Sita Tamang was forcibly recruited as a child soldier when she was just thirteen years old. She survived several years in Nepal’s Maoist army, escaped her life as a child soldier, and traveled to New York to speak about her experience in front of the United Nations. But for Tamang, escaping slavery was just the beginning of her ordeal. Because the people who coerced her into being a soldier in the first place are determined to silence her.
Five years ago, Sita Tamang was recruited from her home in Nepal by the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which was plotting to overthrow the Nepali royal dynasty. Her teen years were spent performing hard labor for the PLA, sometimes for up to 14 hours a day. She was trained on how to use firearms, including how to shoot a gun. And she watched as friends and peers just like her were killed or maimed for life while fighting the “People’s War” they hadn’t signed up for.
Tamang survived her ordeal, and summoned the courage to speak out publicly about it. She worked with the U.N. to secure the release of nearly 3000 children who were kidnapped and coerced into the PLA like her, and she told her story to top U.N. representatives. In return, the U.N. was supposed to provide her with an alias and anonymity. But after Tamang was photographed several times while helping the U.N., her identity soon became known across Nepal. To some of her fellow countrymen, she was a hero. But to the PLA, she was a liability.
When Tamang returned home to her mother after her trip to New York, five PLA combatants showed up at her house to issue a warning: be quiet about your experience, or else. Unsurprisingly, the PLA, like other organizations which force children to become soldiers, don’t want the details of their young recruits’ terrible lives leaking out. And Tamang is not the first former child soldier to report pressure from the PLA to toe the party line. Others have reported being threatened or coerced into signing up with the Maoist cause, even after escaping servitude.
The psychological and physical scars inflicted upon child soldiers often stay with them long into adulthood. But the economic and political discord that accompanies conflicts where child soldiers are used often lingers long after the children themselves are freed as well. Child soldiers are recruited as a means to an end; groups use children as soldiers to accomplish specific goals. Until those goals and the broader context of the conflict where child soldiers are used are addressed, the abuse will linger. And whether that takes the form of continued intimidation of former child soldiers or recruitment of new ones, it means brave young women like Sita Tamang may never feel safe.
Photo credit: Blueberry Morning