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T H E[image, unknown] R U N A W A Y – N E P A L
Kumar’s story

photo by ANTHONY SWIFT. Kumar Subba left his village home in eastern Nepal at the age of eight. He crept out of his house before dawn and walked 30 kilometres to a small country town. He was escaping a family catastrophe. His father, a peasant farmer, had lost his land to a local moneylender and left for India to look for work. While his mother laboured for a pittance in other people’s fields, Kumar was trapped at home minding younger brothers and sisters.

When I left my only thought was to escape. I got a job in a hotel. I had to fetch water and wash the dishes. The water was icy. Sometimes I was sent to a nearby forest to collect firewood. I was not paid – just given two meals a day. I slept on the tables after the customers left. I got bad sores on my hands and fell sick. Sick or well, I had to work.

After a year, I left and walked to the next town where I worked as a street porter, living on the streets. But the older boys would bully and rob us. One day a man told me he could get me a job in Kathmandu. I would be trained to weave carpets and have a chance to go to school. I would be given very good meals. Once trained, I would earn a lot of money. I saved for six months for the bus fare to Kathmandu. But this agent was another cheat.

The factory he took me to was very big and full of working children, mostly girls. It was like a prison. We were locked in. I was ten years old but not the youngest. We worked from 5.00am to midnight knotting carpets. We slept among the looms. Many of the children suffered pains in their fingers because of the work. We were given very low-quality rice and thin watery lentils twice a day. Those were the only breaks and no-one spoke of paying us.

Supervisors checked that we didn’t fall asleep. They also had informers among us who would report us if we fought or broke the hammers, needles or scissors we used. Then we would be thrashed. There was some bullying though not as bad as on the streets. The older boys in the factory were very bad to the young girls. They would toss [sexually abuse] them.

When others slept some of us would talk about how we landed up there and the promises made us. We had all been cheated by the labour contractors.

After six months I was exhausted and had pains in my hands, stomach and chest. One day, I spotted a half-broken window in the lavatory. I broke out and ran away.

After that I worked as a ragpicker and slept on the streets. It was better than the factory – at least you could have some fun. Other young children taught me where to collect rags and sell them. There were also older boys who were into pickpocketing and thieving. They ordered me to strip valuable metals from buildings. If I refused I was beaten.

The worst thing on the streets was that nobody treated us well and everyone, police and other adults, all behaved like thieves and cheats. We were often arrested and beaten or tortured for no reason. The police kicked or beat us with special ribbed sticks; sometimes we were bound by ropes and beaten. At first I was very innocent but then I thought: ‘Whether I steal or not, I get arrested and beaten; better get beaten with thieving than without.’ So I started stealing things as well.

I ended up being jailed for six months and put in a cell with adults, including a monitor chosen by the prison staff. Everyone had to make him happy because if he reported you to the warders you lost your right to parole. The warders also let him beat you up. You had to make tea for the adults and wash their clothes. There was also sexual abuse.

Back on the street, I was the youngest of a group who were getting seriously into thieving. Some would even take on security guards who caught them in the act. One day I had a head injury. My friends took me to the health clinic at Child Workers in Nepal.

There, for the first time, I found adults who cared about me and shared things with me. I stayed on in a night shelter they have and got involved in their activities. That was in 1992, so I was 11. If it wasn’t for that accident I would probably be a big thief by now.

Increasingly recognized as a talented artist, Kumar – now 16 – plans to be both a painter and street educator so that he can help other working children realize some of their aspirations. He has also been reconciled with his family.

Kumar was interviewed by Anthony Swift.

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