Children in the ranks: The Maoists' use of child soldiers in Nepal


I. Summary and Introduction

The Maoists first took my younger brother. He was 14 years old. He managed to escape. He just kept crying and kept saying that he would not go with the Maoists even if they beat him. They made him sentry guard, but he was so young... So we had to decide between us in the family whom to send-otherwise the Maoists would have locked our house. I had to go. -Sixteen-year-old Leela, a former child soldier for the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)

Leela was in army custody, exhausted, terrified, and hopeless, when she spoke to Human Rights Watch in March 2006. She had just survived one of the most intense battles of a brutal decade-long civil war that has already killed 13,000 people. Naturally, she was frightened of what the future would hold: at that time, it seemed that the civil war was about to engulf the entire country, as the insurgent forces of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)-known as the CPN (M)-prepared for what they called the final assault against the repressive government of King Gyanendra, who had usurped all authority in the country on February 1, 2005.

While no exact figures are available, local groups estimate that at least 3,500 to 4,500 Nepali children are part of the Maoist fighting forces. Tens of thousands of Nepali children have been forced to flee their homes to avoid recruitment by the Maoists, or to seek better lives away from already impoverished communities further damaged by the conflict and the government's brutal responses.

What Leela (and her interviewers) could not imagine was that a few weeks later a historic people's movement would bring hundreds of thousands of ordinary Nepalis into the streets to demand an end to the royal autocracy and the civil war. Despite instances of severe police brutality in response to the demonstrations, by the end of April 2006 the movement forced the king to give up absolute rule and return power to a coalition of seven opposition parties, which immediately agreed to a ceasefire with the Maoists.

On November 21, 2006, the Nepali government and the Maoists entered into a comprehensive peace agreement to end more than 10 years of fighting, rewrite the country's constitution (whether Nepal will remain a monarchy is one of the constitutional issues to be determined), and establish an interim government. The Nepali Army (until recently the Royal Nepali Army) and Maoists agreed to an arms management pact, under which each side would put away most of its weapons and restrict most troops to a few barracks, under the supervision of monitors from the United Nations (UN). The Comprehensive Peace Agreement even explicitly committed the parties to avoid recruiting anyone younger than age 18 for military purposes. There is hope now for Nepal, and for thousands of children like Leela whose lives were damaged by the war.

Despite optimism, there are real grounds for caution. A previous attempt at a ceasefire and comprehensive peace talks fell apart in 2001 after only a few months and set off the war's bloodiest period. As a result, Nepalis are anxious about the success of current peace negotiations, and seek immediate implementation of policies that will improve the lives of ordinary people. Nepali groups hope that this ceasefire will lead to a sustainable peace, but they have learned from bitter experience that a ceasefire may also provide the warring sides an opportunity to strengthen their ranks before engaging in warfare again.

A major cause for concern is that despite the ongoing peace process, Maoist forces have failed to release the children in their ranks. On the contrary, Maoist forces have been steadily recruiting children, even after the King was stripped of power and serious peace negotiations began, and despite pressure from Nepali and international human rights groups that led the parties to include the explicit prohibition of recruitment of child soldiers in the comprehensive peace agreement of November 21. Because of the break in fighting, no children have been involved in combat since the people's movement of April 2006, but Nepali and international monitors observed ongoing recruitment and training of children by the Maoists' People's Liberation Army and local militias up to the eve of signing the comprehensive peace agreement and, at a somewhat slower pace, even afterward.

Although the practice seems to have decreased in frequency, at the time this report was going to press (January 2007) there were still frequent reports of Maoist cadres recruiting children from school, often under the guise of attending involuntary educational sessions. Several recent reports indicate that some of the newly recruited children are immediately given weapons training. The Maoists have enticed some children to join their ranks during the peace negotiation period because the children believe that they will receive compensation and job training when Maoist forces are integrated into the national army or decommissioned. Nepali human rights groups have accused the Maoists of recruiting children to swell the number of troops they place under cantonment pursuant to the peace agreement, thus bolstering their negotiating position and protecting their professional core cadres in case of a future outbreak of violence.

The Maoists' failure to initiate any systematic efforts to release the children already in their ranks, and their ongoing recruitment, means that Nepali child soldiers have so far not benefited as they should have from the peace agreement. The children's problems are compounded by the fact that the Nepali government still lacks the capacity to provide assistance for any released child soldiers to be reintegrated into civilian life. Therefore should the peace talks break down, Nepali groups fear, the CPN (M) will have thousands of children in its ranks, many of them recruited and trained after the peace process began.

Children carry out a variety of roles for the Maoists. Most children serve in local militias, but others hold positions in the Maoists' core military wing, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Whether in the militias or the PLA, children serve as porters, sentries, messengers, and medical assistants. Children in Maoist ranks receive military training and are given weapons-this ranges from full-fledged weapons training in the PLA, to being given a single grenade or improvised "socket bombs." Regardless of their position, though, it is clear that children, even when serving with local militias (as opposed to the PLA), were exposed to fighting and were particularly vulnerable to injury. As established by Human Rights Watch's investigations of battle sites, sometimes within a few days of the fighting, Maoist child soldiers were frequently sighted at the battle field and they were prone to falling-or being left-behind by more mobile or more professional Maoist military units.

The Maoists have used a variety of techniques for recruiting children: kidnapping of individual children; abduction of large groups of children, often from schools; and use of propaganda campaigns to attract children as "volunteers." There are still frequent reports of children being forcibly abducted from school or on their way to or from school in order to attend involuntary educational sessions during mass rallies. This practice has provoked tremendous anger from Nepali parents as well as human rights groups, which have condemned the interruption of the children's schooling and the violation of their right to an education. But the chief objection to this practice reflects the fact that the Maoists' frequently use these involuntary educational sessions to recruit children as soldiers, sometimes simply by prohibiting the children from returning home.

In areas firmly under their control, particularly in the insurgency's heartland in Nepal's west and far west, the Maoists operated a "one family, one child" program whereby each family had to provide a recruit or face severe punishment. Once recruited, children were kept in the ranks through punishment or the fear of it; any children who considered escape also had to consider the real possibility that the Maoists would exact reprisal upon their families. This is how Leela came to fight with the Maoists, enter into battle, be captured by the army, and be interviewed by Human Rights Watch, and why she was so afraid of the future for herself and her family.

The Maoists have consistently denied that they recruit children or employ them, notwithstanding the incontestable experience of Leela and hundreds of others like her. The party's public position for the past five years has been that it does not allow anyone younger than 18 to join either the People's Liberation Army or the people's militias. Instead, the Maoists claim the only children among their cadres are those who lost their parents in the conflict or were otherwise unable to care for themselves. Prachanda, the Maoists' leader, repeated this claim as recently as November 18, 2006, just three days before signing the comprehensive peace agreement, in response to a direct question by Human Rights Watch during an event organized by the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.


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