Nightmare in Paradise Nightmare in Paradise

Article courtesy
Daily Mail, UK.

Daily Mail, Thursday 1 October 1998 [Edited].

When journalist Sean Langan set out to investigate the kidnapping of two Britons in Kashmir, it was the start of an odyssey in which he encountered some of the world’s most dangerous men before fate dealt a final extraordinary twist.

MORE than three years have passed since Britons Keith Mangan and Paul Wells were taken hostage by rebels in Kashmir, northern India. Almost nothing has been heard of them since and there have been conflicting rumours about their fate.......

Journalist SEAN LANGAN set out to discover the truth and last November he returned to Kashmir with Keith's and Paul's relatives. This is his remarkable story.

The last man in the world ... the man, incidentally, who may have decapitated one of the hostages as a warning to the West when  negotiations for their release broke down in August 1995.  

My new friends told me the man they wanted me to meet was part of the original group of 19 militants who abducted five tourists - two Americans, two Britons, a German and Norwegian - on or around July 4 1995. He is also believed to have played a part in their alleged killings five months later. The militants operated under the name Al-Faran but were in fact members of the Pakistan-based group Harkat-ul-Anser, an organisation responsible for countless kidnappings in the past. One of the Americans escaped a few days after his capture. The Norwegian, Hans Christian Ostro, was murdered sometime in August, but nothing has been heard or seen of the remaining hostages- the two Britons, Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, the American, Donald Hutchings, and the German, Dirk Hasert - since late 1995.

After a flurry of radio activity and confirmed sightings, the kidnappers ceased all communications on December 13, 1995, and Western intelligence sources believe they know why: 'That was the day we think they killed the four remaining hostages.' Nevertheless, until they turn up, dead or alive, no one can be really sure. Especially not their families, who cannot even begin the process of grieving until their nightmare of not knowing finally ends. And that’s where I come in...

It was a strange position to be in.  As far as I was concerned, my original trip to Kashmir was just a simple human interest story commissioned by the BBC: a few weeks accompanying the families of the British hostages on what was supposed to be their last trip to India, and then back in time for Christmas.

Diary Entry: Kashmir, December 24, 1997
'Tired, lonely and freezing cold. Dreamt of mozarella cheese, red wine and piccalilli last night... I don't even like Piccalilli. Either I am pregnant or I'm missing home. Julie ManganThe relatives of the hostages had returned to Europe a few weeks before, leaving me to reflect on most emotionally draining four weeks of my life. At the start I had been very much an outsider, someone to be tolerated but kept at arms length. Every question to Bob Wells, 53-year-old father of Paul, was met with a reticent reply. Every attempt to empathise with Julie Mangan, 32-year-old wife of Keith, was immediately jumped on for falsehood it was.

I felt like a fraud, masquerading as a friend, unable to pierce the hermetically-sealed wall the families presented to the outside world. But as we went from one interminable meeting to another, where the families were offered tea and sympathy and little else, they began to open up. And once that happened, it was like being pulled into a vortex of raw emotion.

They needed someone from back home, a friend to share their burden with, and by the time we flew into Srinagar, Kashmir's Summer capital, we had become a tight-knit group of Westerners entering a foreign land.

One morning over breakfast, Bob told me that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if they held a burial for Paul back home and then discovered he was still alive. 'That would haunt me for the rest of my life'. Birgit, the sister of Dirk Hasert, had a similar fear. 'I sometimes imagine Dirk up there in the mountains, sitting there wondering if we've forgotten about him. My greatest fear is that he thinks we've forgotten all about him.'

On their last day in Srinagar, Bob and Julie paid a visit to a nearby Moghul shrine, a tranquil dome  of burnt ochre and red stone erected on the hillside overlooking Dal Lake. Their journey had by then ceased  to be a search for truth and had become a laying to rest of the past.

As we sat on the hill, the fishermen's chicara boats floating slowly below, Bob told me how each time he came to Kashmir, he left a small part of himself behind. 'I can't put my wife through this anymore', he said. 'It's just too dangerous here. Anything could happen.' He paused and pointed towards some eagles flying overhead. 'Paul believed in reincarnation, and his girlfriend thinks he may have come back as an eagle.
It's funny, I know, but it's a comfortable thought.'

Bob and Julie collected some earth to bring back to England and we returned to the hotel in silence.

HostagesThat night, the families received an urgent message. A man claiming to have information wanted to meet them. He also claimed, not too convincingly, that he was in touch with the kidnappers. Immediately we drove to a secret location where the man was waiting, and as one question after another spilled out of Julie's mouth, the man responded through a translator.

