|AGE NO BAR: Two weeks ago these Maoist 'fighters' in the Dasratpur cantonment , though clearly underage, claimed to be over 18.|
"I want my son back, I don't care how much the Maoists pay him," says a desperate Lila Wali, whose 17-year-old son Mohan joined the Maoists' Sixth Division at Dasratpur for a regular salary of Rs 5,000.
Last month, the eighth grader was in his classroom when uniformed Maoist soldiers entered the premises of Janjyoti Secondary School in Jhingani village, Surkhet, to talk about bright career prospects in the 'People's Liberation Army'. In a short time, 65 students had lined up to follow them to their camps. The students' parents, who were not consulted, were frantic with worry.
In the nearby village of Jareghat, teachers watched helplessly as young students walked out of their classes with the Maoists. "We even had to close the school once, because the students were not here," says school teacher Jhak Bahadur GC.
Some of the students have returned, but villagers in the district say many of the 400 children recruited aggressively from the VDCs of Mehalkuna, Saharey, Malarani, Dharapai, Gumi, Dahachaur, Lekfarsa, Dasratpur, Neta, Ghumkhaharey, Ramghat, and Kalyan are still in the Dasratpur cantonment site, undergoing hard training.
Teachers like Tilak Tiruwa of Nera Secondary School say, "parents are now scared to send their children to school."
The Maoist commanders vehemently deny allegations that they are recruiting underage 'fighters'. "Many children were interested, but we turned them away," says Tej Bahadur Wali, aka Pratik, commander of the Sixth Division.
Pratik, who commands nearly 5,500 PLA personnel, explains that if there were any proof that there are children in his division, they would be 'removed' immediately. "The only children in the camps are relatives or children of PLA members. Others are artists working with Maoist cultural groups," he explained.
Young uniformed and armed soldiers walk with their weapons both inside and outside the camp areas. Each one says that they are 18 or above. "I'm an adult, I only look young," says a female soldier who appears to be around 15.
"Most soldiers look young," Risi Gautam, secretary of the district's Maoist party, said disingenuously, "but they are all over 18." Gautam flatly denies that students were recruited by force or tempted with promises of money, and suggests that teachers and villagers are perhaps being economical with the truth.
None of the families we spoke to are buying that. "I know my son is in Dasratpur, and I'm going to keep going there until I see him," says a defiant Narbahadur BK of Saharey VDC, whose 16-year-old son Karna Bahadur recently joined the PLA. Hundreds of parents have visited the Dasratpur cantonment in the last two months, but none have returned with their children.
Pratik says that his party will agree to independent verification of cantoned soldiers' ages. But there are well-documented problems with that, including the fact that not many recruits carry-or even have-citizenship or birth certificates. The commanders say this is because local government offices have not functioned for many years in some areas.
"He was my only son," weeps Tulsi Chunara from Mainatada VDC as she stands outside the cantonment where she believes her son Laxman is. "Who will listen to me, who will help me?"