High terror in the Himalayas: Two families in Kashmir veer between hope and despair as rebels bargain with the lives of their loved ones

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The Independent Online
FROM the verandah of their houseboat, David and Jenny Housego watch the clouds descend over Kashmir's Dal lake and erase the towering Himalayan mountains, where their 16-year-old son is being hidden by armed Kashmiri rebels.

Dal lake is a picture of tranquillity. Blue kingfishers dart between the lotuses, and gondolas glide across the still, pearly water. But the Housegos' thoughts are up in that invisible range of mountains where their boy, Kim, is held hostage.

An armed band of Afghan zealots have taken him prisoner in their jihad against India's occupation of Kashmir. Another Briton, David Mackie, 36, from London, is also being held by the gunmen.

A former journalist who covered the Afghan mujaheddin's war against Soviet occupation, Mr Housego has seen the guerrillas' edgy brutality at first-hand - and their fanaticism. He also reported on the four-year uprising in Kashmir between Muslim militants and Indian security forces, which caused thousands of deaths, disappearances and allegations of torture; and, above all, on its potential to spark yet another war between India and Pakistan.

'But I never for a moment imagined my son would be caught up in this,' Mr Housego said. A bright, handsome boy with blond hair, Kim is gregarious and prone to mischief, his father says.

Mr and Mrs Housego, and Cathy Mackie, wife of the other British hostage, take turns dashing up from the houseboat through the rose garden to the office when the telephone rings. Rarely is it news of how the captives are faring and when - or if - they will be freed.

'We know they've been moved, and they're supposed to be in good shape,' Mr Housego said. He is quiet-spoken and outwardly calm, trying to push his anxiety aside by relying on his reporter's instincts, ringing his old contacts in the Indian government and among Kashmiri militants, examining each agonising turn of events as clinically as possible, as if it were somebody else's child, not his own, being held hostage in the mountains. It is an impossible self-deception.

The Housego family had left their New Delhi home to escape a punishing heatwave, after being assured by Indian tourist officials that the Pahalgam corner of Kashmir, with its glaciers, ice caves and cedar forests, was safe.

They set off with a guide, a cook and several ponies. Kim strode ahead in his bush hat. On Monday they were ambushed by Afghans and Pakistani tribesmen carrying Kalashnikovs. The rebels had been sweeping up the Aroo valley, systematically robbing foreign hikers of their money, warm clothes and sleeping-bags.

At gunpoint, the Housego family were robbed and forced back to a nearby village, where they met the other captives, David and Cathy Mackie. 'The kidnappers had long beards - ZZ Top stuff,' said Cathy Mackie. After breaking into the Mackies' tiny room at the Milky Way hotel in Aroo, said Mrs Mackie, 'two of them came back, giggling nervously. One of them backed Dave into a corner, and the other grabbed me by my hair. I thought he wanted to rape me. But when I jerked back, they let me alone.'

That night Kim and Mr Mackie were led off by the kidnappers. Indian police believe that even though Mr Mackie was injured in the knee, the two hostages were forced to march at rapid pace over an icy mountain pass to the Tral valley to elude pursuers. The last time this outfit, Harakat-a-Ansar, took a hostage, he was killed during the Indian army's rescue attempt, so authorities have ordered troops not to corner the armed kidnappers.

Over the past few days, the Muslim extremist organisation has issued conflicting communiques, which have left the emotions of the Housegos and Mrs Mackie doing somersaults. One communique promised their swift and unconditional release, while another has demanded the exchange by Indian authorities of three jailed rebel commanders. The kidnappers have claimed that the two Britons are 'honoured guests', and are being treated well.

Blood feuds run among the 40-odd Kashmiri insurgent outfits. But, for once, all Kashmiri groups have buried their hostilities and united to plead for the release of the schoolboy and Mr Mackie, a London video director. Pakistan, too, which wields influence with the Kashmiri rebels, has condemned the abductions.

As the Housegos and Mrs Mackie pace about the Edwardian houseboat, their emotions are being stretched to the limit. 'It seems like we're told every day that they'll be released in one or two days,' Mrs Housego said. 'Let's just hope that one of these days, soon, these predictions will come true.'

(Photographs omitted)