No, he didn't know whether they were dead or alive.  Yes, he might be able to meet one of the kidnappers. Yes, he might be able to get his hands on their possessions: their passports, boots and even clothing. No, it couldn't be done soon.

It continued like this late into the night.  By the end, Julie was in tears, desperate to know more. Why had he not come forward sooner with this information? Was it a set-up? Was he really in touch with the kidnappers or was he just after money? There was no time to find out. After almost three hours of tantalising but ultimately fruitless, discussions, we left and returned to the hotel. Bob and Julie lay on my bed, washed out, as we ate Cadbury's chocolate bars from home and tried to make sense of it all.

There was no point in them staying on: they had had their hopes raised too many times before. But I decided to remain, in the vain hope that the man would return.He did never return. I spent the whole of December and January waiting for him to show up. I even tried to track him down. But like so many earlier leads, he simply vanished.

In the meantime I made contact with the All Parties Freedom Conference, an umbrella organisation of political parties opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir. I decided it was no good pressing ahead with the hostage case until they trusted me, so I concentrated on the stories I'd heard of human rights abuses committed by Indian forces.

Over the next few days I listened to their stories of rape, torture, custodial killings and crackdowns where entire villages are rounded up and made to stand in the snow while the Indian army conducts house-to-house searches.

To understand the situation, one must remember that the mainly Moslem state of Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan after partition in 1947, and has been a source of simmering conflict between the two countries ever since.

Following a popular uprising on the Indian side of the border in 1989, Indian-held-Kashmir has subsided into an intermittently explosive state of unrest, a precarious situation kept in check only by the presence of around 200,000 Indian troops.

Villagers suspected of harbouring militants are often beaten and their homes demolished. I heard reports of the female relatives of militants being raped.

The Indians, far from indiscriminately oppressing Kashmiris, were it transpired, brutally and viciously targeting anyone who had anything to do with militancy. I remember two reports in particular.

The wife of a militant who claimed she was blindfolded and then raped by eight Indian soldiers. And the man who had been tortured over a number of days, simply for leading a peaceful protest. He was given electric shocks to his private parts, hung upside down and beaten, and then put into a hole and buried up to his neck in mud.

And for every victim of brutality, there were countless relatives - brothers, cousins, sisters, a mother, father, sons and daughters. No one in Kashmir, it seemed, has remained untouched by the troubles. Local psychiatrists talk of an entire civilian population suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a symptom normally found only among combatants in war zones.

I spent the next month visiting remote villages in the valley to try to see things for myself. On one occasion, I chanced upon a village that became a ghost town every night.Suspecting that villagers were harbouring militants, the Indian army would arrive at dusk and savagely beat anyone they came across.After three nights of this treatment, rather than remain in their homes, the villagers simply fled.

On another occasion, I made the mistake of remaining in a mountain village after dark, and was ambushed by foreign Mujahadeen, who'd come across from Pakistan. 'American?' they barked, waving AK 47s in my face. 'Jewish?'

I remember hearing how the hostages were asked the same two questions by their kidnappers.   I later found out that the men I met belonged to Hizbullah Mujahadeen, a pro-Pakistan outfit of mainly foreign fighters engaged in a cruel guerrilla war with India. I was also told by my guides that they were debating whether to kill me or not.

The next morning I paid my first visit to the Christian church in Srinagar and kneeled down in prayer. Like so many of my generation, I only ever go to church when I'm invited to a friend's wedding. But for a brief moment, at least, I turned to a God I'd forgotten and gave thanks for my life.

A few days later, the man claiming to have information about the hostages came to my hotel.  Slowly, over a meal of mutton and rice, he repeated the story he had told Bob and Julie a month before. I no longer trusted him after his disappearing act, but he was the only lead I had. And whatever he was up to, he certainly knew a lot about the hostage case. He agreed to set up a meeting with an intermediary, who could pass on a message to the kidnappers.

Out of the original group of 19 militants, only two remained, he said. The others had either died in encounters with the Indian army, or had fled over the border to Pakistan. I asked him if he knew the names of the militants and where they were from. 'Muhammad Yusef,' was one. 'Code name Ibrahim.' Ibrahim. I'd heard that name before.  He was on everyone's most wanted list; but that was it. Until that moment, the four Western governments had'nt even been able to find out his real name.

The man sitting in front of me was obviously in a position to help. But whether he would or not was another question.  He left, promising the meeting with the intermediary. How soon I asked? 'In the next few days,' he answered, before disappearing once again.

