Chandra Devi Rokaya is barely 12 years old but she has already experienced a life of terror. Six months ago, Chandra witnessed her father, Dhanraj, being shot dead by Maoist rebels simply because he was a government employee. Dhanraj was just a simple postman earning a meagre salary to feed his family and educate his children.
"Why do we have to endure this injustice? What have we done to deserve this?" asked her 30-year-old mother Bacchu, sobbing uncontrollably.
Aggravating their tragedy, the rebels forced the family to leave their village of Rara in mountainous Mugu district, about 370 km northwest of the capital, Kathmandu.
Traumatised, Bacchu walked for two weeks with her six children to Rajhena near Nepalgunj where she now lives at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) set up by the government.
"I wanted to complete my school but the Maoists shattered all my dreams," young Chandra, who was studying in grade five, told IRIN in Nepalgunj.
Her younger sister, Saini, and two brothers, Tirtharaj and Chandraraj, studying at primary level were also deprived of their schooling like 100 other children sheltered in the camp after being displaced with their parents from Mugu, Jumla and Kalikot, Nepal's poorest and remotest districts.
Since the Maoist rebellion against the state began nine years ago, children's education has been one of the worst hit sectors in the country. Already suffering from a low level of enrolment, Nepal's education system has been further weakened by the conflict.
There are no accurate figures of the number of children leaving school because of the conflict. Even under normal circumstances about 70 percent of Nepalese school children between six and 10 years of age drop out due to poverty, a lack of teachers and poorly managed schools. According to a UN report, the country has one of the highest school dropout rates in the world.
"The level of trauma among school children in the villages is very high," Jagdish Dahal from the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a human rights organisation, told IRIN, noting that many school children were fleeing their villages due to fear of forced recruitment and abduction by rebels, migrating to Indian and Nepalese cities for security and livelihood.
"Just stand and observe near the Nepalese-Indian border and you will see so many children fleeing to India," journalist Rameswar Bohara, who has reported extensively on the Maoist conflict, told IRIN. "The children from the villages have no clue what happens to them after they leave school and migrate to India not knowing where they will end up," he added.
According to the police post at the Jamunaha border area, at least 50 school children are seen crossing the border every day to India. "There is no safe environment for the children, for their schooling, or their lives in the villages. So many children pass from here everyday," police inspector Chabi Rana told IRIN.
In 2000, the Maoist intensified their efforts against the government and began targeting schools, severely impacting the mindset of the children. From that year onward, the number of students abducted each year increased. Last year alone, nearly 5,000 students were abducted between July and September for indoctrination in Maoist teachings, according to a report by Community Study and Welfare Centre (CSWC), an NGO that advocates on the issue of IDPs.
While the Maoists have been using students to dig bunkers and training them to lay underground mines, the security forces have also been using many schools in villages as barracks, surrounding the premises with barbed wire. Children have to pass through the security checks to reach their classes.
One of the most unfortunate incidents took place in October 2003 when four students were killed during an exchange of gunfire between Maoists and security forces at the Shardha High School in Mudbara village of Doti district, 400 km west of Kathmandu.
"Many youngsters in rural Nepal have been forced to flee the countryside, leaving a big question mark over their education. Conflict is pushing back the strides education has made in the last couple of decades," Rupa Joshi of the National Coalition for Children as Zones of Peace (CZOP) told IRIN.
Every year since 2000, the rebels have organised a nationwide strike of all schools and educational institutions, affecting the education of millions of children in order to put pressure on the government. Many schools have never reopened after the strikes and hundreds of thousands of children have dropped out as a result.
"The cost of this conflict is becoming a bitter harvest. It's damaging our children and the future of the country," Suomi Sakai, country representative for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Nepal, told IRIN. "Children should not be having nightmares that their school will become a battleground between opposing forces. And they should not have to wake up each day not knowing if the school will be open or closed," Sakai added.
But the rebels are not paying any heed to a call by human rights workers to respect schools and children as zones of peace. Last month, the Maoists announced an indefinite strike of all schools around the country from April, on the day of the Nepali new year. "This is a dangerous trend. School closures have hampered education severely. We have a challenge ahead of us on how to continue education during conflict," Anjana Sakya from Save the Children (USA) told IRIN.
The strikes have already started in 12 districts in the far west of Nepal. More than 2,000 government and private boarding schools have been closed, affecting the education of more than 500,000 students.
"The situation is alarming. The human rights workers usually talk with the rebels to end the strike but it is not possible to meet with them given the current emergency situation," rights activist Khadka Raj Joshi explained.
Based in Dhangadi town, 700 km west of the capital city, Joshi noted that communication with the rebels was out of question and road blocks by the rebels had deterred the rights workers from approaching them.
Although the country has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, Nepal had been making progress in education. According to the Ministry of Education, despite the number of dropouts, the number of children newly enrolled in school (grades 1-10) had increased from 2 million in 1981 to nearly 6 million by 2004. There are over 35,000 schools in the country.
However, there are now fears that many schools will close down and further educational progress will suffer due to the constant calls by Maoist rebels to organise strikes, compounded by further intimidation of students and teachers.
Only a few days ago, on 19 February, the Maoists bombed and destroyed six schools in Rukum, a remote district just 300 km northwest of Kathmandu, accusing the students and teachers of supporting the government. The students have been severely disrupted in their studies at a time when they were preparing for their final school exams.
Meanwhile, aid workers on the ground remain resolute in their objective. "Children have the right to education even during times of conflict. We are committed to achieving schools as zones of peace where children can study freely without the tension of war around them," Keith Leslie, country director of Save the Children (USA), told IRIN.