The mornings are freezing at 2,500m in the mountains. Nearly 65km northwest from the administrative headquarters of Dailekh, 55-year-old Laxmi Shahi is wracked by a terrible cough that kept her awake all night. She is still in bed when someone knocks on the door. Fifteen-year-old Bishnu Bahadur Shahi enters, whispers something in Laxmi's ear and leaves. All Laxmi does is nod yes. A few minutes later, a dozen young boys with large backpacks come to the house with loud greetings of 'lal salam'. All of them look like they belong in school, but instead of books, their bags are packed full of grenades.
They seem immune to the cold. Most of them have no shoes or warm clothes. Their stoicism extends to showing no fear. They follow the lead of Bahadur Thapa, 'Comrade Samman', their 13-year-old commander (pictured in topi, above). He has a red homemade cotton belt full of explosives strapped to his waist, he spouts Maoist ideology and is ever ready for battle, to kill and be killed. Samman is not scared of either danger or death. An army helicopter sweeps overhead and his hand reaches automatically for his belt to grab the grenades. "I will kill the enemy before I am killed," he says with pride.
Before he became Comrade Samman, Bahadur was a sixth grader at the local government school. His father Ram Lal Thapa was a farmer till he was forcibly recruited for the 'people's war'. With the sole breadwinner gone, it fell upon Bahadur's mother to earn money. "My mother was just a housewife but she worked hard to send me to school," recalls Samman. "One day, the security forces came to our village and arrested many young boys and girls, including her, and they were beaten and tortured. I was struck across my face when I tried to follow my mother and I fell to the ground. I do not remember what happened next. Later, I was told that she was killed on the way to Dailekh, accused of being a Maoist. I cried for my mother." Two months after that, Ram Lal's teacher told him the security forces were after him, so he quit school and ran away with his classmates. The smarter ones had already fled to India.
We must ask who is responsible for making young soldiers like Samman. What are the realistic causes and catalysts that changed a little schoolboy into a militant who walks the western hills armed with grenades and guns? The oft-repeated slogan that children are peace zones do not seem to apply here.
Some names were changed to protect their identity.