Who took me hostage?

Kim Housego was 16 when Islamic militants kidnapped him in Kashmir in 1994. He survived unscathed and his life returned to normal, but the brutal killing a year later of a Norwegian kidnap victim forced him to face difficult questions. Were the same people responsible? What were their motives? And could other hostages still be alive? There was only one way to find out ...

Kim Housego
Tuesday 04 February 1997 01:02

The news reached me suddenly, while on holiday in an isolated village in southern France. It was a dazzlingly beautiful morning in August 1995. One of five hostages who had been kidnapped in the north Indian state of Kashmir, Hans Christian Ostro , a Norwegian, had been killed. His severed head was found lying next to his body, his hands and feet bound, and the signature, Al-Faran, engraved on his chest. I was stunned. I felt sick and frightened at the brutality of the murder. I was left haunted by a single, overwhelming thought: could this have happened to me?

A year before, I had also been kidnapped by Islamic militants while trekking in Kashmir. But they had held me and another Briton, David Mackie, only for 17 days. Ostro and four other hostages had been held for two months when he was murdered. In both cases the militants were demanding the release of the same commanders held in Indian prisons.

My kidnapping had not left me scarred and school life was returning to normal. However, from the moment I heard that Ostro and the others had been abducted, that all changed. I was in the news again. Phones rang, journalists asking for comments and interviews: How were you treated? What do you think the current hostages are facing? I was subjected to long and detailed debriefings by various intelligence and security agencies, as well as having to look at photos and sketches of militants, both dead and alive, in an attempt to identify them. I searched hidden corners of my memory for the slightest detail. There were also painful conversations with relatives of the two English and one American who had been taken hostage with Ostro - Keith Mangam, Paul Wells and Donald Hutchings.

The longer this continued, the more I found myself wrenched back into the violent world of hostages, terrorism and guerrilla warfare in which I had accidentally been caught up. Now, a year after my ordeal was over, I would pick up a newspaper in the school library and headlines such as "Militants threaten to kill hostages in Kashmir" would again and again raise the same questions in my mind: "Are these the same people?" The names, places and people that had been so significant in my kidnapping constantly jumped out of the pages of the paper, endlessly drawing my thoughts back to Kashmir and the Himalayas ...

"We are Islamic fundamentalists, you are our guests. Our guns are for the Indian army. With your help we want to release our supreme commanders from Indian prisons," said Rashid, a Pathan from the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands. His face was heavily bearded and badly pockmarked, still bearing the scars of the guerrilla warfare that had helped defeat the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

David Mackie, a 36-year-old video special effects director, and I had just been separated from his wife and my parents at gunpoint three days into our trek. It was a moonless black night and we could not properly see their faces. I felt frozen - shivering, half from cold and half from fear, on the verge of breaking down. We began to walk, crossing several mountain streams, further into the fastness of the mountains.

I remember waking up in a crumbling, uninhabited shepherd's hut high above the snowline, as dawn was breaking. We were lying right in front of the militants who were standing in rows, preparing for their first prayers of the day. The dying embers of the fire created powerful silhouettes across the room of the men with their dark, wild hair and long beards. Swathed in blankets and shawls, wearing Mujahedin woollen hats, their Kalashnikovs were placed on the ground before them on which they would rest their foreheads while prostrating. The soft murmur of their prayers, Allahu Akbar, dedicated to the glory of God and of their Jihad (Holy War), ran through the smoky room. As I looked at this terrifying yet amazing scene, I did not dare open my eyes more than a squint for fear of angering them. Half asleep, I was momentarily convinced we were about to be killed.

We were kept on the move almost constantly for 14 days, walking deeper and deeper into the mountains. On one occasion we reached a road, close to where we had first been abducted. Dusk was falling and it began to pour with rain. Suddenly, the militants stopped and began to pray. They were nervous at being on a road to which the army had easy access. An old decaying taxi arrived. They first argued over who should get in and then over the fare, like a group of misguided tourists. Some crammed in with us into the vehicle, while others got in the boot. The car refused to go up the hill. More debate over how to make room, before they finally decided to put their guns in the boot. No sooner had we started, we had a puncture. It was raining still; we were soaked to the skin. They would sometimes stop and demand that David take pictures of them posing in mock- battle, their guns raised high, a battle cry on their lips, and occasionally with me forcibly rigged up with gun and bandoleer as the centrepiece. This was to demonstrate that I was one of them and also their trophy. (David later exposed the film.)

