Lohardaga, India - At the sight of a stranger, a visibly frightened 10-year-old boy ran crying, "Grandma save me. They have come, they have come for me again."
Mahavir Birja was not always petrified of uninvited guests. But his dramatic abduction by Maoist fighters and equally dramatic escape from their clutches has robbed him of his childhood innocence and filled his heart and mind with fear.
Hiding behind his grandmother's tattered sari, the boy with piercing dark eyes recounted his horror story.
"A group of armed men suddenly barged into our home and told my parents that they were taking me along. When my father opposed, they hit him on the head with the rear of a rifle," he said.
The impact was so hard that he fell to the ground with blood pouring from his head. Unmoved, the intruders dragged Mahavir off to their camp - where he remained for nearly a year.
|Police-run children's lodges rehabilitate those traumatised by Maoist rebels [Sanjay Pandey/Al Jazeera]
Mahavir's father subsequently died from the attack, his mother abandoned the children and eloped with another man.
The responsibility to raise Mahavir and his 14-year-old sister fell on the frail shoulders of their 60-year-old grandmother, Parvat.
Indoctrination and rehabilitation
Fearing for Mahavir, Parvat decided to send him to a centre in Lohardaga, in the Indian state of Jharkhand, where about 28 children from remote tribal villages are being rehabilitated by police under a programme that began in 2013.
Mahavir lived in the Maoist camps for almost a year and finally managed to flee during a gun battle with security forces.
"There were around 50 boys our age in the camp. Our day started early with a rigorous physical exercise session, followed by indoctrination sessions and training in guerrilla warfare. In the evening, we would be asked to go and fetch wood from the forest. If someone dared to defy them, he would be beaten black and blue.
"We used to get one meal [lentils and rice] a day. Once a month, they would serve us chicken or mutton," said Mahavir, savouring the five-course home-cooked meal prepared by his grandma.
His friend Sakaldip Kherwar, who was also abducted, pitched in.
"They would ask us to do their laundry, help with cooking, carry rations and arms while the caravan was on the move. On a normal day, the caravan walked 8-10km during the day or at night. We were also trained to operate [assault weapons]," he said playfully pointing his pen-turned-gun at Al Jazeera.
The children were usually allowed to visit their family if their unit happened to be passing by their village. But when Sakaldip was allowed to see his ailing mother, she did not want to send him back.
"After a lot of negotiation and pleading, they agreed but only after our family agreed to exchange my eight-year-old nephew with the squad instead," said Sakaldip's father, who asked not to be named.
According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights report India's Child Soldiers, about 2,500 - girls and boys - are involved in armed conflict in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Orissa where the communist fighters operate.
A United Nations report on child soldiers in India expressed concern over the killing and maiming of children kidnapped and used as fighters or human shields by rebels. These groups have recruited child soldiers with impunity during India's silent civil war since 1971.
They come unannounced and uninvitated like messengers of death and take away our children.
Emboldened by the much-hyped zero-tolerance policy against armed groups of the Narendra Modi government, security forces have stepped up the offensive against the rebels, further pushing them up against the wall.
Feeling pressure to find new recruits, some Maoist leaders issued a diktat to tribal villages to deliver five children each.
Though the demand greatly upset the impoverished and exploited people of these areas, most did not have the courage to defy the guerrillas.
Those who dare to do so are either beaten mercilessly in public - or killed.
As demands for new recruits increased, people of the region started to question whether the rebels really were the "saviours of the oppressed" as they claim.
Farmer Dhanjan Oram, 35, said he worried for the safety of his child and sent him to Lohardaga's police-run children's centre in 2013.
"Everybody is scared in our village. They come unannounced and uninvited like messengers of death and take away our children. If anyone dares to defy them, they beat him. We live in perpetual fear. We have to save our lives and our kids' lives too. So we keep quiet."
Manvinder Singh Bhatia, an inspector general with the Jharkhand police, said communist rebels have been on the hunt recently for child recruits.
"Since the launching of serious offensives against the Maoists, recruitment to their ranks is thinning out. A major offensive was launched following the news that some children were forcefully taken away, as a result of which, many of the children were returned."
In January, the Jharkhand police, acting on a tip, intercepted a few children being taken to join fighters near Jamshedpur.
Although most Maoist leaders deny demanding five children from each village, a commander from the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) admitted they do practice forced recruitment of children.
|Many villagers in rebel-controlled areas fear for their children [Sanjay Pandey/Al Jazeera]
"This is our compulsion because the government apparatus adopts every humane and inhumane tactic against us to suppress the voice of the common people," he told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
Children recruited are used as spies and fighters, the commander said.
National Foundation for India fellow Gautam Sarkar, who is working on a project called "Childhood Under the Shadow of a Gun", underlined instances of sexual exploitation of children - male and female - in rebel camps.
Former female fighters have testified they were subjected to sexual violence, including rape and other forms of abuse, a common practice in camps of the Naxalite communist group.
"I was trained there to operate automatic weapons, I was involved in some armed attacks in the region. Still I would be treated like a sex slave," said a former female fighter who requested anonymity for privacy reasons. "I got so disheartened and disenchanted that I decided to put down my weapons."
According to the Indian government, boys and girls between age six and 12 were recruited into children's squads in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha states.
No separate statistics are available on children killed or maimed in clashes between armed groups and government security forces. But at least 257 civilians, 101 soldiers, and 97 Naxalite rebels were killed in 2013 in 998 incidents, the government said.
Like Boko Haram, infamous for attacking schools and stealing children in Nigeria, communist rebels in India also attack places of learning and rob kids of their right to an education.
"Even after 67 years of independence, development is a distant dream in these impoverished pockets," Sarkar said.
"People living in these areas are left at the mercy of the Naxalites. So it is obvious that they have to obey the Maoists, who run a parallel government in the impregnable jungles of India."
Source: Al Jazeera