The last young soldiers from the Maoist Army head off into new lives
By Sarah Crowe and Marty Logan
Rolpa, Nepal,11 February 2010 – The setting -- high up in the hills of this rugged and remote rebel territory high up in the hills of Rolpa - was fitting and the scene historic.
This mid-western mountain district was the very place where Maoists rebels fired their first salvo against the Nepalese monarchy and army on 12 February 1996. Now, exactly 14 years later, almost to the day, the last of the minors once part of the Maoist forces, were to be garlanded and discharged from the Rolpa Maoist Army cantonment.
As the UN helicopter came in for landing, it lifted the tent off the ground, plastic chairs and tables tumbled over the ground into the surrounding jungle and a cloud of reddish dust swept over the area. Camouflaged soldiers ducked and covered their eyes and the assembled gathering run for cover into the lime green paddy fields.
When the dust settled, the discharge ceremony went off smoothly, presided over by Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, Puspa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), under the watchful of strict security from the People’s Liberation Army, the PLA, and witnessed by a number of dignitaries, ambassadors, Nepalese officials and the media.
Polite clapping, a lively brass band and a blessing of red tikka and garlands of marigolds from Prachanda, the final group of 237 former child combatants as well as 31 late recruits left their military lives behind them and re-entered their new civilian life.
"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 UNICEF Country Representative Gillian Mellsop.
The discharge process started on 7 January this year. Since then 1,843 young men and women, disqualified from the Maoist Army as minors, have now been discharged in seven cantonments across the country. A further 1,130 disqualified minors were not present during the discharge. Besides Rs 10 000 on discharge, the young people now stand to gain from rehabilitation packages supported by the Government and the United Nations in Nepal. They include: formal schooling, vocational training, training as health workers, and to set up small/micro-enterprises. The newly discharged have 12 months from their date of discharge to sign up for one of these packages.
But, as they boarded busses dressed no longer in military camouflage but in blue overalls, many 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 so that they can reintegrate successfully and help build Nepali society fractured after this long conflict,” said Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Country Representative. “That is the big challenge going forward.”
In total 2,973 former combatants were disqualified from the Maoists fighting forces as minors in a United Nations-led verification process that ended in 2007. About 500 of them are still under 18 today, and fifteen are under 16. Another group of 1,035 were disqualified because they were recruited after the ceasefire in 2006 that ended the 10-year Maoist insurgency. About one-third of the disqualified are female.