09 May, 2004

SOLDIERS WITH SCHOOLBAGS

SOLDIERS WITH SCHOOLBAGS

Many of the widely reported “abductions” are more a coercion to attend cultural programs. But there are also unfounded claims that the Maoist are trying to raise a 50,000-strong child militia

BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, May 9-16, 2004

On April 21, newspapers re-ported that the Maoists had abducted 162 people, including 120 students, from the villages of Subhang and Bharapa in Panchthar. The papers weren’t clear when they had been abducted and the local residents were at a loss to explain why. Next day, 1,000 more were taken hostage from the villages in Panchthar and Taplejung—neither of them a Maoist stronghold.

Earlier, on February 27, 65 students from sixth to tenth grades, were abducted along with their teacher while returning from Musikot, Rukum (this one a Maoist stronghold) after taking part in the Birendra Shield Competition . The security forces who were deployed to free the students failed in their mission. When the gun battle between the Army and the rebels raged on for days, the locals fled their villages.

According to subsequent news reports, though vague, the abductees were set free after Janabadi education sessions. INSEC, a human rights group, says that many of the widely reported “abductions” are more a coercion to attend cultural programs than people being held against their will for any length of time. But there are also unfounded claims that the Maoist are trying to raise a 50,000-strong child militia.

“Children from eighth and ninth grades are taken for a few days, and are indoctrinated,” says Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), which runs its own social service program in Rolpa, Rukum and Salyan, the districts hit hardest by the insurgency. “They are made to do exercises; they are made to carry heavy loads and run. The Maoists give them their books to read. So they are not ‘abducted’ by force or made captive in a conventional sense. They are taken en masse to attend Maoist programs, and then they are returned.”

Incidents of Maoists taking students from schools have become increasingly common since early 2004. In mid-February, the Maoists celebrated the eighth anniversary of the “people’s war,” forcing 700 students in Accham to join their anti-establishment protest. On February 20, a teacher reported seeing 300 students taken from a school in Rolpa. Khem Bahadur Budha told AFP news agency that the students were taken from Saiwang Secondary School at Holeri village.

Unconfirmed reports say the Maoists are planning to raise a huge child militia. While the claim is as difficult to establish as many other stories about the Maoists, there are some pointers that give credence to the claim. Kamal Shahi, ANNISU-R central secretariat member and convenor of the Maoist Bheri-Karnali Regional Coordination Committee, has been quoted as saying that the decision to raise the child militia was taken on January 10-11. And that the Maoists planned to ‘induct’ 375,000 students by the end of Baisakh (May 13). One militia would be levied from each school. The students would not be coerced, Shahi said.

The security forces’ response to the recruitment of children, in both militias and active combat, has not been exactly friendly. They have been known to open fire in schoolyards, and take children being taught by teachers at gunpoint. “Four years ago, the security forces were interrogating children who had become involved in conflict,” reports CWIN. “They had surrender camps. There is no concept of verbal sexual assault in the military. They would use abusive words to the children, and even threaten to rape them in order to get information.”

Nepal is one of the 13 countries in Asia actively using children as soldiers, says the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The Maoists, not the Army, uses them. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says children below 15 cannot be used in warfare.

Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a Maoist leader, told CNN in November 2002 that reports of child recruitment by Maoist groups are “baseless allegations made by the Nepali government. We have no children in our fighting force. We do not admit anyone below 18 in our army… As far as our movement is concerned, we have the support of the children as well as the elderly. But they are not part of our army…”

According to Nepali laws, a person is only considered a child up to the age of 16, unlike in other countries where the responsibilities of adulthood start at 18. Maoists claim only people over 18 become combatants. Underage children are put in militias, which are not involved in active warfare.

SSP Ramesh Chand of Nepal Police says there are no laws specific to children. The law of the land treats children caught with arms and wearing guerrilla outfits just as it would the adults. “We don’t automatically think a child carrying a gun is a culprit. They are given the chance to surrender. We believe we can’t attack children, but if they attack first, then of course the security personnel have to respond.”

Children are helpless pawns in the conflict.

Rights workers say that children are used as human shields by the Maoists, who also train them to carry light arms and ammunition. Since the “people’s war” began in 1996, 214 children have been documented killed: 140 by the state, and 74 by the Maoists, according to INSEC.

Juvenile courts, which deal with children separately, don’t exist in Nepal. There are “juvenile benches” where judges sit separately to try the cases of children in all 75 districts, but only a few cases have been tried through these benches. The individuals administrating these benches don’t know much about them, say rights workers. Nepal’s Children’s Act of 1992 has specifically mentioned the need for juvenile courts, but it hasn’t been implemented.

“There are no separate prisons for children,” says SSP Chand. “Juvenile custody doesn’t exist in Nepal. The government doesn’t have the resources.” The anti-terrorism law is administered by the civil police, not the security forces or the military.

The Maoist policy to take students has severely affected the schools and hundreds have closed down in different parts of the country as parents and teachers, afraid of having their children abducted, either stop sending children to school or move them to urban centers where they are comparatively safer.

Girls’ education has especially suffered: news reports say that girls below puberty are being made to wear bridal wear while going to school, since the Maoists are thought to target married women less.

Children as Zone of Peace National Coalition, a forum of 30 organizations, has condemned the Maoist plans to use children in militias, and have urged both the Maoists and security forces to declare schools as battle-free zones. Until that happens, the civil conflict will continue to rob an entire generation of children of their right to education and a better future.

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