A trek too far

With their rucksacks on their backs they set off to conquer the trails of Kashmir, land of glistening lakes and shimmering mountains. But they find themselves in another country, torn by vicious civil conflict, where intrepid travellers may indeed make a journey they never dreamt of. Tim McGirk reports A trek too far
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Even before the latest kidnapping of five Westerners, the Kashmiris had a bad reputation among tourists, going back centuries and undeserved. One British travel writer, in the 1920s, sneered at the Kashmiri for being "as treacherous as the Pathan without his valour, more false than the Bengali, but equally intelligent; cringing when in subjection, they are impudent when free". In the worst traditions of the British Raj, he suggests that tourists arm themselves with a "large and powerful water pistol" to drive away annoying Kashmiri peddlers.

Squirting a water pistol today at a Kashmiri from the window of your holiday houseboat on Dal lake could provoke any one of a number of interesting - and lethal - responses. The Kashmiri is no longer so cringing. To date, the Indian army has captured over 1,700 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 150 rocket-launchers, 1,000 anti-personnel mines, and innumerable grenades. That is only a fraction of the firepower still in the hands of separatist rebels who are in revolt against Indian rule in Kashmir. And of course, there's always the option of kidnapping.

Two Britons, an American, a German, and a Norwegian, all tourists, were captured in early July by rebels while trekking leisurely through Pahalgam, a steep mountain valley with forests of fir and birch cut through by waterfalls. Paradise.

At gunpoint, the hostages were forced to march day and night along precipices of loose shale and dizzying 16,000 foot mountain passes, according to John Childs, an American engineer who managed to slip away on the fourth evening of his captivity while his captors slept. At that altitude lightning storms menace as do blizzards. Temperatures at night drop to freezing. The kidnappers spoke no English, Childs explained, so it was impossible for the captives to communicate whether they were ill or suffering from high altitude sickness. The Himalayan terrain is formidable enough to make even an experienced alpinist tremble.

Worse still, if the government refuses to comply with the demands of kidnappers - in this case that 21 jailed militant leaders be released - there is a danger that their captives will be picked off one by one and executed. Or that they will be caught in crossfire if the army attempt a rescue.

How was it that the two Britons - Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, and Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham - and their fellow prisoners came to be seized on a faraway Himalayan mountain by Islamic rebels who call themselves the "Al-Faran" group, after a tribe of mountain warriors in Arabia? They are not spies or heroes; Britain was jostled out of the Great Game in Asia nearly half a century ago. They are simple travellers: Mr Mangan an electrician who sold his business so that he could spend a year travelling the world with Julie, his wife; Mr Wells a young photography student.

Despite warnings from the Foreign Office not to visit Kashmir, its legendary beauty continues to draw British travellers - at their peril. Kashmir has moved poets and saints to ecstasy, and iron-hearted conquerors like the Moghul, Akbar, to poetry. A valley over 120 miles long, bejewelled with lakes and surrounded on all sides by the ranges of the Himalayas and the Pir Panjals, Kashmir today is fiercely contested by enemies India and Pakistan. Twice India and Pakistan have fought wars and may do so again over Kashmir. It is a nightmarish prospect; both India and Pakistan are suspected of having built up nuclear arsenals.

The Western hostages are chess pieces in a byzantine struggle that dates back to 1947 when the Crown partitioned its empire into two independent nations: secular India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. Although Kashmir has a Muslim majority, its ruler then was a despised and selfish Hindu Maharajah who joined India hurriedly when Muslim invaders from Pakistan stormed the valley. Pakistan still occupies a large swathe of his old kingdom, which Islamabad refers to proudly as "Free Kashmir" and New Delhi, rather sullenly, as "Pakistan-occupied Kashmir".

Within the Indian-held part, authorities vacillated between pampering the Kashmiris and abusing them as sullen traitors who cheered for Pakistan against India in cricket matches. Many Indians distrust the Kashmiris. Perhaps they envy Kashmiris for living in such a splendid place. Most likely, it is because no Indian tourist, even the shrewdest, who enters this Himalayan valley escapes a fleecing by the Kashmiris.

Protest against India began simmering in the mid-1980s. Led by Muslim organisations the cries for freedom, Azadi! echoed through the Himalayan valley. It was a favourite joke of children to tie a sign around the neck of a stray dog saying "Indian dogs go home". Some Kashmiris pointedly kept their watches 30 minutes behind, on Pakistani time. Muslim militants shut down bars and discos, and soon even the Hindi film-makers were too scared to set their love scenes among the willows of Srinagar's Dal lake.

Kashmiri Muslim militants grabbed weapons in 1990 after the state's autocratic governor, Jagmohan, over-reacted to a peaceful demonstration. Hundreds died and thousands of enraged Kashmiri youths joined the militant groups. It has become a full-scale revolt, with a nasty, Hindu versus Muslim side. The majority

of the valley's 90,000 Hindus have fled.

