Concern Grows Over Nepal's Child Fighters 'Untouchables' Used by Rebels In Brutal War
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 14, 2005; Page A18
BIRMUNI, Nepal -- Suraj Damai, 14, was playing volleyball in the schoolyard when five Maoist guerrillas emerged from the woods that surround this destitute mountain village. Brandishing homemade bombs, they announced that the time had come for Damai to "do something for the revolution," he recalled. "I was very frightened."
But Damai soon came to identify with his captors. Abducted with four friends on that evening 13 months ago, he was assigned to a cultural troupe as a singer, indoctrinated in class warfare and taught to handle a bolt-action rifle. The local commander, whose nom de guerre was Sky, became a kind of father figure.
"I loved him," he said.
The story of Damai's brief career as a revolutionary, which ended with his capture by the army last summer, sheds light on one of the most troubling aspects of the obscure but escalating war between Maoist insurgents and the government of King Gyanendra -- the insurgents' routine and apparently widespread use of child soldiers, many of whom are snatched from their villages against their will.
Damai, who was 13 when he was abducted by the Maoists last year, is in many ways typical of the youthful low-caste fighters who fill the insurgents' ranks.
A slight, sad-eyed boy with a wary manner and a mop of straight black hair that looks as though it was trimmed with a machete, he lived with his parents and three siblings in this mixed community of lower caste Dalits and higher-caste Hindus in the foothills of the snow-capped Annapurna range about 120 miles northwest of Katmandu.
Steeped in odors of wood smoke and dung, the village of mud-and-stone houses and tiny, terraced farm plots is a place of strict unwritten rules, where a Dalit who accidentally touches the communal water pump while a higher-caste villager is filling his jug risks a public scolding or worse. Even now, Damai remains so conscious of his status that when a stranger offers him a package of potato chips, he shakes his head in refusal, lest his touch contaminate the contents; chips passed by hand are hungrily devoured.
The son of a stonemason, Damai dropped out of school after the second grade and, according to his father, developed something of a rebellious streak; to this day, Khadka Damai, 49, said he was not sure if his son was abducted by the Maoists or went with them willingly. All he knows for certain is that he sent his son into the forest to cut grass to feed the family's two water buffalo and didn't see him again for five months.
As Damai picked up the story, there was nothing voluntary about his departure, which occurred after he had finished cutting the grass and began to play in the schoolyard. The five Maoists who abducted him "hardly said anything," except that he and his friends would "become part of our team," Damai recalled.
After walking for two days, he came to a village that served as a base for about 500 Maoists, many of them Dalits and perhaps 200 of them children, he estimated.
Asked how he wished to contribute to the revolution, "I told them I would sing," Damai said. The Maoists then assigned him a 16-person cultural troupe, which sang and danced for the cadres every night. During the day, Damai said, he "cut wood in the jungle" to serve as cooking fuel.
Once every three or four days, the new recruits were instructed in the rudiments of class struggle, with a special emphasis on the plight of Nepal's Dalits and the Maoists' role in liberating them. Partly as a result, Damai said, "I never tried to run away from the Maoists. I learned that we are Dalits and everyone is discriminating against us, so I felt that to be a Maoist was good."
He still has fond memories of the Maoists' commander, a man of about 40 who was one of the few guerrillas in the group to carry a Kalashnikov assault rifle. "I feel he is a good man," he said.
Political indoctrination aside, the Maoists also prepared the boy for combat. They issued him two socket bombs -- homemade grenades made from iron pipe fittings known as sockets -- and a simple single-shot rifle, albeit without bullets, that he practiced with every day.
But Damai never got to put his skills to use. During a firefight between the Maoists and the army last summer, the child and one of his fellow singers were taken prisoner. The soldiers then transferred him to an army barracks in Beni, a bustling market town about two hours' walk from his village.
Although Damai said the soldiers treated him well, they also pressed him into service as an informant, assigning him to an army checkpoint every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in hopes that he would identify former comrades. Damai said he was unable to oblige; after two months, the army sent a letter to his father informing him of his son's whereabouts and asking him to take the boy home.
They turned him over to his father with a chilling warning. "If your son goes to the Maoists again," Damai recalled one of the soldiers saying, "He will be killed."