Every night in the Siwaliks, villagers arm themselves with bamboo sticks, sickles, spades, spears and khukuris to fight gangs of armed robbers who operate with impunity. The police are too afraid to come here, the army considers the matter of low priority and it falls in the government's blind spot. The Maoists have done little more than punish the few looters captured by villagers.
"We have to depend on each other," says 70-year-old Chandra Lal Khadka in Tongra village, a two-hour walk from Hetauda. He sharpens his sword every morning in preparation for his night duty that ends at 3AM. With both sons working abroad, he is the only man in the house and considers it his duty to protect his family and property.
Khadka is part of a 100-strong volunteer group of men, women and children who banded together in April after Sananitar, Lamitar, Masiney, Mildara and Tongra were all raided. Two months ago in Masiney, a gang of looters not only robbed a household but also raped a teenage girl and two daughters-in-law of the same family. The case was never reported to the police for fear of social stigma against the victims. That night, the same gang attacked four other houses and left with Rs 400,000 in jewellery and cash-the entire life savings of the families.
Ram Krishna Gotame, a 69-year-old farmer, was among those robbed. With tears he recalls how the robbers burst into his house around midnight. They put a gun to his head, a khukuri to his neck and warned him not to call for help. All he had was Rs 300, so they took his gold wedding ring and his wife's earrings and necklace. Although Gotame attempted to file a First Information report (FIR) on 5 May, the police clerk refused to register the case. He was told that the villagers should have captured the gang as evidence and handed them over to the police. "We are victimised in every way. Who can we turn to?" asks Gotame.
The callous police reaction prompted the villagers to form their own patrol. Everyone volunteered. "I need to protect my village. I'm not afraid of these looters," says 14-year-old schoolboy, Amrit Gautam. Armed with a spear, he and his father watch over their village at night. It is dangerous work-several villagers have been injured severely after encounters with armed robbers.
It was the night of 2 May when Laxman Thapa, 23, heard shouts of alarm. Just as he left his bed with a heavy bamboo stick, the looters fired and the bullet hit him in the chest. The villagers couldn't take him to Hetauda that night because of the curfew. There was a strike the next day, so someone walked all the way to the town and managed to bring an ambulance back to Mildara. His courage has now inspired hundreds of villagers to band together to protect themselves.
There is a strong unity among the villagers, but there is one problem. The Maoists asked them to stop the night patrols, saying it was difficult to tell between robbers and villagers in the dark. They also warned that the villagers risk an 'encounter' if they come too close to Maoist areas. On 3 May, a patrol group that went to help a neighbouring village was attacked by rebels. "There was a total misunderstanding and miscommunication," says Rajendra Karki, who adds that fellow villagers will hold a meeting with local Maoists to reach an agreement about how to combat robbery.
While these incidents have increased in the Siwalik, the nightmare is nothing new in the tarai, the new crime central. There are armed robberies almost every night in the villages of Rautahat, Saptari, Morang, Itahari and Siraha districts. In the last two months, 150 houses were looted in Rautahat alone. The police have fled because of the Maoist insurgency and the people are preyed upon by robbers from across the border. Last month, several villages were not only looted but the robbers also raped, tortured and killed locals. On 25 May, a gang of 150 raided the village of Bardangi in Biratnagar. Those who protested were beaten severely and a young girl was killed. Earlier, on 17 May at Inarwa, a group of armed robbers attacked three houses where they mercilessly battered and raped two girls, one of them just eight years old. They then abducted 17-year-old Sita Sada, who hasn't been returned yet.
The looters reportedly take their time. They know the police will come later, mostly a full day after the incident is reported. The need for security has never been so strong, but the police have taken no effective action. "We won't be able to do the task alone, the security system should be reviewed soon," says Additional Inspector General Govinda Thapa. He adds that the police need new arms to fight both the Maoists and the armed robbers.
But as the city-based police and security forces concentrate on dealing with the Maoists, the threat from robbers grows every day in the terai villages. The only option left for the villagers is to build their own defences. Everyday, more families are joining the patrol teams. Debinagar in Butwal has about 2,500 members armed with swords, knives, sticks and khukuris. The villagers aren't waiting anymore for the police to fight crime for them. All they are asking now is the government give them combat training and provide ordinary guns. The government has not responded so far.