For generations in villages across the Nepal Himalayas, young men and boys left their sleepy hamlets to become laures or bharti hune (recruits). These young males ended up fighting for Western Allied forces across Northern Africa, Europe, and Burma, among other places. The graves of these men can be found neatly kept in war cemeteries, maintained out of the gratitude and generosityof the country and people they helped liberate from the evils of the Axis alliance.
I recently visited a cemetery called “El Alamein War Cemetery”, two and half hours bus ride west of Alexandria, Egypt. The cemetery contains 7,240 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War who died during all stages of the Western Desert campaigns. After scouring the site for more than 3 hours, I came across four grave-stones bearing the names of Gurkhas and their regimental insignia. Seeing how young these fallen heroes were, I could not help but ponder whether they understood what they had sacrificed their life for.
As the gentle hot breeze whistled past my ears, I wondered if those were the cries of the men whose graves I stood in front of. I closed my eyes and imagined that it was the famous Gurkha war cry “Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali” which translates to “Glory be to the Goddess of War, here come the Gorkhas!”
As one British officer who served with the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles in the First World War, wrote of the Gurkhas:
“As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun. 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 country more faithful friends than you.”
Sadly, there were no records kept by the Nepalese government in those days, or at least not that were made public of how many young men were lost. The government then was only too happy to accept royalties from the recruitment of these men into British and Indian armies. The older generations in villages can point to houses of men who never returned. At the time, when no one in the villages could read or write, sending home mail was unheard of. Most families learnt of their laure’s fate from another laure who returned after the war. For some villages when none returned, the wives, children and the mothers were left to linger with thoughts that one day their laure would eventually come home.
Those that did come home rarely spoke about the conflicts and horror of war they witnessed; many were suffering from what we know now today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Most of the veterans took up drinking a local home brewed alcohol to suppress the memory of their experiences.
Then there are some men who stayed behind in the land where they fought and their descendants can be found as far afield as Fiji in the Pacific. A friend of mine whose father served in a Gurkha regiment visited the island on a military exercise during the 1980s. He came across a local village where an old Gurkha from the Second World War had stayed back after the war.
Upon meeting my friend’s father and his men, the old soldier wept with joy and sadness. He had taken a local bride and given his sons and daughters Nepali names like ‘Bahadur’ and ‘Kumari’. Although, looking at the children who were middle-aged adults, one could not discern the Nepali in them.
The lure of becoming laure was probably the same then as it is today. The rich tradition, the passage of boyhood into a manhood, travel to exotic places, the escape from poverty and the chance to earn respect and fortune was – as it is today – too much for any boy or young man in the village to overlook.
I collected a small morsel of dirt from each of these men’s’ graves, which I plan to take with me to Nepal to sprinkle on the riverbanks of Pashupatinath. By doing so, I hope to bring part of them or their spirit back home. Also, publishing these pictures on my website, maybe the relatives of these men will come to know their final resting place and find some solace knowing they are not forgotten. If everything goes as planned, I will do my best to visit many such graves in Tunisia and Libya during the last leg of my Africa tour.
Peace & Harmony to you all,
Furtemba Sherpa, Pedaling for Peace and Environment.