About 750 km northwest of the capital Kathmandu, children in the mountainous district of Simikot live in fear that Maoist rebels who have been fighting the government since 1996 will march into their villages at any time and take them away from their parents to join the insurgency. The armed campaign, known as the People's War, is now being waged by between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters. The rebels are active across the whole country, with many parts completely under their control. Their aim is to overthrow Nepal's constitutional monarchy and establish a communist republic. MAOIST INSURGENCY More than 10,000 Nepalis have been killed in Maoist-related violence during the last nine years of civil war. According to recent reports from a leading national human rights organisation, INSEC, at least 268 children under 17 have been forced to join the Maoist People's Army. An unknown number have been killed in combat during the growing number of ambushes and fire fights with security forces. In Simikot, Nepal's highest district headquarters, children such as Tshering Lama crowd into the town looking for government protection. it is the only place in the whole region where Kathmandu's authority still holds sway. Many of the young people fled their homes through difficult mountain routes to find refuge here. Sitting in the corner of a dark, cold room, the 12-year-old looked frightened as he recalled how, in mid-November, Maoist rebels came to his house in Baragaun village - 40km to the south - to recruit him. FORCED RECRUITMENT While being marched off by insurgents, Tshering cried so loudly that his mother heard his screams. She ran towards the rebels and pleaded for them to return her son in exchange for her 14-year-old daughter. "I was very scared when they told us that we will become Maoists," recalled the boy, who has regular nightmares thinking of what has become of his sister, who was last seen being led away behind a column of bedraggled fighters. He was among hundreds of children in Humla district that the Maoists, short of recruits to wage their national insurgency, had come to force into service. Parents watched quietly as their sons and daughters were lined up and taken away for indoctrination and training. There was little open dissent - every parent knew the deadly consequences of disobeying the Maoists. Earlier, they reportedly executed a mother when she tried to remove her daughter to the relative safety of Simikot from a neighbouring village. Since the Maoists started their "shoe campaign" with the slogan "wear your shoes, carry our guns and prepare for war", early in 2004, there has been a spree of abductions of young people in rural parts of the country under their control. Local human rights activists, who are scared to reveal their identities, told IRIN that 116 school children had been taken in one day in November from Thehe village, north of Simikot. In late October, about 80 more were recruited in Jaira, a village 80 km south of Simikot. "The youngest will be trained as party campaigners while others will be given military training," explained a human rights activist. DISPLACED IN SIMIKOT Even Simikot is not a safe place for those fleeing the insurgents, who have threatened to attack the town. "The threat is a serious one and we don't have a large force here, just 200 men," a senior government official in Simikot nervously told IRIN on condition of anonymity. "We need a much larger force to defend this place." "I had to give my youngest son to the rebels. We can't say no to them," said a heartbroken mother who now lives in Simikot after her son was taken. "All I do is cry every night and pray to God for his return," she told IRIN. Like many villagers, she is living as an internally displaced person (IDP) in Simikot. According to the local development office, more than 300 families within a 50 km radius of the town have been displaced with no shelter and little food. Most of them fled with their children and had to abandon their lands, livestock and houses. The local government is helping to provide an allowance of US $40 per month to every family. They also get 5 kg of rice three times a week. But such rations are hardly enough to survive in a place where most goods have to be airlifted in and are very expensive. "The only way to protect ourselves is to leave the village and live like a refugee in Simikot," explained a 19-year-old student who fled from Baragaun with his parents. He told IRIN that the Maoists have already sent a message to those who had left to return home or risk their lives when an attack was launched on Simikot. "I'm not going back at all. I'd rather live like a beggar here," he added. CONTINUED RECRUITMENT Despite constant pleas from human rights organisations not to engage children in conflict, a local newspaper, the Himalayan Times, quoted Kamal Shahi, a central secretariat member of the Maoists' student wing, as announcing in February 2004 that the insurgents were planning to recruit about 50,000 children to their cause this year. "It is hard to think of a more terrifying ordeal for children," Suomi Sakai, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)representative in Nepal, said in a press statement late last year in response to reports that children had been deployed to detonate bombs and take part in ambushes. "They are at risk of being blown up by the explosives. And should they survive the experience, and are able to return to their homes, they risk being labelled as rebels and taken away," added Sakai. Although the United Nations in Nepal has been organising a national campaign to keep children out of the national conflict, recruitment continues. "Parents have no choice but to give their children to the rebels as they don't get enough protection from the state," explained a former member of parliament and respected Simikot community leader who requested anonymity, as he had already been threatened by the Maoists for sheltering displaced villagers.