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Uncertain future of Nepal's former child soldiers

BY Olivia Lang, in Dudhauli barracks, southern Nepal

Maoist child soldiers prepare to be released
The youngsters are accustomed to a vigorous military lifestyle

Clad in navy tracksuits, dozens of young Nepali faces stand around in the midday sun at Dudhauli barracks in southern Nepal, waiting to board buses home.

After three years spent living in UN-monitored camps since the country's civil war, they are the first of around 3,000 former Maoist child soldiers now being discharged and returning to civilian life.

The move, which has been repeatedly delayed, is seen as an important step at a time when the nation's peace process has stalled since the Maoist party left government in May last year.

Nepal's decade-long conflict cost 16,000 lives and finally ended in 2006 with an agreement between the government and Maoist rebels.

'Sad to leave'

The children, along with about 1,000 disqualified combatants, will be given a choice of vocational courses, entrepreneurial training or school classes for up to one year.

Punita Shah
I joined the party to help the people - now I am a common person, not a soldier
Punita Shah

On Thursday, around 200 combatants at the Dudhauli camp had a final midday meal of chicken, rice and beans, and sat through a ceremony where they were each given garlands and blessed with red powder.

They then boarded buses to go home, each with 10,000 Nepali rupees ($137; £86) allowance for travel and other expenses.

"They told me I was a child soldier so I have to leave," said 20-year old Punita Shah, who quit school four years ago after the Maoists asked her to join their cause.

Accustomed to getting up at 4am and a strict routine of military drills and physical exercise, she says she is looking forward to being back with her family and working on the farm.

"I have many friends here and I am sad to leave them, but I want to go back and support my mother and father," she says.

"I joined the party to help the people and serve the nation," she says, "Now I am a common person, not a soldier".

The UN has said it will monitor those discharged for a year to ensure they do not join military or paramilitary structures.

However, many of those being released on Thursday say they will remain committed to the Maoists and plan to join party organisations.

'Revolution not over'

During the war, the Maoists were notorious for their recruitment of young people - voluntarily or by force - from remote villages. Some were aged only 12 or 13.

Former Nepalese Maoist combatants bid farewell to their friends
Many of the young rebels are excited to be returning home

"The revolution is not over, but it has now turned to peaceful politics," said 22-year-old Dev Das, who says he will get a job and join the party locally.

During the war, he organised food and water to his "comrades" during conflict periods and saw many of his friends die.

"I was ready to sacrifice my life. On the one hand I was thinking about liberation, on the other about death," he said.

It is hoped that, following the discharge, the Maoists will be considered for removal from a UN list of political parties that recruit and use children.

An agreement in early 2007 pledged immediately to discharge 4,000 minors and disqualified combatants following a UN verification process which was completed by the end of the year.

But the move has been delayed by the failure of the Maoists and other parties to reach an agreement.

Robert Piper, country resident for the United Nations in Nepal, say he hopes the move will add momentum to the peace process which has stalled.

Indoctrinated?

"Progress in Nepal's peace process has been a long time coming," he said.

A UN officer (L) reverifies the indentification of former Nepalese Maoist minors
The rehabilitation process has been carefully monitored by the UN

"The reintegration or rehabilitation of these people back into civilian life is a terribly important sign that we are turning a corner and entering a new chapter this year.

"I hope these young people will be able to move from an institutionalised life spent following instructions to one where they can make their own choices."

As part of the peace deal in 2006, about 24,000 Maoist troops agreed to be confined to 28 cantonments - monitored by the UN, but run internally by the party.

The fate of the remaining former combatants has not yet been decided and remains a key political issue.

The Maoists want their former fighters to be integrated into the army, but political opponents claim they are politically indoctrinated and therefore ineligible.

Former rebels have been protesting since their leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) quit as prime minister after a failed bid to sack the army chief over the issue.



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