It was the fanaticism of my kidnappers that scared me. Waheed, a university- educated mercenary, would tell us, "I have left my family in the hands of God, and I have no fear of death for Allah will protect me. When we have won in Kashmir I will go to Bosnia." He would boast about how many soldiers, Russian and Indian, he had killed. They became angry when we once shaved: "Why you shave, your Prophet had a beard." There were also a number of local Kashmiris in the group, younger, less professional and poorly equipped. The youngest, nicknamed "commando", was only 16, the same age as I was at the time.

My abductors, I later found out, were members of the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HUA), the Movement of the Supporters of the Prophet, a militant Islamist group fighting to unite Kashmir with Pakistan. Not the largest group operating in the Kashmir valley, it is nevertheless reputed for its ruthlessness - and also its resources, drawn from businessmen in Pakistan and the Middle East. It was originally founded in Faisalabad in central Pakistan in the early 1980s to help Afghan Mujahedin fight the Russians. Its leadership, by no means clearly defined, is based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and consists of a "Supreme Body" of 11 people, currently headed by Quari Saiffullah Akhtar. It is claimed that the HUA receives direct support in weapons and training from the Pakistan army's Inter-Service-Intelligence (ISI), which wields significant influence over the group. However, the ISI denies any connection.

I had learnt through debriefings and my own research that Al-Faran, responsible for the latest kidnapping and death of Ostro , was Harkat-ul-Ansar operating under another name - a cover used to avoid publicity and isolation even as they pursued their goal of obtaining the release of their commanders held in Indian prisons. I had also learnt from two separate intelligence agencies that the current hostages had followed the same route as us. The route follows a trail down the Warvan valley, in central Kashmir. They were also held for two months in the same forest rest house on the edge of a village called Sukhnoi where we had been kept for three days - strong evidence that at least some of the same militants were involved in both actions.

It seemed that the killing of Ostro had opened a new chapter in the group's handling of Western hostages. I wondered what could have led to such a dramatic change. The year before they presented us with souvenirs on our release. Now they had shown a very different face.

Unanswered questions pushed me to chase some leads. These were inevitably to take me back to Kashmir. Some people warned me against returning. There was no guarantee I could get nearer the truth. All I had to go on were various clues, and the hope that those I met would be more willing to open up to me than they would be to others.

An independent Indian television channel, TVI, had proposed a documentary and I arrived in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, with a television crew in November 1996, at the onset of winter. Elections had just taken place; there was a lull in the fighting. However, the presence of security forces of more than half a million gave Srinagar the look of a fortress. Bunkers and shells of burnt-out buildings at every other corner testified to the strength of militancy. True, the streets were more crowded during the day than two years ago but after sundown an ominous silence blanketed the deserted streets. Gunshots could often be heard in the distance.

I felt a mixture of apprehension, excitement and curiosity. The state authorities had been informed of our visit. We had been assigned a bullet- proof car and an escort - a security measure that proved a mixed blessing as it attracted unnecessary attention and made us a target for attack. My first priority was to get to Anantnag, the main town in south Kashmir, and one of the strongholds of the Harkat-ul-Ansar.

It was in Anantnag that David Mackie and I had been released on June 23, 1994. Two days before, large crowds had taken to the streets angrily protesting at the murder of Dr Quazi Nissar, the religious leader of south Kashmir. He had been a key figure in the negotiations over our release. David and I did not know it at the time, but he had put himself at risk as a secret intermediary between the HUA and my father. As a moderate political leader, he felt obliged to intervene. Three days later he was murdered. In retrospect, his killing probably did not result from negotiating our release. But the possibility still haunts me.

