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Kamala Sarup: War-Affected Children

War-Affected Children

By Kamala Sarup

''We cannot go to our village. We'd like to go home,'' These are words of Hanuman Magar. Hanuman Magar saw the brutal killing of his father, a sergeant with Nepal Police, by the Maoists. He said, ''One day I arrived home from school and found my father had been killed. Since than we could not go to school''.

"When I close my eyes I dream of peace." These are words of 16-year-old Biraj Thapa. Thapa was 10 years old when he came to Kathmandu after he lost his entire family and he himself was nearly killed when the Maoists conflict began almost 9 years ago. Now, he is one of hundreds of thousands of Nepali children directly affected by the 9-year conflict.

Chiranjibi Budhathoki from Peace Media said "Nepalese children want peace because they know war makes things worse for everyone, in many ways. Nepalese children want peace because people in Nepal are tired of watching death because they have seen enough violence. The politicians must understand that children have the right to be children and the right not to be afraid to go to School". Suchitra, 10, was returning from school when she was caught in crossfire between security forces and rebel Maoists at Chitawan district. Suchitra is now suffering from mental disorders.

Another girls, Tamrata, 11, said, "We want peace so we can enjoy life".

With the escalation of murders, bombings of school buildings, strikes and other forms of violence and disruptions, thousands of children like Tamrata are pouring into urban and semi-urban areas like Kathmandu, Biratnagar, Nepalgunj, Bhairahawa, Pokhara, Kailali and Surkhet in search of safety. The children directly affected by the insurgency face tough struggle to return to normalcy. Many children have problems of depression and suppression.

According to CWIN, the first victim of the Maoists' "People's War" was an 11-year-old boy, Dil Bahadur Ramtel.

"At time when the country has been passing through a bloody and inhuman conflict, the psychology of the common people has been severely shocked. Children, in particular, are becoming negative, erratic and more inhuman. They seem to be losing their capacity to judge between right and wrong," says Gauri Pradhan, president of CWIN.

INSEC general secretary Subodh Raj Pyakurel, says "We are collecting exact data on the number of children involved in the conflict. However, our estimate shows that more than 100,000 have been affected. As the conflict zone expands, more than 500,000-600,000 children are living in stress," he says.

Armed Maoists force the students from grade six to 10 and their teachers to go with them. They are then made to undergo insurgency training by the rebels and would be drafted into their rebellion against the authorities. Those forced to fight are generally poor, illiterate and from rural zones, while volunteers are usually motivated by a desire to escape poverty or lured by appeals to Maoist ideology.

As a large number of schools have closed down, rural children are confronted with harrowing choices: do household work or join the conflict as child soldiers, messengers or porters. If they are unfit to go to war, the are forced to witness violence. The London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International has called for the warring sides to protect the rights of the children.

Even recently, executive Director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, condemned the appalling situation of child rights' violation in times of armed conflicts in Nepal and elsewhere in the world.

Nepal is one of the approximately 28 war-torn or disturbed countries. Today more than ever before in history, cities and towns are the battlefield and children the victims. The trend to systematically make children targets of atrocities reflects a retrogression of human behaviour. There are growing reports of an increase in the number of child soldiers, with up to 1,000 reported in an active role. But Maoist leaders deny recruiting children. More than 1,500 children have lost their parents and 3,000 children are displaced along with their parents.

Chiranjibi Budhathoki further says "Children need to be involved in a peace process in a number of ways. First, they should be consulted and participate.They are separated from their families and communities, and there is an increased chance they will be subject to violence, recruitment and exploitation".

Both the government and Maoist rebels had resorted to violence and had violated norms and values of human rights. People in the rural areas of the country had suffered more from human rights abuses than those from urban areas. Existing human rights organisations have lost credibility.

According to CWIN, there are no statistics available on the number of child soldiers fighting in the current conflict that has needlessly blighted and destroyed so many young lives. However, citing a recent report of the International Coalition on Child Soldiers, Gauri Pradhan of CWIN said more than 25 percent child soldiers are estimated to be fighting in the conflict in Nepal.

