But they turned out to victims of Maoists whom the security forces have trained and armed into vigilantes to help in their anti-insurgency effort.
"They said they could easily just shoot me and claim that I was a terrorist unless I paid Rs 80,000," Chamar recalls. His family finally raised Rs 40,000 and bought his release. Another local, Hadis Dewan, was also kidnapped and paid a ransom.
New vigilante groups are springing up throughout the hinterland of this border district with help from the security forces. Victims of the Maoists, they have now turned into vicious human rights abusers themselves-threatening to unleash a spiral of unending violence.
The Marchabar area of Rupendehi district was already notorious for vigilantes forcing many villagers to flee their homes (See # 240). Since the Maoists are difficult to get at, the new vigilante groups target UML and NC supporters in the villages. They often walk side- by-side with soldiers while on patrol and they are protected by the local administration. The UML's Barmananda Pasi was brutally killed last month by suspected vigilantes.
Vigilante leader Santosh Sribastab used to be a NC supporter and says he was encouraged by the local administration to form his own anti-Maoist group. He convinced 40 other villagers who were fed up of Maoist harassment to join him and they were all trained to use weapons by the army.
Sribastab's house was bombed by the Maoists and they accused him of working as a government spy. Another vigilante group member, Pralad Lodh, had witnessed the Maoists kill his father and brother with rocks. Kalaf Hussein also joined the group to avenge the killings of his three brothers while the group's military commander, Muhammad, saw rebels torture his brother by smashing his leg with a heavy rock.
But the vigilantes themselves have started terrorising the villagers with extortion and threats. They are forcing villagers to donate Rs 15,000 each to ensure peace and security. The villagers have asked for protection but the administration has ignored them.
Political activists, especially from the NC and UML have been targeted. Recently, UML member Sadik Kubija was beaten and handed over to the army accused of being a Maoist supporter. Ram Lakhan Harijan, another UML member, was labelled a Maoist leader and tortured.
Sick of threats from Maoist, vigilantes and security forces, ordinary civilians are taking matters into their own hands to defend themselves. In Belaspur, villagers captured some vigilante members and handed them over to the police.
The vigilantes themselves admit that their movement is getting out of hand. "We are trying to stop the violence but we can't control the former dacoits who have joined us," says 'Lorik', who leads a vigilante group in Nawalparasi.
In Kapilbastu, vigilantes beat 11 UML workers in Gugauli village as punishment for their parties' 12-point understanding with the Maoists, who then asked them to report to the army barracks. The vigilante group is led by teacher Rajkumar Chaudhary and joins army patrols. Said one resident who has fled to Butwal: "They come to our homes, take our money and threaten us."