|© AP photo/Amarasinghe|
|Child soldiers from the former Maoist rebel army in Nepal jump from the stage at a discharge ceremony at their camp in Rolpa, Nepal on 8 February. They were among 237 former child soldiers discharged that day.|
Sarah Crowe and Marty Logan
ROLPA, Nepal, 17 February 2010 – The remote and rugged setting, high in the hills of Rolpa, was fitting for the historic scene. This mountain district was the place where Maoist rebels fired their first salvo against the Nepalese monarchy and army in February 1996.
Now, almost exactly 14 years later, the last of the child soldiers who once formed part of the Maoist rebel force were set to be discharged from the UN-supervised cantonment here. The former rebel soldiers have been housed in the camp for the past three years, since a peace agreement was signed by the Maoists and the Government of Nepal.
A milestone for young people
On 8 February, with a blessing of red ‘tika’ on their foreheads and garlands of marigolds around their necks, the group of 237 former child combatants and 31 late recruits left the military behind and re-entered civilian life.
|© AP photo/Amarasinghe|
|A former child soldier, newly discharged in Rolpa, Nepal, shakes hands with a uniformed soldier before boarding a bus to take him to a new civilian life in a nearby town.|
The Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Pushpa Kamal Dahal, presided at the discharge ceremony, which was held under the watchful eyes of the People's Liberation Army and witnessed by dignitaries, other Nepalese officials and the media.
UNICEF Representative in Nepal Gillian Mellsop was also on hand.
"The release of these young people is not only symbolic for the country but a milestone for these young men and women, who spent their formative years inside a military structure, losing out on critical skills vital for adulthood," said Ms. Mellsop.
The discharge process started on 7 January of this year. In total, almost 3,000 former child soldiers have been discharged from the Maoist fighting forces after the United Nations verified that they were minors.
The process of identifying child soldiers and disqualifying them from military service ended in 2007, but negotiations for their release have dragged on since then. About 500 of them are still under 18 today, and about a dozen are under 16. About one-third of the disqualified soldiers are female.
Each of the young people receives 10,000 Nepalese Rupees (around $140) upon discharge, as well as rehabilitation assistance from the government and the United Nations in Nepal. This assistance includes formal schooling, vocational training, education as health workers, and help with setting up small businesses.
'The big challenge'
As they boarded buses after being discharged – dressed no longer in military camouflage but in blue overalls – many of the former child soldiers seemed confused and concerned about their new lives, and what lay ahead.
"What we all need to do now is act swiftly to ensure that these young people get the full benefits from the rehabilitation packages," said Ms. Mellsop, "so that they can reintegrate successfully and help build Nepali society fractured after this long conflict. That is the big challenge going forward."