Looking angry and emotional, 20-year-old former Maoist child soldier Suman Karki shook hands with fellow comrades as he bade farewell to life in one of Nepal’s Maoist army camps.
“I don’t know what I will do now. My future seems uncertain,” Karki told IRIN in the main Maoist army cantonment in Sindhuli, nearly 150km southeast of Kathmandu, after being discharged from the UN-monitored camp.
Marking a milestone in Nepal’s shaky peace process, around 200 former Maoist child soldiers from the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the Maoists' military wing, were discharged on 7 January after spending the last three years in the camp.
They are the first of around 3,000 young disqualified Maoist ex-combatants, a third of whom are female, to be released by mid-February from seven Maoist cantonments across the country.
The Maoists reportedly recruited thousands of children during their decade-long conflict with the Nepalese state.
The conflict ended in 2006 when a ceasefire and peace process were ushered in.
The 3,000 young ex-combatants being released were minors - under the age of 18 - at the time of the ceasefire. Their discharge was agreed under a December 2009 plan signed by the government, the Maoists and the UN.
At present, around 500 of them are still under 18, while about a dozen are under 16, according to the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), which is facilitating their discharge.
I always wanted to get into politics to liberate our repressed people. I’m not interested in making candles or baskets.
The release of the child soldiers was repeatedly put off due to political turbulence, with welfare groups and NGOs expressing concerns the delays would hamper the integration of the young people back into society.
The government, with UN support, is offering a number of rehabilitation options for the former child soldiers.
Four main rehabilitation packages which provide vocational training, sponsor school education, health education training and support small business initiatives have been developed by UN agencies, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
“We don’t expect these young people to necessarily sign up next week,” Robert Piper, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Nepal, told IRIN.
“They will go home, spend some time thinking, looking at options and reconsider our rehabilitation packages, and we hope they… talk to counsellors and think through what is the best option for them,” he said.
The released soldiers have up to 12 months to enrol in the rehabilitation programme, after which the application process will be closed.
Experts say the young ex-combatants are vulnerable to recruitment by paramiliatary or criminal groups, a development the UN is hoping to avoid by using a team of monitors to keep track of the former soldiers' return to civilian life.
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
|The Maoists reportedly recruited thousands of children during their decade-long conflict with the Nepalese state|
“We won’t be tailing them but of course we will be staying in touch with them,” said Piper, who also urged the Maoists, who are in dispute with the government, to maintain a break in the chain of command.
Free, but uneasy
Despite the rehabilitation packages on offer, a number of ex-combatants IRIN spoke to expressed frustration at their options.
“I joined the Maoist army for the sake of liberating my country from repression but now I am suddenly not qualified any more to be in the army,” fumed Karki, who was only 15 when he joined the PLA and has been on the battlefield.
Many soldiers have been humiliated by the discharge process and will never accept rehabilitation assistance, he said.
“I always wanted to get into politics to liberate our repressed people. I’m not interested in making candles or baskets,” said another teenager and former combatant, Sunita.
However, UNICEF expressed confidence about the take-up of rehabilitation programmes, citing its experience since 2006 working with children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups in Nepal.
With implementing partners, UNICEF has provided community-based reintegration support to some 7,500 formerly associated children.
“This has worked incredibly well. About 80 percent have gone back to school,” UNICEF Nepal representative Gillian Mellsop told IRIN.
“We hope these young people who have been discharged will be able to use the existing system so that they can access vocational training, and they can consider going back to school,” she said.
The agency already has a network of communities and trained psychosocial counsellors throughout the country involved in the rehabilitation of ex-Maoist child soldiers outside of the camps.
“We found a lot of these young people have actually done very well once they’ve gone back to school. They’ve caught up on their years they’ve missed during the conflict,” said Mellsop.