Concern Grows Over Nepal's Child Fighters
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
BIRMUNI, Nepal -- Suraj Damai, 14, was playing volleyball in the schoolyard when five Maoist guerrillas emerged from the woods that surround this destitute mountain village. Brandishing homemade bombs, they announced that the time had come for Damai to "do something for the revolution," he recalled. "I was very frightened."
But Damai soon came to identify with his captors. Abducted with four friends on that evening 13 months ago, he was assigned to a cultural troupe as a singer, indoctrinated in class warfare and taught to handle a bolt-action rifle. The local commander, whose nom de guerre was Sky, became a kind of father figure.
"I loved him," he said.
The story of Damai's brief career as a revolutionary, which ended with his capture by the army last summer, sheds light on one of the most troubling aspects of the obscure but escalating war between Maoist insurgents and the government of King Gyanendra -- the insurgents' routine and apparently widespread use of child soldiers, many of whom are snatched from their villages against their will.
As in Damai's case, the Maoists often focus their recruitment efforts on "untouchables," who by some estimates account for nearly a fifth of Nepal's 27 million people and occupy the lowest level of its rigid caste system. As a result, government security forces tend to treat most untouchables, or dalits , with suspicion, increasing their vulnerability to various forms of discrimination and abuse, according to human rights groups.
Although there is no hard data on the number of child soldiers in Nepal, anecdotal evidence suggests that the phenomenon has increased since the collapse of a cease-fire in 2003, according to the Watchlist, a New York-based nongovernmental group that monitors the use of children in armed conflict.
The organization also has faulted Nepali security forces for employing children as spies or informants; Damai, for example, was ordered to help identify former comrades before he was finally released after two months in army custody, he and his father said.
A U.N. panel on children's rights said this month that it was "highly alarmed" by the number of children who have been killed in the conflict and accused the Maoists of "abduction and forcible conscription of children . . . for political indoctrination and for use as combatants, informants, cooks or porters, and as human shields."
In a sign of the growing international concern, the UNICEF office in Katmandu, the capital, is developing a monitoring system to track the use of child soldiers and also is laying the groundwork for programs to rehabilitate underage fighters -- an option that that for now is virtually nonexistent in the country, according to Noriko Izumi, a project officer with the agency.
The use of child soldiers is part of a broader mosaic of abuses by both sides in the war that is tearing apart this isolated, beguiling country of desperate poverty and Himalayan peaks. Since 1996, when the Maoists launched their anachronistic "people's war" against the now 237-year-old monarchy, the conflict has claimed the lives of about 12,000 people, many of them noncombatants, according to human rights groups.
By most accounts, the situation has deteriorated since Feb. 1, when Gyanendra, backed by the royal army, dismissed the government, ordered the arrest of political opponents, journalists and human rights workers and initiated a broad crackdown on freedom of the press and other civil liberties.
Gyanendra defended his power grab on grounds that it would give him a freer hand to deal with the Maoists, but so far there is little evidence of progress. Last week, Maoist guerrillas detonated a mine beneath a passenger bus in southern Nepal, killing 36 people in one of the deadliest attacks on civilians of the war; Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who goes by the name Prachanda, called the bombing a mistake.