On the night before our release, we had been held in a small, decrepit room in the backstreets of Anantnag. Heavy curtains were drawn across the window. Around midnight I was called in alone to another room where two senior HUA commanders sat on the floor. Their faces were fully masked and their revolvers lay beside them. It was the first time that our captors had hidden their faces. The interrogator had fiery green eyes and spoke fluent English. He asked for my name and address, and then:

"What kind of books do you read? Spy stories? Is it not possible that the Indian army would be training foreigners to come and spy on us?"

I replied that I did not read spy stories and that I did not know.

"Why do you believe that you were kidnapped? Did they steal from you?"

I replied, "We were told that they wanted us to help in releasing their commanders. They took some of our clothes and watches at the beginning but these were later returned to us." My voice was trembling badly. I tried to avoid saying anything that could be used against me. But my interrogator was relentless.

"Under our law, if a member of our group is found guilty of stealing he will have his right hand cut off. We need to hold you for a while longer so that we can have an internal investigation. You were never kidnapped, you are being detained because you are suspected of spying. How does your country deal with spies? Anyway, do you really believe you are more valuable than our commanders."

It lasted two hours. Then David went in and was questioned for another couple of hours. Without David, his strength and level-headedness, I would certainly not have survived unscathed. The next morning when they bought us new clothes, David jokingly remarked, "Why would they buy us new clothes if they are going to shoot us"?

The interrogation was part of a carefully planned manoeuvre - a face- saving device - that prepared the way for our release. The HUA sought to condemn us in the public's eyes as spies. They also wished to portray the stealing of our property as a misunderstanding over which they were now instituting an internal investigation.

The following morning, as part of their manoeuvre, they organised a press conference in an abandoned factory, the success of which would determine our release. The HUA told us to deny that we had been kidnapped. We were also told to express sympathy for the group. It was a dangerous and tense moment. Anything we said that offended the HUA could give them cause to hold us longer. The plan worked. We told the press what the HUA wanted to hear - much of it lies. They freed us and gave us souvenirs - including a clock which compared the Indian forces to the Nazis. The inscription on the timepiece read : "Teacher - Hitler; Pupils - Indian Occupational Forces; with Best Wishes to Kim Housego from Harkat-ul-Ansar International.

My first meeting on returning to Anantnag last November was with Mohammed Amin Shah, the former Superintendent of Police, who had been an important player in negotiations for my release. He believed that our kidnapping was spontaneous, not a premeditated act on the orders of the HUA's high command in Pakistan. But HUA on this occasion was completely unprepared for the backlash - in particular, widespread public condemnation abetted by the press campaign launched by my father. This isolated the group from its allies in Pakistan, as well as other militant groups, and lost them sympathy among Kashmiris. It also increased pressure on Indian and Western governments to push for a release. By contrast, relatives of the four hostages still held in Kashmir did not seek wide press coverage for their cause until a year after the kidnapping.

Back in the dark, cold and dusty control room of Anantnag police headquarters, preparations were being made to escort us to Pahalgam town, a three-hour walk from the village of Aru where our kidnapping had occurred. The situation turned comic when it emerged that the officer on duty was baffled as to who I was. Why was I so young? If I was a journalist why did I need such heavily armed security? Some were convinced I was a British secret envoy. To add to the confusion my name had been left at the control room as "Kim Hostage".

The road was in a terrible condition; it was now winter and unrecognisable as the road we had taken two years ago. The security escort left me feeling embarrassed, and nervous that the convoy might be attacked. Not for the first time, I found myself asking, what the hell am I doing here?

Pahalgam was a ghost town. Wooden planks were nailed over the doors of most homes, hotel signboards were broken and the streets were deserted. I was looking for the pony-men who had accompanied us on our fateful trek, or for anybody else who had been present at the time of the kidnapping. No one came forward.

On my return to Srinagar, I went to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). In contrast to my apparently unplanned seizure, the CID believed that the kidnapping of the current hostages was planned down to the last detail. They thought that some of those involved in my case are also involved in the current kidnapping. This included the HUA Anantnag district commander. He had recently accidentally killed himself when testing some explosives.

