SINDHULI DISTRICT, Nepal, 8 January 2010 - In a flurry of colour, flowers and blessings, a group of some 200 former child soldiers left behind them their military barracks in the Maoist army cantonment here and took their first steps back into civilian life.
Armed with only some cash supplied by the United Nations - Rs10,000 (NPR) / $ 140 - and the hope of schooling and jobs, the group of smiling and laughing young men with flower garlands around their necks and red 'tika' - or traditionally red powder - shining on their foreheads, waved from atop buses that drove them out of this Maoist army camp for the last time today. Choked up with mixed emotions, their former female comrades-in-arms waved from the windows of the crowded buses.
These young people were discharged here this week after being disqualified from military service thanks to a United Nations process that verified that they were minors - or late recruits - when the ceasefire ending Nepal's civil war was signed in May 2006. Their lives have been on hold for the past two years while negotiations for their release dragged on. Over the next month, those disqualified in the remaining six UN-monitored cantonments scattered across this country will also be discharged.
Starting new lives
As the six buses bound for the drop-off point a few hours away roared their engines and pulled out, there were a few stoic faces and tear filled eyes, clearly sad to leave their friends. But most passengers waved, called to friends or leaned out windows to shake hands as they left for their new lives.
Many of these young people said privately that they were angry at being discharged. "I wasted two years of my life," said one. Others said they were happy to be returning to their villages and families.
After the 10 years of conflict - during which some 16,000 Nepalese lost their lives - ended in 2006 after a settlement between the Maoist rebels and the Nepal Government, the country is facing major challenges. The release of these former young rebels is seen as marking the beginning of a new era for the peace dividend to finally start paying off.
While in the cantonments waiting for stalled negotiations to be finalized, the young people had limited options. Some did woodwork and took English classes; others passed their time doing physical training, watching TV and playing badminton or volleyball, or raising children. These young people grew strong bonds during their time together and many started families. By January 2010, there were some 60 young children and 18 pregnant women here.
But now, with the combined help of the United Nations, the Government of Nepal and the Maoists, they will have options and get the training and tools to start their new lives. Some will receive training and equipment to start their own businesses in fields such as welding, carpentry, or hair styling. UNICEF is also providing the opportunity to continue both formal and informal education.
'A more stable, peaceful future'
The discharge, which is scheduled to be completed in seven cantonments across the country by mid February 2010, is part of an Action Plan signed in December 2009 by the Government of Nepal, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist (UCPN-M), and the United Nations. When it is verified that the UCPN-M has fully complied with the plan, the party can be considered for removal from the list of parties that recruit and use children, which is included in the annual UN Secretary-General's Report on Children and Armed Conflict.
Before Thursday's ceremony, these young people completed a discharge process carried out by various United Nations agencies. Dressed in navy blue tracksuits, they were briefed about rehabilitation options and given civilian clothing and identity cards. In the coming months, a United Nations team will contact those discharged to monitor and assess how they are adjusting to civilian life. Nearly 3,000 of those disqualified were minors at the time of the 25 May 2006 ceasefire. Today, about one dozen are under 16 years of age and roughly 500 are under 18. About a third are female.
"The release of these young people sends out a symbolic message for the New Year," said UNICEF Representative in Nepal Gillian Mellsop.
"Not only can these young people now finally get on with their lives, but this also marks a new beginning at the start of a new decade for Nepal, so that it can move forward to a more stable, peaceful future," she added.
Monitoring and reporting
Since 2006, UNICEF has worked with children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups in Nepal. Today, with its implementing partners, UNICEF operates in some 40 districts, providing community-based reintegration support to some 7,500 formerly associated children.
UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are the co-chairs of the Nepal Task Force on the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on children affected by armed conflict violations (UN Security Council Resolution 1612). In this role, UNICEF has, with OHCHR-Nepal, been leading monitoring activities in the country. This will continue under the December 2009 Action Plan on Discharge.
The Plan states that monitoring will continue for 12 months after the final disqualified individuals are discharged. Only then can the UCPN-M be considered for delisting from the annual Report of the UN Secretary General on Children in Armed Conflict.