Hopes fade for lost hostages of Kashmir

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The Independent Online
FROM CLIPPINGS already turning yellow, their faces stare out at us with the special intensity of those who are mortally afraid: Keith Mangan, the Middlesbrough electrician, straight as a ramrod, his wiry hair brushed up and back; Paul Wells, the photography student, hungry cheekbones, eyes wide and deep-set; the German Dirk Hasert, with cropped hair and stubbly beard; the American Don Hutchings, inseparable from his woolly hat, his eyes lost in the distance.

These are the hostages of Kashmir. Unlike those of Chechnya, whose remains were found this week, nothing has been seen or heard of these four men for three years. We believe they are dead but there is no certainty about it.

It is hard to imagine anything worse than what the relatives of the British hostages murdered in Chechnya have gone through. But if they were to compare their own ghastly certainty with the tormenting doubts of the families of the Kashmir hostages, they might conclude that their own lot was the less terrible. The page, after all, can be turned. A new start can be made.

Julie Mangan, Bob Wells, Jane Schelly and Birgit Hasert, on the other hand, remain in dreadful suspense, which shows no sign of ending. Last month, for the the first time, a senior Indian official said the Kashmir hostages so far unaccounted for are probably dead. Yet no bodies have been found.

The various explanations of how and why they died have failed to produce any proof. The mysterious Kashmiri separatist group, Al Faran, which supposedly captured them, has melted away, leaving no trace. Two substantial rewards have been offered for useful information (and this is an impoverished region); no one has come forward.

In July 1995, Keith, Paul and Don and a second American called John Childes set off from the houseboat where they were staying in the beautiful valley of Kashmir - "the smiling, peaceful Thames valley," as Sir Francis Younghusband put it, "with a girdle of snowy mountains" - to trek to a valley called Pahalgam. Keith had sold his business to take a year off, travelling with Julie, his wife; 23-year-old Paul was travelling with his girlfriend.

Kashmir was still gripped by the insurgency of Islamic separatists, as it had been for years. But other parties of foreigners had recently passed this way without trouble.

But on 4 July the four men were seized and abducted from their camp. A few days later, Mr Childes managed to escape: feigning stomach trouble, he disappeared behind some bushes. Subsequently Dirk Hasert and a Norwegian, Christian Ostroe, were taken prisoner. Three weeks later, Mr Ostroe was decapitated. His is the only body found.

In the early months of their captivity, there were sporadic sightings of the hostages, but the last reliable report was on 8 December 1995. It was in the same month, according to a story that surfaced in the Indian papers in mid-1996, that an Islamic guerrilla chief called Nazir Mohammed ordered the murder of the remaining hostages. He did so, he is alleged to have confessed after his capture, because his men had been fired on by Indian soldiers and the hostages were hampering their getaway. He went on to tell his interrogators of the general whereabouts of the hostages' bodies. But no remains were found.

In September 1997, acting on information, police exhumed a body said to be that of one of the hostages. Weeks later, forensic scientists made a positive denial of the reports.

Julie Managan and her comrades in grief have, meanwhile, continued to tramp around Delhi, Islamabad and Srinagar in search of clues; officials of the British High Commission and other national missions raise the matter when they can with the Kashmiri authorities. But the trail is now cold. No new evidence of any sort has surfaced this year. On 27 November E N Rammohan, the director-general of India's Border Security Force, told journalists in Delhi: "I think [the hostages] have been killed long time back ... At the same time, we have no conclusive evidence to prove they are dead."

The only certainty lies in the photographs of the Kashmir hostages, taken in the early days of their captivity. They have nothing to tell us about the hostages' fate but, as evidence of their mental torment, they are haunting.