PICS: MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
Nepali peacekeeping troops depart from their base for sentry duty.
It's 3am in Beirut and 450 uniformed men from Shree Rudradhoj 51st Battalion of the Nepal Army are waiting to board their flights at Rafic Hariri Airport. Some have dozed off, while others are busy checking their emails and catching up with friends and families back home.
Another battalion arrived at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) a week ago to replace the current lot and will carry on Nepal's 54 years of peacekeeping in Lebanon. Currently there are nearly 4,000 Nepali peacekeepers serving in Lebanon, Congo, Haiti, Liberia, South Sudan, Iraq, and East Timor (see map).
However, as violence escalates in neighbouring Syria, the men serving in countries like Lebanon and Iraq have been on high alert for the past year. UNIFIL's base was attacked thrice in May, July, and December 2011 by terrorists who oppose the Lebanese government's reliance on UN forces. The flow of illegal arms both ways across the Lebanon-Syria border has also increased the chances of the Syrian conflict spilling over into Lebanon.
Hours before heading home, peacekeepers take the chance to chat with their families at the airport in Beirut.
Tara Bahadur Karki, head of the Nepal Army's Directorate of Peacekeeping Operations, visited Lebanon recently for an inspection, and says the Nepali forces are performing well despite the instability in the region, and Lebanon's legacy of conflict with Israel.
"The locals trust us because we are neutral in terms of religion and we look similar to them, this has made it easier for our troops to work in the area," he explains.
The new contingent of the Rudradhoj 51st battalion prepares to board the plane to Lebanon.
In addition to military operations, Nepali forces are also involved in humanitarian duties. They organise medical and dental camps, make house-calls to the elderly and have been assisting Syrian refugees. Recently, they also took part in the heritage preservation program in coordination with the residents and handed out furniture to the local cultural centre.
The total number of Nepali peacekeeping missions across the world:
SOURCE: NEPAL ARMY
Since Nepal started its first UN peacekeeping assignment in 1958 in Lebanon, the country has contributed 92,555 peacekeepers to 37 missions worldwide, making it the fifth largest contributor to the UN's peacekeeping force. Karki says sending soldiers on overseas deployment is a way to reward their good work, boost their morale and give them much needed international exposure.
Nepali troops on armoured vehicles patrol the area near Meis-al-Jabal.
However, over the years Nepali peacekeepers have made the headlines for the wrong reasons. Last year 34 officers from the Armed Police were ordered by the Supreme Court to answer to allegations of embezzling Rs 300 million worth of kickbacks on the procurement of faulty armoured personnel carriers in the UN mission in Sudan. The 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti which killed nearly 6,200 people was traced back to the Nepali peacekeeping base after DNA analysis of the cholera bacillus, but the Nepal Army has denied it was responsible. During the heights of the civil war, Nepal's involvement in overseas missions had also come under the cloud because of the Nepal Army's human rights record during the war, and the controversy this week over the promotion of two officers accused of war crimes has put fresh focus on this.
A son bids farewell to his father at TIA as he leaves for Lebanon.
Despite this, NA spokesperson Ramindra Chhetri says Nepali forces have received excellent feedback from the host countries as well as the UN. "They admire us for our neutrality and dedication across the ranks. The UN's secretary general Ban Ki-moon has spoken highly of us in many occasions," he adds.
In addition to global exposure, peacekeeping missions also provide a constant source of revenue for the Army. A soldier receives $1,000 a month, out of which 22 per cent goes towards the army's welfare fund which is used to support veterans, widows and orphans of those killed during war.
Lt Colonel LBKChhetri inaugurates a local cultural centre in Blida municipality along with the mayor.
With the integration of ex-Maoist combatants almost completed, the army is keen to improve its public relations and wants to project its role as an international peacekeeping force with a good record overseas. It is keen to diversify its activities at home as well as abroad, and although the UN has no such thing as permanent peacekeeping force, the Nepal Army feels it could fit the role if that force is ever set up.
With additional reporting
by Sunir Pandey
Keeping the peace, DEWAN RAI
The Lebanese Dai
Forty-year-old Ali Abdullah Akbar is an ordinary Lebanese who runs a small business and earns a living selling olives, tobacco, and grapes. But ask him to speak in Nepali and it's easy to forget that the man is from the small southern town of Siddiqin.
Akbar first came in contact with Nepali peacekeepers when he used to go to the UNIFIL base in Meis-al-Jabal to sell his goods. He learnt to speak Nepali from the troops posted there and today they lovingly call him Lebanese Santosh Pant because of his uncanny similarity to the Nepali actor. He has already been to Nepal twice and says he wants to go on a longer holiday and maybe learn to write in Devanagari script. Akbar who is still unmarried can be often heard humming a Nepali folk tune that the soldiers taught him to sing to his future bride: "I won't attack you like a tiger, or claw you like a leopard, but will woo you and carry you off in a palanquin."