For over six years now, the well-armed Muslim rebels have managed to pin down over 500,000 Indian security forces in the valley. Only a few Kashmiris sided with the militants in the beginning, but now, after the many atrocities carried out by the troops, nearly all Kashmiri Muslims are against India. More than 20,000 Kashmiris have died so far in the revolt. It is no longer such a pretty place.

Today, the rebels are split, often violently, into those who favour independence and those who want to become Pakistanis. The Indian army claims that the pro-Pakistani gangs are little better than "mercenaries" recruited and armed by Pakistani intelligence to fight a proxy war against India.

The Al-Faran kidnappers, according to police, are pro-Pakistani and have Afghan and Pakistani fighters among their ranks.

In Srinagar, one senior police officer said, "We're certain this is the same group that abducted two Britons last year in exactly the same place. They've changed their name to throw us off, that's all." A teenager, Kim Housego, and a London video designer, David Mackie, were taken hostage in June last year by a militant organisation called Harakat-ul-Ansar not far from Pahalgam where the five Westerners this year were seized. "We were never able to catch the Harakat-ul-Ansar, and Pahalgam is their territory," said the police inspector. The rebels freed the two Britons unconditionally after 17 days and gave them a wall clock and a papier mache serving platter as farewell souvenirs. "I almost felt sorry for them," recalls Mackie. "Most of the time, the kidnappers were ill with stomach troubles and in worse shape than we were."

The first kidnapping of the two Britons was characterised by a sloppy amateurishness. Police were convinced that the Harakat-ul-Ansar gang probably intended only to rob food and warm clothing from the campers and then, as an afterthought, grabbed the two British hikers. "One of the kidnappers was younger than I was. He'd joke around and let me hold his AK-47," says Kim, 16 at the time he was seized. Kim's father, David Housego, had been South Asia correspondent for The Financial Times and was able to tap his many contacts among the Kashmiri secessionists and the Pakistani government to eventually secure the release of his son and Mr Mackie. Mr Housego was even able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with his son's abductors. The father's frequent and emotional pleas evoked a flood of sympathy among Kashmiris, and soon the captors found themselves isolated and stung by criticism from other militant organisations. At one point, Housego and Mackie's wife, Kathy, returned to Pahalgam and pleaded at the local mosque with Kashmiris to help them contact the militants. This apparently shamed the militants into agreeing to see Mr Housego.

This time however, British and American diplomats initially discouraged Mr Mangan's wife, Julie, and Mr Wells' girlfriend, Catherine Moseley, from launching appeals through the press or even making themselves available for messages from the militants. The two women were kept in a Srinagar state guest house protected by armed guards.

After the release of the two Britons last year, four months past before Harakat-ul-Ansar struck again - this time in New Delhi. Three British and American backpackers who were eating at cheap restaurants near New Delhi's rail station at different times last October were approached by a smart young man with a British accent whom they assumed to be Indian. His ploy never varied: he offered to show them village life in India, and the tourists happily agreed. While driving out of Delhi, their flashy host (a British passport holder named Ahmed Sheikh who was a former maths student at the London School of Economics) turned a pistol on them and took them to a farmhouse where they were chained to the floor. If the Harakat-ul-Ansar had got too much unwanted publicity with Kim Housego and David Mackie, this time they got none at all. The victims picked by the LSE man were all solitary travellers who went unmissed by their families or friends. Backpackers tend to drop out of sight in India, on remote southern beaches or in ashrams, for months at a time.

It was only through luck that Harakat-ul-Ansar's second batch of hostages were saved. One of the abductors, standing as lookout on the roof of a house where one of the captives was being held, panicked when he saw policemen creeping towards him. He bolted, and the police, who were busy stalking a burglar, became curious and gave chase to him instead. To their astonishment, when police broke into the house, they found a foreigner chained up like a dog. Intelligence officers up in Srinagar were stunned by the news of this Delhi abduction. Harakat-ul-Ansar was thought to be just a bunch of ragged mountain men capable of ambushing tourists, but little else.

That kidnap attempt proved that Harakat-ul-Ansar (who adopted the nom de guerre of Al-Hadad, the blade, for this operation) had a clear political agenda, sophistication and plenty of resources: the gang had spent months setting up the trap, buying cars, renting houses and establishing fake identities. A home ministry secretary, K Padmanabhaiah said, "It looks as though this abduction was the handiwork of ISI, Pakistani intelligence." Many of the Kashmiri rebels that Harakat-ul-Ansar wanted released in exchange for their foreign captives were the same ones that were to appear on Al- Faran's list.

Pakistan has always denied that it gives arms and training to the Kashmiris, but India accuses the Pakistani army of channelling materiel left over from the Afghan war into Kashmir through covert operations. This is carried out, according to India, through Muslim fundamentalist groups who also recruit mujahedin - Islamic warriors - left unemployed when the Russian pulled out of Afghanistan and the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul eventually collapsed.

