School principal Birbhan Puri of Birendra Higher Secondary School has spent sleepless nights waiting for 65 of his students abducted by Maoists to return home.
Since they were taken away in Bafikot on 25 February, all Puri, his colleagues and the children's parents can do is pray. The rest of the students are so traumatised that they are afraid to go to school.
"We have no idea where they were taken, their exams had just started," says Puri, adding that the Maoists may be training them to become militants. Since the other children are not attending classes, fearing that they may also be abducted, Puri has closed down the school for now.
Across the midwestern districts of Rukum, Achham and Rolpa, the few schools that have managed to stay open so far, against all odds, are being forced to close. There are no security forces to be seen and the only presence of the civil service or government are teachers like Puri.
In a bid to strengthen what they proudly call their 'Child Militia', the Maoists are tapping schools across the region for students in grade 9 and 10. Earlier, the students would be taken and the teachers told they were just going to attend cultural programs or political lectures. Now, there are no explanations, school yards are being turned into parade grounds and classrooms into military training centres.
To be sure, the security forces are also using schools as campsites and barracks. Usually, in these remote hills, schools are strategically located along ridgetops. They have large rooms and wide open playgrounds. Some schools have literally turned into battlefields when soldiers on patrol come upon Maoists in schools, or vice versa. Five children were killed during a firefight in the Sharada Secondary School at Mudbara in Doti district in December, and hundreds of villagers fled Khimdi in Kailali in January when fighting broke out around a school compound where the army was camped.
A group of child rights organisations, National Coalition for Children as Zones of Peace, estimates that 500,000 children across Nepal are being deprived of primary education. At this rate, Nepal's achievements over the past 15 years in raising literacy, especially of girl children, is going to suffer a serious setback.
In a strongly-worded press statement issued in Kathmandu this week, the Coalition said: "We view with deep concern reports in the media that school-going children are also being targeted for conscription as combatants in the conflict. Children should never be recruited as combatants and never be used in any activity relating to armed conflict."
The statement adds: "It is a tragedy for our nation that teaching has become one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. It is a tragedy that so many schools have closed, that so many teachers have been kidnapped, killed or have fled, and that the schools that remain open have continual interruptions due to bandas."
Some parents in the mid-west have had enough. Last month, in Rukum's Pipal village, a group of parents gathered up their courage to warn Maoists to stop political and military training of their children. "We told them that they were disrupting our children's studies," said one parent. The Maoists went ahead anyway with their two-day program at Pipal Secondary School.
In Rukum's Khalanga district headquarters, the Tribhuban Public High School is surrounded by barbed wire because the classrooms have been requisitioned by the army and turned into a barrack. The classes are still held inside what looks like an army base and even small children have to go through security searches while entering their school. A school identity card costs Rs 50 and many can't afford it, and so can't go to school.
"We have asked the army repeatedly not to walk around with their weapons inside the school, but they don't listen," says one teacher, "the students are distracted and are afraid all the time." We asked the officer on duty why the army base had to be in the school, and he replied flatly: "It is for their own protection."
But it is clear that for both the Maoists and the army, their own security is more important than the security of the civilians, and keeping out of schools doesn't seem to be a priority. "We are really surprised with their attitude, neither side seems to think education is important," says Navaraj Gautam, vice principal of a high school in Musikot who is worried students will just drop out. Says one student in Musikot: "It's scary seeing all those guns, we are always afraid something will happen to us."
Children as zones of war
The Maoists don't seem to be too worried about concerns raised by human rights groups about recruitment of children. They haven't even bothered to deny the army's allegations that hundreds of children and teachers have been abducted from villages in Rolpa and Achham districts in the past month. In fact, Kamala Shahi of the Maoist-aligned student union admitted this week that a child militia was being set up after five school children were killed in an army attack at the Sharada Secondary School in Doti in December. "The child militia will soon be 50,000 strong," Shahi boasted this week. Several dozen students from Jangariti School in Jugar in Rolpa who were forcibly taken away recently were sent back after a weeklong participation in a Maoist program. And there are reports of young children being found abandoned and lost after being taken away by Maoists.
Even so, there is no direct evidence that children are getting arms training. Even the army admits its information is based on secondary sources. "We don't have evidence or witnesses of Maoists training children to use arms," says human rights activist Dhana Shyam Acharya from Rolpa. Pro-Maoist student and coordinator for Seti-Mahakali, Ramesh Matal, admitted children were being taken in, but said they were only receiving janabadi sikska and were taken on "educational tours" of Maoist base areas. But one Rolpali villager, who is now a refugee in Nepalganj, told us he has seen armed children below 18 patrolling his village and is convinced: "Their ultimate aim is to build a children's army."
(Netra KC in Nepalgunj)