There is an uneasy calm in Jharkhand's Bandua village - around 130km northwest of capital Ranchi - as fields of tall maize crops muffle the laments coming from the 50-odd huts that make up this sparsely populated settlement.
Only a week ago, the same fields were ringing with festive joy as villagers prepared for the Vishwakarma Puja. The festivities were interrupted on September 13 by a Maoist squad that swooped down on the village and summoned inhabitants to a kangaroo court.
"You have been damaging the forest cover despite warnings. Either vacate the land or give your sons to us," it ordered.
The assembly of gun-toting rebels picked up eight children and two adults to groom them to make bombs. "They forcibly dragged our children into the nearby jungles and disappeared even as we pleaded for mercy," says Bilokhan Lohra, whose 12-year-old son Pardeshi was among those abducted.
On Tuesday, the boy's body was dumped near his house, his stomach ruptured and hands torn. A postmortem revealed that he died during an explosion during a training session, the incident blowing the lid off the rebels' plan to use children as soldiers.
Even news of Awadesh Lohra, 15, Chhotu Lohra, 11, Rajkumar Lohra, 30, and Kharidan Ganjhu, 25, having fled from captivity has done little to lift spirits. Fear of the Reds has triggered an exodus.
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Fear of the Reds has triggered an exodus. Parents are sending their children faraway places to work in brick kilns and as farm labourers. HT found only women and old people in the village on Thursday. A few men had gone to the local police station after being summoned for cooperation in the investigation.
Police superintendent Michael Raj feels a mass-scale exodus of Maoist cadres has led the rebels to induct children as they are easy to terrorise and groom. He says villagers do not inform the police as they fear a backlash.
"Recently, a minor escaped from the Maoists' clutches from the Kumandee jungles and reached his village. We have rehabilitated the child by enrolling him in a residential school," Raj said.
Bandua residents are traditionally migrant labourers who return to their village for barely four months in a year during the monsoon. Almost all lead a hand-to-mouth existence but the condition of Lohras, who constitute around 60% of the population, is deplorable.
Most of them are unaware of the benefits of various social security schemes. Only one family has been given a house under the Indira Awaas Yojana, while four have job guarantee cards to avail of MNREGA benefits. Mid-day meals are irregular as the teachers posted in the local middle school often give classes a miss.
The primary health centre remains shut most of the time in the absence of doctors and health staff. In case of a medical emergency, villagers have to travel 28km to reach the Balumath community health centre.