Barack Obama has pledged to "finish the job" and bring an end to combat in Afghanistan on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. But the authors of this book – a veteran investigative reporting duo – suggest that the job is unfinished on the part of the rebels who started a mission of international terror from one corner of the Kashmir hills 17 years ago. Bin Laden may be buried deep beneath the sea, but Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark point out that Masood Azhar, the Pakistani mujahedin leader around whom the central events of this book revolve, is still out there, preaching on YouTube.
The Meadow focuses on one defining moment: when Kashmiri militants took five Western hostages and attempted to use them as bargaining chips for securing the release of Pakistani prisoners – including Azhar – from the Indian authorities in their battle for Kashmir. The authors argue that these militants sowed the seeds of modern terror.
The book features parallel stories: Azhar's conversion to militancy, and the lives of the backpackers who, in July 1995, trekked to the Himalayan spot called the "meadow" where they were taken. One hostage (Hans Christian Ostro) was beheaded. Four are missing to this day.
We are given the back-story of each hostage and a blow-by-blow account of the kidnap. Every mindset is explored, from the Indian negotiators to the rebels. One American prisoner escaped, and from him we get the sense that the authorities just wanted him to "shut up". A resolution never came for the hostages, though a prison release for Azhar was secured when an Indian airplane was hijacked. A question-mark hangs over why the hostages were let down, and by whom.
It is a gripping human story. The in-depth research and journalistic colour mean that even Azhar becomes larger than life. If the story could have been as powerful in shorter form, or might have offered a broader analysis of the region and of terrorism to justify its length, this is to quibble. The Meadow is as long as it is fascinating, minutely re-enacting a horrifying moment that was to send out ripples for decades to come.