Off to war zone after Singapore

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Dec 16, 2012 

The Dec 8 Little India riot saw Singapore Gurkhas deployed as part of the police response to quell the violence.  The paramilitary contingent was formed in 1949 and generations of these elite troopers have served in our island state. In 2012, Chong Zi Liang caught up with a few retired Gurkhas in Nepal who signed up for a stint as private military guards in Iraq after leaving Singapore. 

Kathmandu - During Deepavali in Nepal, revellers delight in setting off illegal firecrackers. Despite a ban since 2006, some still believe the pyrotechnics ward off evil spirits while others simply think they add to the festive cheer.

But retired Gurkha Chhatra Gurung, 53, is reminded of something else. "The 'boom, boom, boom' sounds just like mortars," he says.

After completing his service in the Singapore Police Force in 2004, he spent four years in Iraq as a private military guard braving constant mortar attacks on the United States and British bases he was hired to protect.

While it was common for earlier generations of Gurkhas to return to their villages after retirement and begin a life of farming, more are choosing to pursue a second career.

With a retirement age of 45 in Singapore, the Nepalese are still fit and prepared to work longer.

The past 10 years have seen retired Gurkhas heading to Iraq and Afghanistan as private military guards. Others seek out safer jobs in security elsewhere.

Mr Gurung shipped off to Basra, Iraq, in 2006, where he was a guard supervisor at one of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's old palaces that was converted into a British post and which was the target of daily mortar attacks.

He recalls a day when 38 mortars were fired by insurgents opposed to the Western presence in Iraq.

"The palace was very solid, the walls were very thick, so we still felt safe," he says. There were also numerous bunkers dotting the facility so that people outdoors could dive for cover when the sirens went off, warning of a mortar strike, he adds.

He served with other retired Gurkhas who were sought after by private military contractors that have played a prominent role in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr Gurung lives in one of four houses built side by side in the northern limits of Kathmandu. All four are owned by former Singapore Gurkhas, three of whom have served in Iraq while the last is still in Afghanistan.

His neighbours Lal Ale and Ishor Thapa, both of whom are also 53, went to Baghdad in 2005 after retiring from the Singapore Gurkha Contingent and worked four years as guards in the Green Zone, the headquarters of the international presence in Iraq.

They faced not only mortars but also rocket attacks, which the early detection system was unable to pick up.

"For mortars, we had maybe five seconds to find cover when the sirens went off. But for rockets, the sirens sounded only after they landed and exploded," Mr Ale says. "We could hear the whistling of incoming rockets quite clearly. When they flew close by, they sounded like a fighter jet."

Mr Thapa adds: "In 2006, there were mortars once, maybe twice a month. One year later, (the frequency) started increasing until they fell every day."

All three men say they had their share of close shaves.

Once, Mr Thapa was in his office when shrapnel from a mortar attack punched through the metal door, ricocheted off the wall and ceiling before landing between him and a colleague. It was still hot when he picked it up.

There were other hazards too. While 27 years as Gurkhas in Singapore had prepared them to be sentries, their Iraqi counterparts were little more than civilians with a week's training. "Some of them couldn't even pass the marksmanship test so they couldn't carry weapons on duty," Mr Thapa says.

Discipline was another problem. Mr Ale frequently saw his 12-hour shifts stretched a few hours to cover for those who did not show up on time.

Having come from Singapore, where illegal possession of firearms could mean the death penalty, the former Gurkhas had to adapt to a country where practically every home had at least one AK-47.

The Iraqis were liberal in using their weapons, firing them skywards whenever there was cause for celebration. "There would be notices put up reminding us to wear our body armour and helmet when there were festivals," says Mr Thapa.

The retired Gurkhas say they took up the job despite its dangers for the income. But although the money was good, they decided not to serve another stint because of the risks and the long separation from their families.

"Anyway, we are getting old. Enough action already," Mr Gurung says.