Ex-child soldiers leave Nepal camps after 3 years

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DUDHAULI, Nepal (AP) — Scores of former child soldiers, many in tears, boarded buses Thursday for home, leaving a jungle detention camp where they have been held for three years and their lives as fighters behind.

The 155 youths were among some 3,000 minors known to have been affiliated with the Maoist rebels, who fought the Nepalese government for 10 years before laying down their arms in 2006 and joining mainstream politics.

Since the peace process began, thousands of former fighters have been detained in U.N.-monitored camps. Adult combatants were to be integrated into the national military — a process that has been put on hold since the army chief refused to comply with the plan. The child fighters will be sent home, bused to various parts of Nepal and picked up by their families.

But many of the young people leaving the camp in Dudhauli, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Katmandu, said they did not want to be discharged and would still work for the Maoists. The group — formally known as the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) — is now in the opposition.

“I plan to work for the party from outside the camp for the good of the country. I may have been removed from the camp, but my work for the party will not stop,” said Pitambar Dahal, 22, who left Thursday after five years with the rebels.

Like many in the camps, he expressed anger at the government despite its plans to offer free education and vocational training through U.N. agencies to former child soldiers.

“Unless they provide some monetary benefits, we will not take anything from them,” Dahal said.

The young people enjoyed a last lunch of rice, chicken and bean curry at Dudhauli, where they have lived in huts with plywood walls and tin roofs, surviving on small stipends from the government.

During the meal, the young people talked about revolution and their future lives outside the camp, which lies along a river in southern Nepal and is surrounded by jungle. Electricity is intermittent, and there is no phone service.

Amrita Magar, now 21, said she was only 15 when she began fighting for the Maoists.

“It will be difficult for me to adjust to civilian life,” Magar said before boarding the bus to travel down only the dusty, gravel road that leads out of the camp.

Another ex-fighter Suhana Rana, now 22, also said she has been with the Maoist fighters for five years. She now plans to join the former rebels’ student wing to continue her work.

Nearly 20,000 former fighters have lived in the camps across Nepal since 2006, when U.N. monitors found nearly 3,000 members were under 18. Some of those were fighters, while others served as porters, cooks and support staff for the insurgents.

None of the young people interviewed Thursday would talk about their duties as fighters for the Maoists, though all confirmed they were combatants.

There have been no confirmed reports of how many children were pressed into military service by the Maoists during their 10-year war. But human rights organizations have said the Maoists forcefully took children from schools for days and persuaded them to join them in the fight against the government.

The group has denied any members of their military wing were underage.

Robert Piper, a U.N. official in Nepal, said the freed minors would be driven to six different locations and then would be free to go anywhere. Each ex-child soldier will be given $130 (10,000 Nepalese rupees) and a set of civilian clothes.

The young ex-fighters have been issued special identification cards and a rehabilitation package that will allow them to go to school, take up vocational training or start businesses.

Sarah Crowe, a UNICEF spokeswoman, said that rehabilitation package “gives them the tools to start a new civilian life.”

Meanwhile, unidentified attackers shot and killed three local communist leaders in Ganjabhawanipur, in Bara district, 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of Katmandu late Wednesday night, according to senior local official Tara Nath Gautam. Two communists leaders were also wounded in the attack.

The communists have called a strike in Bara and two other districts, Parsa and Rautahat, to protest the attack.