Few of the Western travellers who set out for Kashmir have any idea that they are straying into a war zone until they land in the middle of it. "Nobody told us Kashmir was a dangerous place," Julie Mangan complained after the kidnapping. In Delhi, the Jammu-Kashmir tourism office brushes aside any mention of trouble, neglecting to warn that nearly every street in Srinagar has a sand-bagged security bunker where jittery soldiers train their assault rifles on every passer by, or that tourists not only have been kidnapped, but also raped and, in the instance of one Israeli, shot dead.

Several months ago, I spoke to a young Kashmiri baker who was picked up by the Border Security Force and claims he was taken to an infamous interrogation centre called Papa-2 amid the orchards on the maharajah's old estate. "I was beaten and given two choices: either I informed on the militants or they killed me. When I said I was just a baker and didn't know any militants, they put a gun to my head."

Soon, the baker was taken out for an ID-parade, in which the security forces herd out all the men and boys in a neighbourhood and make them stand in a line. "They put a hood over my head and drove me in a jeep by the long line of men. I was supposed to pick out the militants. There were times I pointed out men I didn't know and said they belonged to the militants. I did it to save myself, even though I knew that these people - some were just boys - were probably taken off and tortured or killed."

Given this climate of fear, if a Srinagar tout offers a tourist the chance to go trekking in the mountains and escape the repressive gloom of the valley, the tourist will understandably jump at it. The Mangans, Mr Wells and his girlfriend were all persuaded by their Holiday Inn houseboat owner, Ghulam Nabih, that a trip to Pahalgam would be safe and fun. Guides had been escorting Western trekkers up to the 12,000 foot Kolahoi glacier for several weeks without trouble from the rebels.

What seems to have goaded the militants into grabbing a few hostages was a well-publicised visit to Kashmir the week before by America's outspoken ambassador in Delhi, Frank Wisner. Not only did Mr Wisner go fly-fishing in a river tauntingly close to the militants, but his statements after the trip angered many Kashmiris who were hoping, irrationally, that the US would arm-twist India into granting them autonomy.

Instead, Mr Wisner claimed that Kashmiris were tired of the militancy and that the prime minister, Narasimha Rao should be encouraged in his plans to hold state elections. The kidnappers pointedly told Julie Mangan, who was along on the trek when her husband was seized, to take their handwritten demand and give it personally to the US ambassador in New Delhi. The wives and girlfriends were released by the gunmen and they, along with their terrified guides, scrambled down from their campsite by the glacier and arrived at Pahalgam's police station the following day.

Harassed and frightened, the women and a sick Canadian who was also hiking near Pahalgam took refuge at the United Nations office in Srinagar and waited there for the arrival from Delhi of British and American diplomats. It appears that, early on, the diplomats advised the wives and friends to keep silent. The diplomats, who were having trouble even finding a working telephone in Srinagar, were equally reticent. Philip Barton, the young Briton dispatched to help, said stiffly, "I'm sorry. If you have any questions get in touch with the Foreign Office in London." Kashmiri journalists, many of whom are in touch with the underground rebel groups, were dismissed brusquely by the officials.

Mr Barton, 31, a political officer who joined the Foreign Office in 1986 and had one previous posting, in Venezuela, before arriving in Delhi, only had the opportunity to visit Kashmir a few times before the crisis. His contacts there were with Indian authorities and mainstream Kashmiri figures, obviously not with the masked militants holding AK-47s, for to do so would endanger Britain's ties with India. Mr Barton and his US counterpart, Tim Buchs, new to India and the Kashmir conflict, persuaded some prominent Kashmiris to condemn the abduction as un-Islamic, but hopes faded when Al-Faran dismissed these Kashmiris as being too "pro-American". Some Kashmiris felt that the diplomats were relying too much on the Indian authorities to secure the hostages' freedom. Despite assurances to the diplomats that a "massive search" was underway, no such hunt was happening. When journalists drove up to Pahalgam and asked an army officer why no troops were in sight, the officer in charge of the search, Lieutenant-General DD Saklani, solemnly replied, "That's because my men are invisible."

The soldiers must have been invisible to the rebels, too. Miffed that one of their American hostages had got away, the Al-Faran gang swooped down to the Pahalgam valley on 8 July and grabbed the German and Norwegian to raise the ante.

By the end of the first week, even after the captors threatened to execute the Westerners by 15 July if their demands were not met, neither the diplomats nor their Indian go-betweens had succeeded in opening direct lines of communication with the Al-Faran gang. With only two days to go before the rebels threatened to start killing their captives, the frantic wives and friends in Srinagar broke their silence and made a tearful public appeal for their release. "This is very hard for me, but I just wanted to say how worried I am about Paul and the other hostages, " said, Ms Moseley, a shy art student. "We have no quarrel with the people of Kashmir or Islam."

Only John Childs, the American who escaped from Al-Faran while the gunmen slept, knows what the others hostages have gone through. "I thought they would kill us," said Mr Childs, a thin, soft-voiced man in his forties, divorced with two small daughters. Four days after his escape, he was plucked from a Himalayan ridge by an Indian air force helicopter.

"In normal circumstances," he reflected, " we take our freedom for granted. When the kidnappers didn't let us wash ourselves during those five days, suddenly

I realised what freedom is all about."