When Maoist forces broke into the house of farmer Pasang Sherpa in eastern Nepal, they were looking for one thing: an able body. They took Mr. Sherpa's 15-year-old son, Pemba.
Pasang was told that Pemba would be sent to the Dolpa district in far-western Nepal, so that he could serve in the "great people's war." But Pemba never made it to Dolpa. Only two months after his abduction last year, he was killed in his home district in a confrontation with the Army.
"He died without even understanding what Maoism means," says a tearful Pasang. "Pemba was a virtuous boy. He used to help me till land," he adds.
Forced recruitment of children has now become widespread in Nepal's remote hills, with the introduction some months ago of what the Maoists call "Whole-timers," or WTs. In rural regions under the rebel thumb, every family must send one member as a WT to aid the rebels' cause. The job often falls to the most dispensable family member - usually a child.
Both the Maoists and the Army have involved children in their bloody nine-year war. The Maoists, who are trying to overthrow the monarchy, control 75 percent of the country's territory - most everything but cities, towns, and district headquarters. They have set up their own courts and systems of taxation and governance. Over 8,000 children have been orphaned and tens of thousands displaced in a conflict that has claimed over 12,000 lives. The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) has caused two-thirds of the deaths, according to INSEC, a human rights organization.
Fighting between the Army and rebels exploded over the weekend in western Nepal, reports Agence France-Presse. An Army spokesman claimed that more than 60 insurgents may have been killed in clashes that began when rebels attacked an Army checkpoint.
To escape Maoist atrocities, people with means continue to flee Nepal's hills en masse to the kingdom's relatively safer lowlands and cities, and to neighboring India. This has depleted the recruitment pool of adults for Maoists, making them turn to children.
Child rights organizations here say that it is not only the Maoists who abuse children, however. Many of the children who survive state bullets by surrendering to the RNA are then used as informers or porters by Army units. Army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Dipak Gurung denies the charge. "We hand over children to organizations volunteering to support them," he says.
But Nepal's Army does not have a clean human rights record. Wayward soldiers have raped minors and have shot at school buildings, killing students. Cases of extrajudicial detention of children have also surfaced recently. On March 14, Ram Lal Tharu, 13, was released from the Banke district prison, in western Nepal, after a court issued his release order. Tharu had been arrested on June 25, on charges that he posed a "grave threat" to peace and security.
In a bid to weaken the rebels, the government announced a general amnesty in 2003 to those who surrender. State-owned Nepal Television has been broadcasting interviews of former rebels in programs designed to persuade disillusioned guerrillas to surrender and to spread an anti-Maoist message in rural Nepal. A significant number of the interviewees are children.
According to one estimate, the number of children under 18 in Nepal's Maoist insurgency makes up 25 to 30 percent of its total strength, and young girls are a significant presence in the ranks. Total rebel numbers are believed to be around 10,000.
"Until some months ago, rebels used children only as messengers, porters, cooks, and cultural troops," says Tarak Dhital, program coordinator of Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre (CWIN), a nongovernmental organization working for child rights. "More recently, children are being used as soldiers. Most of the Maoist combatants who have surrendered ... are teenagers," he adds.
CWIN estimates that 405 children under 18, including 115 girls, have been killed in the conflict so far. But in a war where keeping count of the dead is difficult, identifying or guessing the age of the dead is a tall order. "There aren't figures out there, says Hrothgar Stibbon of International Committee of Red Cross. "There is only a war."