It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but lots has been happening here in Nepal. If I’d written before Christmas, I think that my blog would have been pretty downbeat. Up until almost the very end of the year there was very little progress on the peace process and it was getting harder to be optimistic (as I generally like to be!) about the way things were going. Parliament was still being blocked, there were still strikes (bandhs) which meant total shut down throughout the Kathmandu Valley – no motorised vehicles of any kind, the drafting of the constitution was well behind schedule and it seemed that the key players didn’t really want to talk to each other.
With a new year, comes – potentially – a new beginning. Now I don’t want to sound naïve, but there has been positive progress in the last few weeks. To name just a few, just before Christmas the Maoist Party stopped blocking parliament, so for the first time in months Nepal has a fully functioning parliament. The long awaited High Level Political Mechanism – which is supposed to resolve the really knotty peace process issues such as the future of the 19,600 ex-Maoist fighters – has been formed with the participation of the three largest political parties, and they are talking (always a good thing!). And lastly – and I think potentially most heartening – the discharge of the so-called “disqualified” combatants from the camps has been completed peacefully.
There are about 4,000 “disqualified” – really a strange term to use – of which around 3,000 were under age when they joined the Maoist army (they were child soldiers during the war, even though many are now over 18), and about 1,000 were late recruits to the Maoist army (they joined after the fighting was officially over). I went to the far west of Nepal last week, to a place near Surkhet, to witness one of the discharge ceremonies. It was very interesting and really quite moving. Quite a few of the “disqualified” had already left the camps, but there were still over 600 in this camp alone who were to be discharged.
All the “disqualified” were registered with the UN monitors (see the photo) and given an identity card, which certifies them as an ex-combatant. The card also has a telephone number on it which these young people can call any time in the next year and get advice on what to do next. There are four “packages” available to them to help them reintegrate back into civilian life: vocational training; training as a health worker; setting up their own business or going back to school. The UK has helped fund these packages, which are offered by the UN and its partners on behalf of the government.
At the ceremony, there were some speeches (you can see me on the podium with the UN and Maoist commanders) by the Maoist Commandant of the camp, the Deputy Commander of the Maoist Army, and the Head of the UN in Nepal. They were then each given a tikka (red mark on their foreheads) and a garland of marigolds, and sent towards the buses which would take them to the nearest town from which they start their way home and to a new life.
I watched the faces of these young people. There is some anger amongst them that they fought for what they believed in and now they are being discharged and sent home and being told that they are “disqualified” – the term in Nepali is apparently even more negative, meaning almost “unfit”. Some of the young men had been drinking, causing a bit of trouble and breaking chairs to vent their frustration and anger the morning we arrived for the ceremony. The ceremony however passed peacefully and the looks on most of these young faces as they passed me to go to the bus was sad, lost, many tearful, some defiant, some clearly very apprehensive. Understandable when you consider that most of their adult lives had been fighting for or living in a camp under the control of the Maoist army. They probably had little idea what was waiting for them outside the camp. My heart really went out to them, especially the young girls, with young babies, of whom there were quite a few. Take a look at this excellent photo essay from UNICEF which brilliantly captures the process.
The discharge of the “disqualified” is now over. We can’t really say if it was successful or not yet, as that will depend on how these young people are welcomed back to their villages and hopefully reintegrated into civilian life. I really hope that they all manage to forge for themselves a more peaceful existence in a peaceful Nepal.
This is one important step forward, but a huge challenge awaits, which is to resolve the future of the remaining 19,600 ex-Maoist fighters still in the camps, and to help them move on to a new life...