When Sergeant Basanta Rai deployed to Afghanistan in April he thought his fourth tour of the country would be much like the previous deployments. However, he found himself proved wrong.
For the last six months, Sgt Rai, or ‘Baz’ as he known, has been working side-by-side with the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP). Sgt Rai and his Afghan colleagues have forged strong relationships through patrolling together during the day and eating and relaxing together in the evenings. As a result, Sgt Rai says this has been his most rewarding and enjoyable experience of Afghanistan.
On this tour Sgt Rai has commanded a small team of Gurkhas working as one of the Police Advisory Teams who are responsible for developing over 100 Afghan Police in the area of Nad ‘Ali.
Every day Sgt Rai and his team visit AUP checkpoints to either deliver refresher training, such as first aid lessons, patrol in the area, or simply sit in the shade and discuss any issues. Sgt Rai speaks Nepalese, Hindi and English, and this has allowed him to make great inroads with the police as they chat in their spare time over a cup of ‘chai’ about everything from religion and politics to Bollywood actresses and their favourite Asian foods.
Sgt Rai says the affinities between their two cultures, based on similar lifestyles and the ability to converse in Urdu, has helped him make some very good friends:
‘Sangeya, kaisay ho yaar?’ is a Pashto and Hindu greeting and that’s how I start my day with the Afghans. I don’t think my Pashto is getting any better but our handshakes have already evolved to ‘cheek banging’ greetings and Afghan embraces. In just a few months we have become close and the word ‘andiwal’, or ‘friend’, comes before every name we call each other.
Sgt Rai comes from a long line of Gurkhas. His great-grandfather was a Gurkha officer, the first from the Sangpang tribe, where his family come from, in the remote hills of East Nepal. Following this, his father, Major (Ret’d) Biswanath Rai, was the Gurkha Major - the highest ranking Gurkha officer in his battalion. Sgt Rai is now carrying on the proud family tradition.
Since completing the tough Gurkha selection course in the Himalayas in 1999, Sgt Rai has served in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and completed four tours of Afghanistan. On his last tour he was Mentioned in Dispatches for his bravery after he provided covering fire to allow his comrades to extract after an improvised explosive device strike.
His Platoon Commander, Captain Alex Crawley, speaks affectionately about his second-in-command:
Sgt Basanta is a man you trust implicitly with your life. Amongst the Gurkhas he is a gentle giant of a sergeant, a man who smiles with his eyes, but a man whose wrath you never want to incur. He is one of the battalion characters, bigger than life, yet quiet of manner, known affectionately to Gurkha and Brit alike as ‘Big Baz’. His character and temperament have been a key catalyst in building relations between the Gurkhas and the AUP.
As Sgt Rai approaches the end of his tour, he is looking forward to returning to Brunei, where 2 RGR are based, to see his wife, Reena, and his son, Sangpang, with whom he has only spent six weeks in the last year.
However, when he leaves Helmand, Sgt Rai will have to say goodbye to the friends with whom he has got on so well. He has used his close bond with the AUP commanders to ask them to continue to do a good job and work towards a time when they can provide security without the help of people like him.