There were seven of them on the trail to Thawang, boys and girls carrying heavy home-made shoulder bags.
The biggest was barely four feet tall, must have been 14. He was carrying a Chinese radio with the antenna pulled out. There was a comb in his shirt pocket and his hair was slickly groomed. In a voice of authority, he asked: "Who are you?"
We said we were journalists on our way to Thawang. "Do you have a pass?" We replied that the head of the people's government in Mijhing had told us to get a pass further on. "Ok," he replied.
He was Comrade Sahas, the leader of the group of Maoist child militia. One of the girls, Comrade Bhabana who looked 13, asked: "How are things over there, are there any enemies about?" They were on sentry duty, checking the papers of everyone who came up the valley or working as messengers and porters.
Once they found out we were harmless, the children opened up. Sahas said he was studying in Grade Five and has been taking part in Maoist abhiyans since 2000. Bhabana was in Grade Three when the Maoists said if she didn't join the militia her parents would have to join the People's Army. They said they would take her for a month but Bhabana hasn't been home for a year now. "They had said I'd only have to cook but I am carrying grenades and guns," she says.
The work is hard, sometimes there is all-night sentry duty. Sahas' duty is to make sure they obey his orders because he gets his orders from "higher up". He behaves like a class bully. The children are surprisingly open about their hardships and from the tone of their voices and body language it is clear they are not here out of their own free will.
Along the trail in Rolpa, we meet many child militia who are Maoists because they had no choice. None of them look happy, they haven't seen their parents for a year or more and are homesick. Most say they'd rather go back to school. One 14-year-old told us quite openly, and oblivious of Maoist reprisal: "I'll wait another month or so, then I'll run away."
Desertions are common, and attrition in battle has decimated Maoist ranks in the heartland of Nepal's revolution. Maoist leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai have repeatedly issued statements saying their forces adhere to the Geneva Conventions and will not recruit child soldiers. But here in Rolpa, it is clear that child soldiers have become the focus of the Maoist movement. Local commanders deny they are forcing the children to join them, arguing that the children want to become whole-timers and come willingly. "They join us in the abhiyan and they are interested in joining the people's army," says Maoist Area Eight member, Bibek Bista.
The Maoist strategy seems to be that early brainwashing will create future guerrillas: after all, within four years many of them will be adults. But judging from the morale of many of the children we encountered in Rolpa, most would quit if given the chance. Local Maoist commander of Powang, Prem Bahadur Chhetri, admits desertions are becoming a problem. "Poor kids, they can't cope and they run away," he says.
Ten-year-old Ramtel Gharti and his friend, 12-year-old Kami Pun were forced to join the militia two months ago. They gave the guerrillas the slip and fled along jungle paths by night, but were caught by another sentry in Kasala. As punishment, they were forced to carry loads of shoes and uniforms, but managed to escape again. A dozen children had been forced to become whole-timers in Gumchal, all of them deserted and fled all the way to India.
Hom Bahadur Pun is a Grade 10 student who has just returned from a Maoist abhiyan. He says his group was trained to drill, use guns and lay booby-trap bombs. "When the comrades say they are taking the children to give them peoples' education, actually they are given military training," says ex-Maoist, Mahesh Buda.
Some of the more motivated children end up participating in battles and in executions. In April, a 12-year-old student dressed in his own school uniform shot a head police officer on duty in the Rolpa headquarter of Libang. He had a light machine gun in his school bag. "We chased him, but he melted into a crowd of school children so we couldn't shoot," recalls Rolpa's police sub-inspector, Gyan Bikram Shah.
Across Rolpa's schools there are contradictory slogans on the walls: 'It's a crime to be illiterate, let's enroll all children above five' and 'Let's take up arms to ensure a people's education'. The Maoists say they are preparing their own people's curriculum which includes military studies, Marxism and Leninism, economics, culture and even something called 'socialist aesthetics'.
In Badachaur, Tilak Gharti and Hom Bahadur Pun had been getting threats that they must join the militia, so one day they packed a set of clothes, got Rs 500 from their parents and ran away. They reached Butwal, and like thousands of children from western Nepal, have by now crossed the border to India. "They used to come with their guns to the classrooms everyday and say you have to join us, so we ran away," Tilak told us in Butwal, adding that 10 of his classmates have been forced to join the Maoists.
Teachers in Rolpa's schools are powerless to stop recruitment and in fact have to join their students in many of the military training camps. Saligram Subedi is a teacher at Mijhing's Suryodaya School and has been forced to participate in Maoist abhiyans. Subedi says: "Their argument is that this is war, and everyone including teachers and students have to help."
On 19 September, Maoist leader Prachanda issued a statement in which he said his party hadn't abducted innocent civilians and this was against party principles. That same day the Barachhetra Secondary School in Rolpa's Badachaur was deserted (see pic) .
None of the 300 students came to class because the head of the local people's government, Comrade Agni, had ordered that all children from Grade Five and above would have to join a "special people's militia training". The parents refused to send their children to school.
But the children were not safe even in their homes. The next morning, the Maoists went house-to-house and picked 12 students from Grades 8-10 and took them away. The only ones who evaded the forced recruitment were children whose parents had sent them away at night.
Despite Prachanda's pronouncements that forced recruitment was against his party's principles, a meeting of the Maoist student wing in Thawang last December had decided to go ahead with a campaign under the slogan: 'One School, One Strong Militia'. A few months later, a Maoist student leader vowed at a public meeting in Banke to meet the target of putting together a 50,000-strong army by giving school children guerrilla warfare training.
What we see today across Rolpa is this policy being implemented. The result is that villages and schools are emptying.
"Many like us died in Beni"
LIBANG-In June, a raggedly-dressed emaciated young boy appeared in the Rolpa headquarter. He looked tired, hungry and was crying.
Rolpalis who had fled Thawang and had been living as refugees in Libang could barely recognise 14-year-old Bhagyaman Roka who they remembered from their village as a healthy young lad. Two years ago, Bhagyaman ,studying in Grade Six, was taken away with seven fellow-students from Jelbang School. They accused the students of stealing, stripped and beat them for three days. "I fainted many times, then they made us cook for the guerrillas in Thawang," Bhagyaman (right) recalls.
Later, the boys had to drill and were taught how to use guns and throw grenades. Together with many other school children, they were used as porters to transport rice, ammunition and grenades in the attack on Beni in February. "There were bombs exploding everywhere that night," Bhagyaman remembers, "there were flashes of light in the mountains, bullets whizzing everywhere."
Ras Bahadur, Bhagyaman's friend from Grade Seven, was also in Beni. He recalls: "We cowered in a ditch, my friend Shere was hit and died right in front of us. There was blood gushing out of his stomach, one of the dai's came and took him away in a kokra, some of the younger boys were crying."
The Maoists used the children as porters and during the battle massed them at the opposite end of the town as a decoy to fool the soldiers guarding the base to expend their ammunition. "Many like us died," says Ras Bahadur matter-of-factly. Those who survived had to carry heavy loads of looted guns and ammunition, he recalls and the army was shooting at them from helicopters as they retreated from Beni.
A few months later, Bhagyaman and Ras Bahadur decided to desert the Maoists and in June, finally made their getaway to Libang.