Marking People’s War, forgetting 4,000 Maoist foot soldiers

February 14th, 2011 - 12:37 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, Feb 14 (IANS) Bijeta Shrestha wanted to change the world, end injustice and help establish a classless society - as a Maoist. Today she is a cooking assistant at a hotel in Kathmandu, stoically watching the top leaders of her own party attend lavish dinners, unmindful of thousands like her who have to survive on NRs.3,000 a month.Basant Chaudhary is luckier. He was recruited as a child soldier by the Maoists during their 10-year armed insurrection. Now 21 and discharged from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) four years ago, he has been able to carve out a future, thanks to a mobile telephone repair training by the UN.

Together with Budha, another discharged former child soldier, he runs a mobile phone repair shop in Surkhet, a district in western Nepal that was among the hardest-hit during the Maoist People’s War.

On Sunday, as the top leaders of the party celebrated the 15th anniversary of the war - that catapulted them to power in 2008 - with a tea party in the capital and lighting of lamps in a dozen strategic places in Kathmandu, excluded from the celebrations are 4,008 people, most of them recruited as child soldiers in contravention of international norms and deserted without a thought after the signing of a peace accord.

Forgotten by the party and the state, the discharged fighters are now battling social stigma, fear, unemployment, health problems and mental trauma after returning home empty-handed.

It’s western governments like Norway and the UK that came forward to create a $9 million Peace Fund For Nepal that is being used by the UN and its partners like Unicef and other agencies like the International Labour Organisation to help the discharged fighters either return to school or train in income-generating skills, that range from driving to nursing.

Each ex-combatant opting for training is paid NRs.3,000 monthly out of the fund and given three meals daily while the women, many of whom have children and are not accepted by their families, get NRs.4,000.

“It is heart-wrenching,” says Robert Piper, chief of the UN Development Programme in Nepal.

“Many couples were broken up after the discharge of the 4,008. There are still over 19,000 verified PLA combatants and in many cases, either the husband or the wife is still in the cantonments.”

While the over 19,000 PLA fighters still retain the hope of being inducted into the army, as had been promised by the Maoist leadership, the 4,008, discharged because they were either recruited as children or taken after the war ended, had their dream shattered.

“Our greatest enemy is uncontrolled expectations,” says a sombre Piper. “They expected a permanent position in the army and everything else is a compromise. The Maoist leadership planted these expectations; it has to lower them.”

Last week a disgruntled dischargee, demanding a bigger allowance, vandalised the UN office in remote Dhangadi district in far western Nepal, underlining the dangers of the empty promises.

Of the 4,008, only 578 completed training and 763 are currently either in training or studying. But the bulk is still indecisive and the UN is concerned that with the last date for enrolling ending March 22, those who do not avail of it will face an even bleaker future.

A major obstacle is the lack of interest shown by Nepal’s weak governments that focussed on staying in power and the Maoists who remain absorbed in coming to power after the fall of their government in 2009.

“The rehabilitation programme started without national ownership,” regrets Desmond J. Molloy, senior rehabilitation advisor at UN. “But it is not a UN programme. It is a Nepali process and must be owned by the government, Maoists and communities.”

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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