Likewise, it was learnt that around 2000 children have been separated from their families or orphaned, and more than 4000 children displaced from their villages. Girls living on the streets due to war or poverty were "extremely vulnerable" to sexual predation once they reached puberty. If they cannot find a home or are not taken in by a child welfare centre, they are almost certain to have to sell sex to survive. The war-affected children have no opportunity for education.

Another girl, Jamuna Thapa 18, said " People were being killed in Dang. We were very scared. All of us fled with our little brother".

Eleven-year-old Suman had no idea why he was taken or why the guerrillas who took him were fighting. He just knew he had to do what he was told. "Otherwise, your life could be in danger," he said. "I saw people being whipped. People being sent to distant areas. When there was physical punishment, we were invited to witness. We were told that if you disobeyed, this could happen to you."

Chief reporter of the Peace Media, Chiranjibi Budhathoki further said "Children associated with armies or gurilas are often stigmatized because of their participation in the conflict." He appeal to keep children out of war. "We cannot expect children to grow up normally amid guns and explosives". he said. Most child recruits into maoists are from poor families or from minority or indigenous groups.

"One of the greatest effects I see on a day-to-day basis is a loss of hope. Once young people feel hopeless, they really do give up. They don't take the steps that might build a constructive future.

In the issues of children forced to flee from conflict, children under threat from HIV/AIDS, the heightened exposure of children to sexual exploitation during armed conflict, the impact of war on the health of children, the threats from landmines and unexploded ordnance; and child protection and the creation of an agenda of peace and security for children.

Budhathoki further says "Most people have only recently started to realize that war affects children in many ways. Armed conflict destroys the basic necessities of life: schools, health care, adequate shelter, water and food. That makes it difficult for communities to give children an environment that fosters healthy cognitive and social development.

Many children have family members who are kidnapped or killed while fighting and others are taken from their families and forced to join armies. Others are separated from parents while fleeing conflict.

"When parents are emotionally affected by war, that alters their ability to care for their children properly," explains Mike Wessells, PhD, a Randolph-Macon College psychology professor with extensive experience in war zones. "War stresses increase family violence, creating a pattern that then gets passed on when the children become parents."

She further said "Many children, exposed to horrible acts of violence during key developmental years, come to accept violent acts as a normal part of life. "This is putting young people at risk for continuing cycles of violence," explains Wessells. "Violence is the way they will use to discipline their children or deal with a conflict with their spouse."

"There's also a need for psychologists to advocate for policies that support children affected by armed conflict, and to help deliver other services--such as providing food, water and health care--in sensitive ways. They need a place to communicate even the irrational fears without being condemned. Normalcy and balance are essential to their lives and to their emotional well being". Budhathoki added. Children are dropping out of childhood. The psychosocial effects of armed conflict on children can be devastating and may haunt them through life. He says.

The exploitation of children in the ranks of the rebeles and armies must end. War can lead to temporary or permanent separation of children from their parents or other adult caregivers. Those relationships are the major source of a child's emotional and physical security. Separation can have a devastating social and psychological impact.

Ultimately, displaced children and their families need to return home. The safety and well being of displaced child-headed families relies significantly on their access to land, property, housing and essential services. Children also need special protection and care. All emergency assistance should specifically address the health needs of children. Thirdly, trafficking in small arms and light weapons, which often provokes and always sustains conflicts, must be brought under control because modern small arms are indeed small and light, they are easily handled by children.

There can no longer be any excuses, no acceptable argument for killing children. Nothing is perhaps more heartrending and disturbing than hearing reports of children being killed not as innocent victims but as combatants. The recruitment and use in hostilities of children under the age of 15 by any armed force or armed group, as a war crime. Crime against children is unacceptable.

We Nepali are urging armed groups to end the recruitment of children under 18. The deployment of child is a despicable and damaging practice that must end. Children want the wars to end and the fighting to stop. The idea that children should not fight wars is universal.


(Writer cum Journalist Kamala Sarup was born in Dharan, Nepal, and associate with Peace Media e-magazine)

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