further tears. Mahesh Gurung, 20, has been told that tests revealed blood in his urine, that he has a kidney problem. "I was a bit surprised by this. I was confident in everything else, I never thought I would be out this way," he says. "I have done very well in everything else. I thought I would be in the British army but this is my first and last time, I am too old to try again."
He leaves with another applicant, Amrit Gurung, who has been told he is colour-blind. "Obviously I was shocked when I realised that I was seeing colours differently. But I have got hope that I can try again," he says. He can't, and the doctors have told him clearly this is the case.
It is now harder to become a Gurkha than ever before, because the educational bar has been lifted. This has caused resentment and concern among some older serving Gurkhas, who came to the army from the hills, often illiterate and with only a few words of English. Hill acknowledges "an issue over mental capacity, education, and whether they come from the hills or the towns".
"The traditional Gurkha is a man who has been brought up on the hills looking after sheep and goats, enduring hunger, cold, heat. These men are physically very robust and very familiar with the rural environment. This makes him an outstanding soldier in the jungle, in Burma or in Borneo," he says. "However, the operational environment has changed. The product we have from Nepal now is more urban based, which is absolutely ideal. I believe a man who has spent time in the hills but has then come down to the towns is better equipped for the chaos of Kabul, Baghdad, Basra and other war-torn cities he is likely to find himself in during his service than the man who has just been in the mountains."
The last day of recruitment, and the remaining PRs gather awaiting the final selection results. Unsuccessful candidates were once pulled out of the squad in front of everyone; now they are interviewed individually and the news is broken in private,after which they are escorted from camp as efficiently as possible. "We aim to minimise their suffering and save them from humiliation," says Hill.
Some have their hopes dashed. Others are given the offer of a new life. Their bib number read out, these successful recruits are issued with uniforms and kit and have their hair shorn. They then fill out their passport application forms to be processed in time for their flights to Britain early next month.
Now they have been accepted into the British army, they are unlikely to see Nepal for three years, when they are given five months' leave and an air ticket home. First they head to the infantry training centre at Catterick in Yorkshire, where they undergo the 11-week common military syllabus. After that it's the 19-week combat infantryman course, followed by nine weeks of further education, before their first posting.
"Initially they get culture shock when they get to the UK and some of them get homesick," says Captain Yambahadur Rana, wing commander of training at Catterick. "For the first 11 weeks they are locked up within the gate. After that we allow them out into town and they see how different things are. We organise escorted visits for them and show them how to use the banks, how to shop, how to take public transport. At the end of it all we take them to London to show them how to cope in a big city."
The PRs will be taken to Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. But Yam Thapa will not be among them. He failed to make the grade and was not selected. For him and his family, these places will remain cheap, poorly produced pictures of distant places, cut from magazines and pasted on the wall, but fated never to be seen.
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Saturday December 10 2005
In the feature below we said, "the government agreed to increase the Gurkha pension for retirement after 1997 from £95 to at least £450 a month, including a state pension". The Ministry of Defence has asked us to point out that in the ongoing review of Gurkha terms and conditions, changes are being made to national insurance rules so those who have served since July 1 1997 may become eligible for a UK state pension. Service pensions are also included in the review, but the outcome has not yet been announced. We also said that Gurkas are guaranteed 15 years' service but the initial engagement is for four years with three more periods of re-enlistment.