The CID believes that Ostro was killed because he had "created trouble and tried to escape several times". According to the testimony of villagers, in whose houses the militants had stayed, the kidnappers regularly argued with Ostro , who apparently refused to cooperate, unlike the other hostages. He had been separated two weeks before his death from the others by four militants, including their "hot-headed" chief, Abdul Hamid Turki, and later killed in a forest near Anantnag, far from where the others were being held. According to one Western intelligence agency, the killing was not premeditated. Those who carried it out were criticised by other members of the group for the brutal and "irresponsible act". The fact that there have been no other beheadings suggests that Ostro 's murder was an isolated event. According to the same agency, Pakistan angrily reprimanded Harkat.

What baffles the security forces in Srinagar is why Al-Faran would continue to hold the current hostages without pressing further demands. There have been no direct negotiations with Al-Faran since December 1995 and no proof that the hostages are still alive. Following rigorous interrogation, a captured senior HUA leader, Nassir Mehmood, claimed that they were killed on December 13, 1995, following a shoot-out in which Turki was "accidentally" killed by the security forces. Intelligence reports indicate that the shooting occurred close to where the hostages were being held.

The loss of Turki, at a time when the Al-Faran was still holding the hostages, might have led them to review their position. They could have decided to get rid of the others. It was at this time that Al-Faran issued an unexpected statement claiming that the Indian army was now holding the hostages - a possible smokescreen for their deaths.

The forest where Nassir claims they were killed has since been searched with back-up from the SAS and Germany's GSG-9. Nothing was found. Until their bodies are recovered there must always be a chance that they could be alive. In support of this, the Indian Intelligence Bureau told me that if they had been killed, the bureau would have had some confirmation - possibly through their intelligence sources in Pakistan. But the truth is that nobody knows for certain.

Local Kashmiris on the streets all seem to condemn the kidnappings but many charge India with masterminding the abduction. I do not believe them. However, the belief that the Indian security forces are behind the kidnapping may explain why Kashmiris themselves have come forward with little information. Other political leaders in Kashmir told me they believe that India has deliberately prolonged the crisis as it has succeeded in tarnishing the cause of Kashmiri autonomy.

The governments of the United States, Britain and Germany have all put enormous effort and money - spending several million pounds each - into trying to secure the release of the hostages still held in Kashmir. As time has gone on, however, differences in strategy have emerged. They have been attacked by both relatives and the press for the lack of any breakthrough. The US, in particular, has been criticised for its failure to pressurise Pakistan, which provides a base for all militant groups operating in the valley, in the early days of the kidnapping. But such pressure could jeopardise its arms sales with the country, and block the flow of information on Islamic terrorism and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

What I have learnt from all this? That all the parties to the hostage drama - militant groups, governments, embassies - have their own objectives and priorities. Sometimes these tie in with the release of the hostages and sometimes they do not. The wider political issues at stake, such as curbing international terrorism or strengthening US-Pakistan relations, overshadow the governments' preoccupation with the life of any one hostage. As my father says: "In the end it's only the relatives who really care about the lives of those held."

I found it difficult - and still do - to cope with the way organisations which seemingly have the hostages' welfare at heart used me for their own political lobbying. I was searching for information about what had happened to me and what was happening to the other hostages. My questions were rapidly seized on as ammunition for one cause or another in the swirl of endless conflicts that cloud the situation in Kashmir.

On the day of my departure, it began to snow heavily. Within an hour a thick white blanket had covered the ground. Inevitably our flight home was postponed indefinitely and for a second time I found myself detained in Kashmir.

After three days it stopped snowing and the mist lifted slightly. There had been a powerful bomb explosion outside the police headquarters in Srinagar. As we were about to board the aircraft, a group of police rushed in carrying a stretcher with one of the wounded who was suffering from deep splinter injuries and was bleeding heavily. There was a scuffle as the passengers began to crowd around him. The doctor had not yet arrived. He was laid down in the aisle of the civilian plane, close to where I was sitting. Like Ostro 's death, the scene was a brutal reminder of the tragedy and violence that grips the Vale of Kashmir

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