Whoever killed their parents, the children end up in the same place. Sangita Yadav's father was a farmer in Banke district. The Maoists came while he was eating, dragged him out of his house, beat and tortured him in front of his family, and killed him. Sarala Dahal's father was a teacher in the same district. He was killed after surrendering to the security forces.
Sarala and Sangita are both being raised in a child shelter which has just opened in Nepalganj by the charity group, Sahara. "We don't really care who killed their parents or relatives, we want to protect the future of these children, and they all get equal care here," says Sahara's Balkrishna Joshi.
With a capacity of taking care of 50 children, shelters like Sahara are just addressing the tip of the mountain of misery affecting Nepali children. Even so, there is such negligible rehabilitation going on, Joshi says, that every little effort counts.
Nine-year-old Hira Bahadur Pariyar and his 13-year-old brother Nar Bahadur from Rolpa have become symbols of this lack of care for the children who have been affected by the violence of the past seven years. Their father was killed by police, probably one of the first dozen casualties after the Maoists launched their "peoples' war" on 13 Feburary, 1996. Unable to take care of the boys by herself, Hira and Nar Bahadur's mother abandoned them. Last week, the boys walked up bravely to the district administrator in Libang and demanded that the state raise them.
No one is even keeping count of thousands of children like Sangita, Sarala, Hira and Nar Bahadur. Besides the orphans and destitutes, there has been a sudden spurt in the past month in children being abducted from schools across Nepal, forced to take part in military training, attend Maoist mass meetings or do portering for the rebels. Many have since been released unharmed, but the spreading panic has made many parents send their children to the safety of the district towns.
By targetting schools across the country, the Maoists have indirectly affected the lives of millions of Nepali children. "They are the unseen victims, they are de-sensitised by reports of violence, they are psychologically affected by the forced closure of schools, and they are haunted by uncertainty," says Surendra Mandal, a parent and teacher who has recently moved to Kathmandu from Rautahat. "Because these are children, you are talking about the nation's future."
Moved by the enormity of the crisis facing Nepali children, activist groups got together this week to launch a "Children as a Zone of Peace Campaign" under which they will address the specific and immediate education, health, shelter and food needs of children in 140 VDCs in 22 of the worst-hit districts.
"Firstly, the children should be kept out of this conflict," says Gauri Pradhan of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), which is part of the group implementing the children peace campaign, "Secondly, we must start addressing the needs of those who are already affected."
One of the undocumented aspects of the conflict is the growing number of internally displaced families. This has increased the number of children in the district headquarters, townships and in Kathmandu Valley who have lost their traditional village support mechanisms. School closures and threats of forced recruitment of one child per family by Maoists have added to the influx of children. A recent survey in the insurgency hotbed of Rukum alone found that out of 1,000 people displaced, nearly 300 were children.
A high school headmaster from Sindhupalchok who is also living in Kathmandu told us nearly half the students in his school had dropped out this year, most have fled to Kathmandu and beyond. "Even those who have stayed behind have been very irregular in class," he said.
Tarak Dhital of CWIN feels children displaced or orphaned by the Maoists get more media attention than those affected by the action of security forces. "Most of the young victims of arbitrary action by the security forces have gone undocumented," Dhital says. These children are at far greater risk: they might not have access to institutional assistance, and they may be too scared to seek help.
Since the government either cannot help, or isn't doing much, activists say, it is now up to neutral relief groups to protect Nepali children from further harm. See also A day in the life of Patan's street children