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Former Child Soldiers in Nepal Fight for Compensation, Employment

Thousands of former child soldiers, who say they were robbed of the chance to develop job skills, are demanding positions with Nepal’s security forces and the removal of the stigmatizing label of “disqualified discharge” given to them after the 1996-2006 civil war. One leader of a group of child soldiers says they’re prepared to “protest by raising guns.”

Former Child Soldiers in Nepal Fight for Compensation, Employment

Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Manisha Khadka, 25, a former child soldier, stands with her 3-year-old son, Sujal Ramtel. Khadka’s husband, Khadka Bahadur Ramtel, was also a child soldier. Both struggle to find good jobs, because their only skills are those they learned when they were fighting with the Maoist military organization.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Khadka Bahadur Ramtel was only 12 years old in 2002 when he was conscripted by the Maoists. He and his classmates from the village school in Humla district in northern Nepal were taken into a forest for training, but Ramtel escaped after a month. He went to India and worked illegally at construction sites. He returned home to Nepal after a few months.

But in 2003, the Maoists came again, this time to his house. They gave the family two choices: Give them 50,000 Nepalese rupees (now $468) or send Ramtel, the eldest of five children, to join the guerrilla group. Ramtel’s parents worked a small plot of land to grow enough food for the family, but they never had enough to sell.

“We couldn’t afford a donation of even 10 rupees (9 cents) to the Maoists,” Ramtel says. “So I joined the Maoist army.”

Ramtel learned hand-to-hand combat and how to use firearms.

“I was shorter than the rifle I used in training,” he says, laughing.

During battles with Nepal’s army, Ramtel fixed weapons and supervised 15 other recruits, all of whom he had to train for war.

INSIDE THE STORY: Having written about the aftermath of Nepal’s civil war, reporter Yam Kumari Kandel finds another story through meeting the mother of a girl who was killed during the conflict. Read the blog. 

In 2006, three years after Ramtel’s second conscription and a decade after the war began, the conflict ended with a peace agreement. According to the agreement’s terms, Maoist fighters were kept in camps. Ramtel, along with about 3,000 other soldiers who were children when they were recruited, was released in 2009 via a disqualified discharge by the United Nations Mission in Nepal.

He was 19 years old, with no education or work skills, and he was a Dalit, a caste considered the lowest in Nepalese society.

“I am the one who is discriminated (against) most on the basis of caste and poverty,” Ramtel says. “I am living a humiliated life after the government labeled me with the tag of discharged disqualified soldier.”

Now, he’s fighting for another cause: justice for his experience during the conflict. This would include removal of the tag of “disqualified discharge,” which prohibits him from joining Nepal’s armed forces, one of the few jobs for which he has the skills.

Ramtel and other former child soldiers organized themselves in 2011 as the Discharged People’s Liberation Army Nepal to demand compensation in the form of jobs with Nepal’s security forces. The group is hopeful that Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) who was elected in August as Nepal’s prime minister, will respond to its demand.

The thousands of former child soldiers who are struggling to live in Nepal today are deeply discontented, their advocates say. If their demands aren’t taken seriously, they could pose a security threat.

“If the government fails to rehabilitate the discharged child soldiers, we will be compelled to protest by raising guns,” says Lenin Bista, chairman of the Discharged People’s Liberation Army Nepal and a former child soldier. “But we want peace. So, we are silent.”

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Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

From left, Lenin Bista, chairman of the Discharged People’s Liberation Army Nepal, sits with Khadka Bahadur Ramtel, Manisha Khadka and Ramtel and Khadka’s son, Sujal. Bista’s group gathers former child soldiers together to support one another and to demand compensation for their time as soldiers.

But Pampha Bhusal, the spokesperson of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) says that the new government, which is led by the Maoists and took office in August, will address the demands of former child soldiers.

“We are certain that we can fulfil their demands,” Bhusal says. “We will take the initiative to meet their demands after we form the government.”

Human rights advocates say that former child soldiers and other former combatants who received a disqualified discharge from the United Nations are in urgent need of justice.

“Using children in the conflict is a serious violation of human rights,” says Charan Prasai, the coordinator of the Accountability Watch Committee, a human rights advocacy group.

Nepal has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, Prasai notes, and, now that Maoists hold government positions, the government should be held accountable.

And, he says, the United Nations injured the dignity of those former child soldiers by giving them a disqualified discharge.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to exact justice in cases related to the conflict, should deal with complaints from former child soldiers, even though it’s not specifically mandated to do so, Prasai says.

Surya Kiran Gurung, chairman of the commission, says the legislation commonly known as the Truth and Reconciliation Act is silent on how to address the problems of former soldiers. It focuses only on other people who suffered during the conflict, including those who were injured and the family members of civilians who died.

The commission is in talks with the government to determine what to do about the child soldiers, especially since use of those soldiers violates international law, Gurung says.

Bista’s group filed a complaint with the commission in April, demanding jobs, the removal of the tag of disqualified discharge and medical and psychological care, Gurung says.

No action has been taken in response to that complaint, but Gurung says it will be addressed.

There is a lot of shame in having a disqualified discharge, says Rajani Timilsena, a 27-year-old who joined the Maoists when she was just 14 years old. She had been a housemaid since she was very young, she says, and was attracted to the Maoists’ message of free, equal education. The guerrilla group put her to work in the intelligence unit, where she operated as a spy.

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Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Rajani Timilsena is shown during her time as a child soldier, when she fought with the People’s Liberation Army of the Maoists. Now, she is a wife and mother and works as a cleaner at a restaurant and in private homes. She says she doesn’t have the skills she would need to find any other work.

After the war, she says, her neighbors shunned her. She had no honor in being a soldier, and as a young woman who lived among men in the jungle for many years, she was considered to have loose morals.

Timilsena, who is active in the Discharged People’s Liberation Army Nepal, says she went to war to transform the country, but now she’s back where she started: cleaning houses.

After his discharge, Ramtel married Manisha Khadka, another former child soldier, and they have a 3-year-old son. The family lives in Kathmandu, where they say it’s hard to escape the past.

“Everybody knows him as a former soldier who was discharged after getting disqualified,” Khadka says of her husband. “It has been a shame for us to show our face in society.”

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Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal

Rajani Timilsena, 27, and her husband, Suman Bhandari, 28, sit in their rented room with their 3-year-old son, Sargam. Both say they face social stigma because of their time as child soldiers.

 

Ramtel drives a taxi, and Khadka works as a house cleaner. Money is tight, but job options are few.

“I don’t have any skills except bombing and using guns,” Khadka says.

Ramtel is the vice chairman of the Discharged People’s Liberation Army Nepal. He’s active in its protest campaigns, but is disheartened.

“The dream of transformation of society and equity that the Maoists showed was just a dream,” he says.

 

Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.