-- 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.
"In the insurgency, there is no quick solution," Brig. Gen. Dipak Gurung, the spokesman for the royal army, acknowledged in an interview. "We strike out some place. We manage to neutralize them, and they pop out somewhere else. We are not in sufficient numbers to completely strike them out."
Damai, who was 13 when he was abducted by the Maoists last year, is in many ways typical of the youthful low-caste fighters who fill the insurgents' ranks.
A slight, sad-eyed boy with a wary manner and a mop of straight black hair that looks as though it was trimmed with a machete, he lived with his parents and three siblings in this mixed community of dalits and higher-caste Hindus in the foothills of the snow-capped Annapurna range about 120 miles northwest of Katmandu.
Steeped in odors of wood smoke and dung, the village of mud-and-stone houses and tiny, terraced farm plots is a place of strict unwritten rules, where a dalit who accidentally touches the communal water pump while a higher-caste villager is filling his jug risks a public scolding or worse. Even now, Damai remains so conscious of his status that when a stranger offers him a package of potato chips, he shakes his head in refusal, lest his touch contaminate the contents; chips passed by hand are hungrily devoured.
The son of a mason, Damai dropped out of school after the second grade and, according to his father, developed something of a rebellious streak; to this day, Khadka Damai, 49, said he was not sure if his son was abducted by the Maoists or went with them willingly. All he knows for certain is that he sent his son into the forest to cut grass to feed the family's two water buffalo and didn't see him again for five months.
As Damai picked up the story, there was nothing voluntary about his departure, which occurred after he had finished cutting the grass and headed over to the schoolyard to play. The five Maoists who abducted him "hardly said anything," except that he and his friends would "become part of our team," Damai recalled.
After walking for two days, he came to a village that served as a base for about 500 Maoists, many of them dalits and perhaps 200 of them children, he estimated.
Asked how he wished to contribute to the revolution, "I told them I would sing," Damai said. The Maoists then assigned him a 16-person cultural troupe, which sang and danced for the cadres every night. During the day, Damai said, he "cut wood in the jungle" to serve as cooking fuel.
Once every three or four days, the new recruits were instructed in the rudiments of class struggle, with a special emphasis on the plight of Nepal's dalits and the Maoists' role in liberating them. Partly as a result, Damai said, "I never tried to run away from the Maoists. I learned that we are dalits and everyone is discriminating against us, so I felt that to be a Maoist was good."
He still has fond memories of the Maoists' commander, a man of about 40 who was one of the few guerrillas in the group to carry a Kalashnikov assault rifle. "I feel he is a good man," he said.
Political indoctrination aside, the Maoists also prepared the boy for combat. They issued him two socket bombs -- homemade grenades made from iron pipe fittings known as sockets -- and a simple single-shot rifle, albeit without bullets, that he practiced with every day.
But Damai never got to put his skills to use. During a firefight between the Maoists and the army last summer, the child and one of his fellow singers were taken prisoner. The soldiers then transferred him to an army barracks in Beni, a bustling market town about two hours' walk from his village.
Although Damai said the soldiers treated him well, they also pressed him into service as an informant, assigning him to an army checkpoint every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in hopes that he would identify former comrades. Damai said he was unable to oblige; after two months, the army sent a letter to his father informing him of his son's whereabouts and asking him to take the boy home.
They turned him over to his father with a chilling warning. "If you son goes to the Maoists again," Damai recalled one of the soldiers saying, "he will be killed."