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Manakala couldn’t finish her story. Her voice cracked, her body began shaking and she fainted right before our eyes. The memories of three nights earlier, when security forces clashed with the Maoists in her small village, were too much for her.

Mankala will never forget a helicopter landing in the field next to her house, Maoists seeking shelter in the village, the whine of bullets and her family’s desperate efforts to hide under a bed, screaming soldiers accusing her of hiding the Maoists and her attempts to convince them that a boy they were beating was not a rebel, but just a 14-year-old neighbour from the village.

The war that came to this elderly Palpa farmer’s door is now engulfing Nepal. After a short period of relief during the Maoists’ unilateral ceasefire, nearly every district in the country is currently affected by attacks and clashes between the Maoists and the army. Nepali civilians, particularly the vast majority living in rural areas, are now closer to the conflict than ever before, caught between two forces with histories of grave and systematic human rights abuses.

The Maoists put civilians at great risk by using houses, schools and public spaces to launch attacks or to seek shelter while fleeing counterattacks by the security forces. Many civilians die or sustain serious injuries when the army uses aerial bombardment to pursue retreating Maoists because the army’s practice of dropping mortars by hand from the side of helicopters does not allow proper targeting and yields a high rate of unexploded ordnance.

Meanwhile, in many rural areas where the security forces are unable to counter the Maoists’ intrusion into villages, the government has turned to creating and arming vigilante groups to serve as their proxies, drawing on local thugs as well as the pool of aggrieved villagers eager to avenge themselves against Maoists.

We found that over the last year the government has created and sponsored vigilante groups throughout the tarai from Bardiya to Ilam. Vigilante leaders in Rupandehi and Nawalparasi admitted that they received official government support, including a one-month-long training program at RNA barracks, government identification cards and rifles.

The poorly trained and ill-disciplined vigilante groups act abusively toward the local population they are ostensibly protecting, beating and at times killing those suspected—however flimsily—of Maoist sympathies, extorting ‘donations’ and violently intimidating villagers. In turn, the Maoists aggressively punish members of vigilante groups, abducting and killing them and their alleged supporters. The cycle of attacks and reprisals by Maoists and vigilantes risks spiraling further out of control.

One of the most alarming aspects of Nepal’s civil war is the heavy toll the conflict takes on children. According to UNICEF Nepal has the world’s second highest rate of children killed or injured due to explosive devices. In addition, the Maoists continue their large-scale and often forcible recruitment of children for military purposes in violation of international standards.

Boys and girls we interviewed said they had been abducted from schools for indoctrination programs and then forced to stay, taken from homes under the Maoists’ ‘one family, one member’ recruitment campaign, or simply kidnapped. The children told us they were taught to use hand grenades and socket bombs and worked as porters of ammunition, cooks, stretcher-carriers, or sentry guards—thus refuting the Maoists’s claims that the movement does not use children for military activities.

The bad news is that this already dire situation can become much worse. If the Maoists carry out their threat of attacking urban areas and the army is not forced to exercise extreme caution in its response to the attacks, the number of civilian casualties will grow dramatically. The good news is that it’s not too late to prevent the new bloodshed.

Over the last year, both sides of the conflict have demonstrated that they can change their behaviour. Fearing the possibility of losing its participation in UN peacekeeping operations and trying to satisfy the US-imposed conditionality for further military assistance, the army has decreased some of its most abusive practices.

The Maoists’ 12-point agreement with the opposition political parties prompted a decrease in Maoist violence against the parties’ political cadres, especially during the ceasefire. Finally, the presence of international monitors from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights seemed to have a positive effect on both parties’ adherence to human rights standards.

Now is the time to keep up and step up targeted international pressure on both sides of the conflict, coupled with monitoring from the UN and Nepali human rights groups and journalists to prevent further injury to Nepal’s beleaguered civilian population.

Anna Neistat is Human Rights Watch's Emergencies Researcher and Sam Zarifi is Asia Research Director for Human Rights Watch.

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