"It feels like a scene of a war movie, but it was my life"
Former child soldier Lenin Bista tells us how his life took an unpredictable turn at the age of 11 years old. After experiencing war and humiliation, he is now advocating for justice and reparations for all child soldiers.
In the rented two-bedroom flat deep inside the alleyways of Kaushaltar, Lenin Bista, the former child soldier has built himself something he couldn't imagine a few years back: a home. He is married now and has a three-month old baby boy. In many ways he is happy, but the traces of his past have not completely left him yet. They are all present in the form of photographs, memories, and scars.
His house is filled with old photos, some framed and some inside a photo album carefully stored in his wardrobe. Looking at them nostalgically he says, “I was 11 years old when I would hear about the war and news of people dying on the radio. But being a kid at that age, I wasn’t attentive to the news.” Little did he know that soon he was going to be a part of the war.
The year 2009 was very difficult for him. He had just lost his mother and his father remarried. After that, his home wasn't the same. A fifth- grade student at that time, he decided to go to his mother’s home in Makwanpur for the holiday, in the hope of finding peace and closure. There, he decided to hike around Makwanpur with five of his friends. These simple decisions were pivotal in Lenin’s life.
He says, “I was still recovering from the trauma of losing my mother. In such delicate circumstances, we ran into a Maoist recruitment program on our traveling route. Their programs were grand; they sang songs of Nationalism, talked about the rights and struggles of lower casts and urged people to join in for change. I was touched by their preachment. Then and there I decided to join them. I didn’t consult with anyone and just went along with them.”
“There was no normal day”
When he did not return home for many days, his family filed for a missing person complain but heard nothing back. In the meantime, Lenin was being escorted to a stranded village named Chattyon, located almost 40 km away from Makwanpur. There, he was introduced to the world of Maoist guerrilla fighters.
His gaze drifts towards the window as he says, “There was no “normal” day to begin with; every day was a different challenge. I usually got up at 4 am for our routine of training running, and exercising. Some days, we would have extra training sessions with weapons, commander courses etc.” In quieter days, they would gather around, cook and go off to their duties which ended late at night.
Being in the intelligence department, Lenin’s job was to travel to various guerrilla locations and collect information on political and military conditions in the area.
At the camp, he says, “there was huge arsenal of weapons ranging from pistols, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, muskets, mortar and more. It was within the first week, we were randomly divided into different groups. I was sorted to the intelligence department and my friends in others. After that, I never met them again. But months later I heard two of them lost their lives.” he says with tears in his eyes.
During his stay, he rarely met other fighters. But with everyone he met, he felt an instant connection. They were all at war, surrounded by unpredictability and risk. So, whenever they could meet, they greeted each other humbly and communicated frankly.
No telling right from wrong
Lenin says, “It was like a completely different realm. And we were almost brainwashed with the speeches of nationalism and the rights of the people. I was hooked on the idea of fighting a people’s war, I couldn’t decipher if the things I was doing were right or wrong.”
He was one of the Maoist guerrillas who attacked the Chautara District Hospital and used it to attack an adjacent army base guarding a telecom tower. In that clash, the Maoists lost. Lenin escaped the location on time, but around 1000 fighters were captured that day.
“Mostly the memories of that time are harsh. I had to witness the deaths of my friends and fellow fighters. And we didn’t even have time to grief.” He says with a bleak expression.
They had to walk for days and nights, traveling to villages after villages, collecting information. Some days they did not have anything to eat and some nights there was no place to sleep. “I remember carrying a small plastic bag of flour with me to kill my hunger. Looking back everything feels like a scene of a war movie but, it was my life” says the former fighter.
The end of the war, not the end of the struggle
When the civil war ended in 2006, Lenin and 19’000 other Maoist fighters were sent to camps supervised by the United Nations, where they could choose between being integrated into the national army or taking a voluntary retirement package. Like many others, Lenin wanted to join the national army. But he was disqualified because he had been underage at the time the peace agreements were signed. This left him bitterly disappointed.
“I was discharged and called ineligible to join the national army. And they ordered us to take a voluntary retirement. After years of hardship, I felt betrayed by the party” Lenin explains.
He was among the 3’000 Maoist guerrillas disqualified for being child soldiers. They were given bus fares to go home and told they would be offered vocational training. But Lenin didn’t find it useful.
This was a wakeup call: he might be offered a second chance in life, but nothing could bring him back what he had lost. “I lost my childhood. I was 11 years old when I took up weapons when I was supposed to be studying. This is one my biggest regret in life.”
Without school certificates, the former soldier had difficulty finding decent jobs. Most of his fellow fighters couldn't return home because of social stigma. Many paid their way to work in the Arabic Gulf or in Malaysia. Some found rehabilitation too hard and committed suicide.
“We have to speak up for our own rights”
Lenin, on the other hand, returned his hometown Kavre and decided to continue his studies. He studied for his District level exam, passed and then prepared for a private SLC from Chitwan. He passed it in the year 2015. Then, he joined higher studies at Nightingale Academy, Kavre. He says, “I urged every former fighter I meet to not lose hope and to keep fighting for our rights and our future generation. We all have struggled our way through life and it is high time it is acknowledged.”
Time passed but rehabilitation measures were nowhere in sight. Former child soliders started feeling betrayed: their ‘revolutionary leader’ had turned into the politician they despised so much.
Lenin says with firmness in his voice, “I realized we had to speak up for our own rights, as no one was coming to our rescue. So I founded my organization, named Discharged People’s Liberation Army Nepal for recognition, reparations, and security of the former child soldiers.”
He started meeting with the press to discuss the issues. When it did not work, his organization stroked and locked up the office of Maoist officials in Baneshwor. As a result of his activism, Lenin got kidnapped, robbed, framed and jailed many times. But he got out each time, as no substantial claim could be made against him in Court. In spite of repeated arrests, Lenin passed his Bachelors in Business Studies that year.
Lenin is now interning in an education consultancy and wants to pursue a Masters' degree. Among the former child soldiers, he is the only one who has followed through with higher education. He wants to continue both his education and the fight for the former child soldiers, but he needs support in both.
Training in documentation and advocacy
Another thing he lacks is information about advocacy and legal rights. In November 2017, he attended a workshop* at the Human Rights and Justice Centre in Kathmandu (a partner organization of TRIAL International). In this unique training, technical, practical and strategic tools were developed for and with former fighters.
In the first session of the training, participants learned documentation techniques. The second session of the training focused on domestic and international advocacy techniques: how to prepare and submit a report to UN bodies, organize meetings with domestic authorities and hold a briefing with the international community established in Nepal.
Lenin says, "After attending the two workshops organized by the Human Rights and Justice Centre, I feel confident. We have only ever known war and learning about the laws have helped us gain a peaceful perspective to address our issue.”
The Human Rights and Justice Centre improves access to justice for victims of human rights violations in Nepal such as genocide, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and sexual violence.
The HRJC adopts a collaborative approach, where victims receive advice and training to make their own decisions. In a safe environment and under strict confidentiality, they are supported by legal experts throughout all proceedings.
*This project is supported by the German Embassy in Nepal
All pictures were taken by ©Sabrina Dangol