Gurkhas on patrol in Dili

Known for their military prowess, the Nepalese soldiers were the first

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Dressed in fatigues and a bulky beltpack filled with ammunition clips, Pvt. Jaya Bikram Rai surveys a sidestreet in Dili, East Timor's capital: "Every home, every office, every factory destroyed."

Private Rai has patrolled enough of the city's streets to know. He is a Nepalese soldier in Britain's Brigade of Gurkhas - an elite and storied regiment whose members are part of the international force slowly restoring stability to East Timor.

The Gurkhas were the first in when Australian-led forces arrived on Sept. 20. They raced up steep hills surrounding Dili to "picket the high ground" - a Gurkha specialty - and protect forces below from attack.

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Australian troops vastly outnumber any other national contingent in East Timor, but the Gurkhas are highly visible. They guard the UN headquarters here, and this week they began escorting humanitarian agencies in their work around East Timor.

The enemy here is mysterious - armed militia groups that oppose East Timor's coming independence. So far, there have been no clashes between militias and the international force, but the troops here remain on guard.

Walking with Gurkhas on patrol, as I did yesterday, is a good way to absorb this city's atmosphere of destruction and hope: At 2:30 p.m. eight Gurkha soldiers move out from their guardpost, walking along the edges of the street. They are armed with assault rifles and their famous curved knives, called kukuri, and stay in radio contact with their base.

The street is wide, and the people on it wave and smile and greet the troops. The Gurkhas have some advantages over the Australians patrolling Dili's streets: They are Asians and speak a language similar to standard Indonesian because they are based in nearby Brunei.

At 2:45 p.m. the patrol turns onto a sidestreet, and some of the soldiers catch a cloying whiff of what may be a corpse - a frequent smell in a city where a lot of people and animals have died in recent weeks. As some of the Gurkhas take positions behind walls and in a drainage ditch, others investigate a charred lump inside a burned-out house. Ten paces later they find the source of the odor: the remains of a dog.

The Gurkhas continue their walk along a street lined with palm trees. Many houses are empty, but others are filing up as residents return from the hills. One man is opening coconuts with a machete. Others play billiards at a small outdoor table, and take a minute to watch the patrol pass.

Rai admits he feels pretty safe. "In the future, I don't know," he adds.

A little before 3 p.m. the Gurkhas encounter a pair of Australians patrolling a sector that abuts theirs. The Gurkha corporal and one of the Australians discuss some recent incidents involving tense moments because of confusion over the pronunciation of passwords. The Australians and the Gurkhas each speak distinctive forms of English, so the miscommunication is understandable. But confusion among heavily armed troops is distressing, and the two agree to consult their commanders.

At 3:30 p.m. the patrol reaches an Indonesian military guardpost in front of an electric utility office. The Indonesians have withdrawn all but about 1,500 troops from East Timor, who remain to protect some key installations.

The Gurkhas and the Indonesians greet each other like old friends, with lots of shoulder-patting and handshaking. The guardpost commander, Lieutenant Manurung, says he likes the Gurkhas. He holds his forearm next to Rifleman Mobin Nalbo's - "the same," he says, referring to their skin color.

It's hard to imagine him kidding around with Australian soldiers in this way, but Manurung says he likes them too. In Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia, however, protesters have decried Australia's leading role in the international force.

"They're naturally friendly, but don't be deceived by that," says Lt. Col. Mark Lillingston-Price, noting the Gurkhas well-earned reputation for toughness.

Britain's Brigade of the Gurkhas was formed early in the 19th century from fighters who courageously beat the British East India Company. It numbered more than 100,000 during the two world wars. But today there are only about 3,000.

The Gurkha patrol returns to base at 4 p.m. Uneventful, yes. But quiet patrols like this one are the best news of all in a place like Dili.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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