As the Maoist insurgency reached its peak in the early 2000s, the rebels took their recruitment drives to new lows. Not satisfied with combing entire villages for susceptible youngsters to recruit into the PLA, area commanders emptied schools and marched thousands of students into training camps.
Some survived the ordeal, while others were not so fortunate. Among those who lived to tell their tales, the scars of abuse run deep. Walking from Kolti in Bajura to Talcha in Mugu, this correspondent met three former abductees and child soldiers who are keen to move ahead from their nightmarish past in the rebel army.
28-year-old Dhan Bahadur Thapa was one of the 18 students abducted from Lokpriya Higher Secondary School, Mugu, in 2004. For an entire year, Dhan Bahadur was prohibited from keeping in contact with his family. Under the leadership of Prabhakar, area commander of the far-west, DB fought in 14 battles and even used LPGs in rebel attacks on Khara, Masuriya, Rambhapur, Bheripul, and Pili.
“We would have been killed had we not fought. My wife and parents were weeping back home, but I had no choice,” reveals DB.
While he recovered from injury sustained during an attack on Khara, DB returned home after a temporary ceasefire was announced in August 2005. It was too dangerous to stay on after the truce ended, so DB fled to India. After working for two years in Champawat in Uttarakhand, he returned with modest savings of Rs 96,000 and started a retail business in Surkhet. Now he owns a retail shop and a local eatery in Mugu and also trades mules to supplement his income. He admits his decision to leave the PLA was the correct one, “Who knows where I would have ended up if I had continued fighting.”
Unlike DB, 22-year-old Ubjan Baniya of Srikot, Mugu, was stuck in the rebel army for seven years until he was allowed to voluntarily retire in January this year. After quitting, Ubjan promptly threw away his fatigues and boots into the Bheri River as he returned home from Surkhet. He invested the Rs 500,000 he received as compensation in a retail store and restaurant in Mugu. But no amount of money can buy back his childhood and the education he lost out on.
Ubjan was just 15 when he and four of his classmates were forcefully recruited by the Maoists. He holds the party responsible not only for disrupting the education of thousands of young men and women, but also for failing to live up to the promises of the revolution. “We were taken out of schools and ended up being tagged as ‘fighters’ forever, while the leaders have now become wealthy and own palaces in the city,” says Ubjan.
26-year-old Bhim Raj Giri of Kolti, Bajura, did not last more than three years in the Maoist army. Nine years ago, when Bhim was in grade 6, the Maoists carried him off to the jungles because a distant uncle of his happened to be a police constable on duty at the district headquarters in Martadi. After they beat him up relentlessly and threatened to kill him, accusing him of spying, Bhim ran off to Mumbai and worked as a kitchen help.
When he came back during vacations, Bhim found that the Nepal Army was hiring. He applied, got selected, and then fought the same war from the other side. “So many of my friends were killed in Mahendranagar, Dhangadhi, Tikapur, and Masuriya,” says Bhim ruefully. “After all, even the Maoist soldiers were Nepalis.”
Like Ubjan and Dhan Bahadur, Bhim was forced to sacrifice his education for the war. He quit the national army in 2006 and returned to Mumbai where he trained as a cook. He is currently in Bajura on vacation and plans to go back to Mumbai soon to build a new life.
“Tens of thousands of young Nepalis were forced to sacrifice their dreams of a bright future because of the Maoist war,” says Bhim. “I pray that future generations never have to witness or take part in such violence.”
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