‘RETURNED: Child Soldiers of Nepal’s Maoist Army’ tells the personal stories of four Nepali children as they attempt to rebuild their lives after fighting in the Maoist revolution. Through the voices of the former child soldiers, the film examines why these children joined the Maoists, their experiences fighting a guerrilla war, and the return home. The film, ultimately, sheds light on how to prevent the involvement of children in violent warfare.
The film pays special attention to the girl soldiers. Whereas girls primarily have been used by militias as sexual slaves in African conflicts, women made up 40 percent of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army. This is the only recent conflict in which girl soldiers have contributed dramatically to the combat achievements of a guerrilla movement. The girls’ stories demonstrate how voluntarily joining the violent Maoist struggle allowed them to escape the gender discrimination and sexual violence of traditional Hindu culture.
Although the war officially ended in 2006 with signing of peace accords, the suffering is not over for many former child soldiers. The Maoists, now in control of the government, continue to use children to enforce—often violently—their policies throughout the country. The former child soldiers who fled militant Maoist groups face rejection, discrimination, and abuse from their families, teachers, and other community members. For many of the children of Nepal’s Maoist Army, the return home can be even more painful than the experience of war.
Nepal is sandwiched between two of the most exciting countries of the world. The economic transformation of China and the political and cultural transformation of India poise these countries to be 21st century superpowers. Located in the middle of these emerging giants, Nepal’s fate may have consequences on a global scale.
Nepal is facing the worst political crisis in its history. The constitutional democracy established after the 1990 People's Movement appeared to be on the verge of collapse for many years due to continuous attacks of Maoist guerrilla insurgency or the “People's War,” which began on February 13, 1996 and continued through 2006 when the Maoists, along with other political parties, forced the Hindu king to relinquish power. By the war’s end, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) came to control much of rural Nepal.
To achieve their goals of removing the king and establishing a secular communist republic, the Maoists resorted to mass underage recruitment, particularly of young students, usually between 12 and 16 years old. At the conclusion of the war, an estimated 12,000 Maoist soldiers were below 18 years of age, and Human Rights Estimates that the majority of the current militia joined as minors. The United Nation Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) has verified nine thousand child soldiers currently in Maoist cantonment training camps.
Maoists used children as soldiers, messengers, cooks, porters and suppliers. Regardless of role, all children received rudimentary military training and were armed, at a minimum, with homemade explosive devices. The Maoists, however, continue to deny that any soldiers were less than 18 years of age. They claim that they have cared for orphans of adult soldiers killed in the war, and that these children were not placed in danger.
Children, including girls, were deployed in combat situations, often to help provide ammunition or assist with evacuating or caring for the wounded. A 16-year-old boy from Dang district in Western Nepal reported that he was forced to carry wounded Maoist combatants to India for treatment. He revealed how he and six others of the same age managed to run away. A 14-year-old girl explained how arms training took place by torchlight during the night.
Throughout the war, the Royal Nepal Army captured Maoist child soldiers. Captured youth were often tortured for information or forced to become spies for the Nepal government working undercover in Maoist militias. There were also numerous accounts of government police and army abducting, raping, and killing Maoist girl soldiers. Throughout the war, the United States government provided unwavering support to the Nepal government. The U.S. labeled Nepali Maoists as terrorists and thus identified the Nepal government’s atrocities against Maoists, including children, as necessary actions in the War on Terror.
‘RETURNED’ demonstrates the complexity behind the experience of child soldiers in Nepal. Children were exploited and traumatized in a conflict in which all parties had blood on their hands. This film brings this nuanced and important story to a global audience who will now be more aware of the myriad political forces that ultimately leave children vulnerable to conscription in armed groups.
WHY THIS FILM IS NEEDED NOW:
Most Americans are concerned about the suffering of children everywhere. In a global community it does not really make a difference where these children are positioned on the political map, humanity still comes first. This film has the potential to influence people in the U.S. and other developed nations around the world to take action. The international community can help these children successfully reintegrate back to their families and be productive members of their communities. Further, the struggles faced by these Nepali youths epitomize the struggles faced by young adults born into a culture of poverty worldwide, and can bring understanding on a larger scale.
The documentary follows the lives of former child soldiers in Nepal over a three-year period. I began documenting the children’s situations in 2007, at a pivotal point in Nepal’s history after the Maoists signed peace accords with the government to end their guerrilla war and release all underage combatants from their forces. In 2008, Brandon Kohrt, the co-writer and lead research consultant of ‘RETURNED,’ went back to Nepal to see how life has changed for the children after the king was ousted from power and the Maoist’s supreme leader, Chairman Prachanda, was elected as the first prime minister of the republic of Nepal. Currently, the situation is intensifying as the Maoists continue to exploit these children through further violent activities through the Young Communist League (YCL).
WHY I AM PURSUING THIS PROJECT & WHY I AM THE BEST PERSON TO TELL THE STORY:
‘RETURNED: Child Soldiers of Nepal’s Maoist Army’ examines the reintegration of child soldiers after the recent “People’s War” in Nepal. Like most people, I am concerned about the suffering of children who cannot stand up for their rights. However, I was not fully aware of the particular plight of former child soldiers in Nepal until a medical anthropologist, Brandon Kohrt, told me about his efforts to help former child soldiers in Nepal reintegrate into society. The work that he and others like him are carrying out is helping to make it possible for many former Nepali child soldiers to return to their families and communities with new skills. I felt that by making this film I could give a voice to these children and bring a greater awareness to some of the continuing difficulties that they are facing.
This project was built from collaboration between Brandon Kohrt, a medical doctor and anthropologist, and me, Robert Koenig, an Emmy nominated producer and award winning documentary filmmaker, with an extensive background in ethnographic filmmaking. The documentary was originally conceived as an adjunct to Dr. Kohrt's Ph.D. dissertation. Dr. Kohrt, who has lived and traveled continuously to Nepal since 1996, was responsible for the research and overseeing the interviews with child soldiers and other experts in the film. The final documentary narrative is a product of my expertise as a storyteller, writer and editor, which I acquired from over a decade of working as a special projects producer for television.