Even though the Maoist leadership has consistently denied that the rebel group uses child soldiers, across western Nepal the sight of 10-year-old children in combat fatigues, carrying guns, socket bombs or grenades has become a common sight.
The Maoists are sensitive to criticism that they are using child soldiers since they want to be seen following international warfare norms. They have either denied it outright or tried to keep the presence of child soldiers secret. However, local Maoists don't seem aware of this and freely admit recruiting children.
Rajukala Rawat of Jumla is only 10-years-old but she already has a nom de guerre: Comrade Samjhana. When we spoke to her, she was carrying two grenades and told us her job was to sit by the trail and fling them at any army patrol passing by. "If the enemy come, we are supposed to throw it and run away," she told us matter-of-factly.
Her friend Serena Buda is known as Comrade Sirjana, and she is 11-years-old. The two form part of a six-member sentry, all armed with grenades. Serena tells us defiantly: "Today we are carrying grenades, but when we grow up we will take part in attacks on Royal Nepali Army bases."
Neither Serena not Rajukala seem to know what or why they are fighting. When asked they reply: "To defeat imperialism." But they don't seem to know what imperialism is and just repeat what they were taught in their training camp.
The head of the 'people's government' of Jumla, Gajendra Mahat has a bodyguard: 14-year-old Comrade Bimarsha. He was studying in grade eight in the Raralihi Secondary School last year when the Maoists forced him and 25 other classmates to join the 'people's army'. "In the beginning I was reluctant, I wanted to study, but later I went along," Bimarsha told us. Twelve of those abducted managed to get away, but there is no escape for Bimarsha. He knows the Maoists will come after him or his family if he does.
Unlike their top leaders, local Maoists haven't even tried to hide their campaign to recruit children into the militia across these remote mountains of western Nepal. "We will be victorious in our people's war, and for that we will raise a 50,000 strong force of child soldiers," Kamal Shahi of the Maoists' student wing told a gathering in Utharpur in Banke district last month.
The Maoists are actively trying to turn every school into a recruitment ground for child soldiers into militia units, which are the lowest rung of their people's army. The Maoists justify this, saying that the army has been killing school children in places like Mudbara in Doti, and the school children needed to be trained for "self-protection". A Maoist student wing meeting in Thawang in January concluded: "To guarantee their education, school children have no alternative but armed resistance." The Maoist campaign has the slogan 'One School, One Strong Militia'.
Many villages are nearly empty, forcing the rebels to enlist children and even the elderly. In Dang's villages, children have undergone basic militia training and ideological indoctrination. "We will fight exploitation, suppression and atrocities prevalent in society, we may be martyred but we will not give up the struggle to liberate our brothers and sisters," says 15-year-old Jibika Sharma, who joined the militia while studying in grade eight at Dang's Srigau Secondary School.
However, the Maoists are not getting as many recruits as they had planned. To make it look more exciting to join the movement, they are using school yards and playing fields for parades and military training. Recruits are given training in 'hit and run' and other warfare techniques.
All 39 VDCs in Dang now have two militia units and 200 new units have been set up, according to the leader of the Dang district people's government, Indrajit Chaudhary.
(Reporting also by Sagar Pandit in Dang)