Friday, August 22, 2008

Surkhet pictures

Last week I was in Surkhet district, an hour-long plane ride and half-day bumpy car ride west of Kathmandu. I was there to “monitor and support” IRC’s child protection program. (Although I probably needed more monitoring and support than anyone.)

Some background: IRC helps former child soldiers re-integrate into their communities in 10 districts throughout Nepal. Jenny, my roommate, overseas IRC’s work with child soldiers and tries visit each district once every few months. This month she was too busy to make any visits. I offered to go in her stead.

Before I left, I spent a few nights reading and highlighting the reports and proposals related to the project. And Jenny briefed me on our program and the purpose of my visit.

Here is some of what I saw. I took notes, wrote some stories in my journal, but I’m just sifting through them, transcribing them now. I plan to post the more interesting ones in the coming days.

View from the plane. NOT clouds in the distance! I may have drooled on the window.

A barrel of diesel, Dev Mandal (IRC's Child Protection Officer from Jajarkot District) and half a Rosieface. Although Dev lives in a district with no roads (they use donkeys instead), no running water and no electricity, he keeps his hair and beard trim, wears pressed button-up shirts, and shiny black shoes. He helped me tremendously, translating and answering my relentless questions with the patience and thoroughness of my grandma doing puzzles. Dev starts most sentences with the word "definitely” and nods his head a lot.

Drawn by a former child soldier named Gurav, this hangs in the hall of IRC's office in Surkhet. In the upper left is a group of Maoist cadres meeting by a school (notice the small children in the circle). Bottom right, a government soldier surprise attacks them. In the middle, kids on the way to school are caught in the cross-fire.

Another drawing by a CAAFAG (ie former child soldier – IRC/UNICEF term that stands for Child Associated with Armed Forces and Groups). Harder to see - but depicts a bomb in the hands of a boy. The bomb destroys a school (upper left) and the boy's face.

This is Punam, a CAAFAG supported by IRC. Shy and smiley, Punam now raises goats. We visited him in his home. He fought for two years with the Maoists, as a spy then a combatant. After the peace accords in 2006, IRC officers found him in cantonment and helped him return home. They trained him in business skills, covered his fees to join the local Income Generating Association (like a credit union) and bought him some goats.

IRC has helped almost 2,000 former child soldiers like Punam. Most go back to school, but a handful, like Punam, are too old or have been out for too long and don’t want to be in class with younger kids. IRC trains them in skills that will help them make a living – animal husbandry, sewing, carpentry, electrical wiring. And when they have psychological problems, IRC Officers connect them with counselors.

I feel like I'm giving a PR stump speech for the IRC child soldiers program. There are problems, glitches, which I go into in some of my writing that I'll hopefully post. On the whole though, I do believe it’s done remarkable good.

A women's group who showed up (unexpectedly!) at a meeting with an IRC-supported school. I don't fully understand why they were there. But they were sweet. And very excited to take pictures. We took about 12 like this.

One of many anti-violence paintings that dot the side of this school. 33 of its current students left and fought for the Maoists during the conflict.

Instead of paying for CAAFAG school fees directly, IRC gives the schools they attend money for projects. In exchange, the school must waive the CAAFAG's fees until grade 10. It works pretty well - schools get new benches and books; kids who fought, most of whom are too poor to afford school, get an education.

Without 4WD, we'd still be in the river!

Visiting a school group supported by IRC. (5 or 6 of these kids fought and/or acted as spies in the conflict. Maoists often used the smallest children as spies because they're quick and look innocent. ) This was my favorite visit.

This is Anita, another IRC-supported former child soldier. She was away from home for three years, as a combatant and a cook for the Maoists. 18 years old, her first child.

Yet another CAAFAG! We're supporting her to take a 3-month course in sewing.

Same place - sewing training center. Left - teacher. Right - two CAAFAGs IRC is supporting. Behind them are dresses they've sewn! This was another favorite visit.

Saturday was big Hindu festival. At 7 am I joined the IRC Surkhet staff to worship at a cluster of temples. Magic! This is inside one of the smaller temples.

When I asked co-worker Keshav, "do you think the Hindu Gods actually lived on Earth or are they just ideas, stories?" He said - "they were definitely real, definitely on Earth" and brought me to this rock. "Here is how we know." Goddess footprints. Four of them. Lots of people worshiping this rock.

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