Nepal's Former Child Soldiers Try to Rebuild Lives

by Kathy Jones on  June 27, 2010 at 2:42 PM Lifestyle News   - G J E 4
It is often rightly said that children are innocent victims of any war.

Gopal was just 14 when soldiers from the Maoist People's Liberation Army came to his village in eastern Nepal looking for new recruits.
 Nepal's Former Child Soldiers Try to Rebuild Lives
Nepal's Former Child Soldiers Try to Rebuild Lives

Won over by their promise to bring equality to the impoverished, deeply feudal country, he left with them, telling his brother he would only be gone a few days.

But he never returned, spending the next two years in jungle hide-outs and fighting alongside the Maoists in their bloody insurgency against the country's 240-year-old Hindu monarchy.

Now Gopal, whose name AFP has changed at his request, is trying to rebuild his life after being formally discharged from the Maoist army cantonment where he lived for more than three years after the war ended.

Like many of the thousands of former child soldiers who fought with the Maoists, he feels let down by the former rebels, and now faces an uncertain future in a country where job opportunities are scarce.

"I joined because the Maoists said they wanted to get rid of feudalism," Gopal told AFP in an interview.

"They came to my village and beat up the landowners, which my grandfather said was a good thing, because the landowners had exploited people for so long and there was a lot of injustice.

"I was very unhappy when the war ended. A peace agreement should have brought happiness, but we felt we had achieved nothing."

More than 23,000 former Maoist fighters were confined to UN-supervised camps after the decade-long civil war between the guerrillas and the state ended in 2006, awaiting agreement on how to integrate them into the national army.

Subsequent UN checks found that 4,008 were not genuine combatants, in most cases because they were under 18 -- a violation of international law -- and they were finally discharged this year.

The discharged were not the only child soldiers who fought alongside the Maoists -- thousands more youngsters fled the Maoist ranks during the course of the war and most of those have since returned home.

But many of those who joined willingly and stayed until the end of the war came to see their comrades as their family, and are unwilling to return home now that they have been discharged.

Some fear being ostracised by their communities for joining the Maoists, while others see better job prospects in bigger cities than in the rural areas they came from. Some have gone to work for the Maoists, now Nepal's main opposition party.

Counsellors are on hand to deal with the myriad problems they face -- from trauma related to involvement in combat to the separation of couples who married and had children in the camps.

The United Nations is funding a rehabilitation programme for the former combatants amid fears they could be vulnerable to Nepal's numerous criminal gangs, many of which have political ties.

Participants can go back into education and take the school-leaving certificate, or attend training courses to learn a variety of skills, including cooking, driving and tailoring.

When they were discharged from the cantonments, each disqualified combatant received an identity card carrying details of a toll-free phone line they could call for information on such opportunities.

Gopal, now 20, is one of around 500 who have enrolled. He is learning to drive at a training course in the capital Kathmandu -- a skill he hopes will allow him to get a job, either in Nepal or abroad.

Gopal lives in a shared house in Kathmandu with other former combatants and receives a monthly stipend of 3,000 rupees (40 dollars) while he attends his six-month training programme.

Rajid Sainju, programme officer at the Sano Thimi technical school he attends, said the former combatants were among his keenest students.

"They are enthusiastic and they want to learn. They are even asking for extra classes," he added.

"At the beginning I think they found it hard to have so much freedom because they were used to a very regimented life in the cantonment. But they have adjusted."

As of June 4, around 1,500 of the discharged combatants had called the toll-free number, and almost 900 had been referred to training organisations.

The United Nations says it hopes more will take advantage of its programmes, available for a year after the formal discharge of the former combatants.

"The numbers are pretty much on a par with what you would expect in a post-conflict situation, but of course we would like them to be higher, and we would like stronger government support," said Michael Brown of the UN Development Programme.

Gopal says he regrets not having the opportunity to get an education as a child, but is glad to have been part of the war.

"In the end I was very sad to leave the army. It meant leaving behind friends who I had fought with, and I did not understand why I had to go," he said.

"Now, though, I try not to think about that, and to concentrate on how to make money to live."

Source: AFP

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