Missing: Britain's New Year hostages around the globe

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The Independent Online
For some Britons there has been no feasting, and no relatives to celebrate or quarrel with. Steve Crawshaw reports on the invisible but not forgotten ones.

Perhaps the most famous Russian poem of the Second World War, by Konstantin Simonov, is called "Wait for Me".

Wait for me, and I'll return

Only wait very hard ...

Wait. For I'll return, defying

every death.

And let those who do not wait,

say that I was lucky.

They never will understand

that in the midst of death

You with your waiting saved


In more recent years, the poem has taken on a different emblematic force. It has been quoted for those who were taken hostage in Beirut - as relevant to them as it once was to those who had been sent to the front. A nightmare that is both personal and universal.

We have learnt to take for granted that the hostages in Beirut eventually returned. Books such as Brian Keenan's powerful account, An Evil Cradling - a blinding mixture of humour and horror - describe the reality that continued through the metaphorical and physical darkness. Seen from today's perspective, it seems obvious that Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Waite eventually came back, and took up almost-ordinary lives. At the time, it was anything but obvious.

With casual world-weariness, deep-throat official sources used to shake their heads, assuring journalists (for background use only; quotation not permitted) that nothing could be done. There was confident inside- track speculation about where various hostages were reckoned to have died. Jill Morrell's fight, which successfully raised the profile of the missing hostages, was against that complacent ignorance, as much as anything else.

It is a message that has not been lost. The relatives of Camilla Carr and Jon James, who were taken hostage in Chechnya in July, have relied on the lessons of Ms Morrell's campaign to raise the profile of the missing couple. One of the most important aims is that the two should be remembered. The couple went to Grozny to help with a children's charity there. They had bodyguards, but the latter were unable to protect them. Somewhere out there, the two are alive. But not much more is known than that. Rumours and counter-rumours swirl back and forth. There have been unconfirmed ransom demands - and beyond that, silence.

Michael Penrose, an aid worker who last year was held for several weeks in Chechnya, noted at a service for Camilla Carr and Jon James this month that it is sometimes as difficult for those who wait as for those in captivity. As Brian Keenan noted after his own release, "The words `They also serve who only stand and wait' was never more true."

In Cambodia, British mine-clearance expert Christopher Howes was abducted by the Khmer Rouge two years ago. His parents recently placed advertisements in the Cambodian press appealing for information, but without success. There have been reports of Mr Howes' death, but always unconfirmed; equally unverifiable reports suggest he was still alive in May.

Most difficult of all for the relatives are the cases where death comes to seem increasingly inevitable, but is still not confirmed. Two Britons, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells, were among a group of Westerners seized by extremists in Kashmir two years ago. Most reports now say that the two are dead; some of the relatives themselves have more or less accepted it. But there is no confirmation of their fate - no verifiable account of how or where they may have died.

A decomposed body which was dug up in September was initially believed to be that of Mr Wells, but this proved to be a false alarm. Given the experience of the Beirut hostages, it is still conceivable that they are alive. Nor can the families mourn, until they have convincing proof of what has happened to the two men.

The handful of Britons who have been seized are outnumbered many times over by other nationalities who have been taken hostage worldwide. For the families of the hostages, there will only be one way to make a happy new year.

Zamboanga (AP) - Muslim bandits reputedly linked to a rebel group freed a kidnapped German executive yesterday after 108 days of captivity in the southern Philippines. The abductors are believed to be renegade members of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the biggest Muslim rebel group still fighting the government.

Robert Buehs, 50, a cannery executive from Rhede, Germany, was turned over to negotiators before dawn by four of his abductors after a ransom was paid. Neither the amount of the ransom, nor who paid it, were disclosed. However, a member of the negotiating team said on that the abductors were paid some 6 million pesos (pounds 92,000), representing "board and lodging" for Mr Buehs while in captivity.

Mr Buehs was handed over to his father-in-law, the chief of the local branch of the National Bureau of Investigation. He was not available for comment.

The abductors brought Mr Buehs by boat from a nearby island to a coastal bridge west of Zamboanga, and fled after completing the transfer, police said.