I waited for him over a week, then gave up all hope of ever seeing him again.

I wanted to go back to England, but I decided to make one last attempt to discover the fate of the four Western hostages. And a week later, my chance came. I was told by my contact to go to a village about three hours drive from Srinagar, where I would find a Moghul fountain. When I arrived, I found what was perhaps the most exquisite man-made paradise I had ever seen. Built at the foot of a mountain was a pool of emerald green water surrounded by stone arches; a place of quiet solitude, but also the source of the powerful Jhelum river.

I didn't know what to expect. The intermediary, who was in direct contact with the kidnappers and a friend of Ibrahim, might tell me everything. Or then again, he might not.   This could be another false lead, like all the other leads the families had followed for the past two-and-a-half years. Or it could be the end of their nightmare of not knowing. As I sat there, I began to pray.  And  just as I did, the intermediary arrived. 'All will be revealed,' he said. 'Ibrahim will meet you and tell you everything.'

I couldn't believe it.  Not only was I to meet Ibrahim, the man the FBI and everyone else had been searching for since 1995, but he was going to reveal the whole truth. I returned to Srinagar in a state of shock, unable to believe what had just happened, and too frightened to hope for what might happen next.  I locked myself in my room and waited for lbrahim to contact me. I remained there for a whole week, only leaving the hotel for a walk before lunch.

Then my visa expired.  I could be arrested if I didn't leave within a  day. In   fact, I was surprised the Indian authorities didn't take the chance to throw me out themselves.

But neither they nor Ibrahim contacted me. So I decided to give it three more days.

And then the day before I was due to leave, with my bags all packed and my hotel bill paid, my man finally called. We could meet Ibrahim that afternoon. Now I had an appointment with a militant, all I bad to do was get there.   And that meant driving deep into the mountains - a difficult task at the best of times, but practically impossible when it's snowing.

We drove for five hours before heading off the main road and down dirt tracks. At least they had been dirt tracks before the winter snow set in: now they were more like toboggan runs. It was hopeless. We were nowhere near the village where lbrahim's men said they would meet us, and our car refused to budge.

There was nothing else for us to do but walk.  'Mr Langan,' my man said. 'It's at least 12 miles. Why don't we go back?' Back? I had'nt spent five months of my life waiting this moment to arrive only to turn back.

I took my bag out of the car and started to walk.  Where to?  I wasn't sure. But I was determined to meet Ibrahim, and if that meant standing on top of a mountain and shouting his name, then it was worth a try. Perhaps out of pity more than anything else, my man caught up with me and led me to a nearby village. There we were told by the locals that all the roads were completely blocked, so we might as well turn back. That was when my luck changed. Out the corner of my eye I spied a truck barked behind a house - one of those great big orange beasts that traverse the length and breadth of India.

How much for your truck?' I asked. 'I want to borrow it.' The bemused owner looked at me as though I was deranged, but then he looked at my money. Finally he agreed. 'Right then,' I said,'let's go.'

Any hope that we might make the make the meeting unobserved by army patrols now seemed distant, as we set off through the snow-covered valley in our bright orange truck.   The fact that we were also loaded up with locals, who I had thoughtfully brought along to clear the roads, made things even, more tricky.

But at least we got to the village where lbrahim's men were waiting. And while hey seemed impressed by my ingenuity, they decided we should make the rest of the journey by foot. We were now heading deep into the mountains and deep into militant territory.

Walking behind my guides, I began to question my reasons for even agreeing to meet Ibrahim.  As I waded through the snow, which was now waist-deep at points, a number of thoughts raced through my head.

I could be walking into a trap. I could be kidnapped - and if anyone asked the villagers, they would deny ever having seen me. I bet they saw the four surviving hostages walk in the same direction. But they would never tell a soul. Never. I could die out there and no one would ever know.

I was pulled out of my thoughts by the guides, who had spotted an Indian army patrol up ahead. It was too dangerous for them, they said, but it was OK for me. I thought: Why not? As long as they don't shoot me, it can't be worse than standing in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of militants.

There were about ten of them, crack troops from the Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol. And they were'nt at all surprised to see a British journalist walking through the mountains.   They were far too busy celebrating to care about me.

When they stopped us, my man asked them why they were so happy. 'We ambushed some militants last night,' they said, 'and killed an area commander. A top militant. "What was his name?' I asked the officer in charge. 'Muhammad Yusef,' he boomed. 'Code name Ibrahim.'

I couldn't believe it. Ibrahim was dead, shot through the head a few hours before. I sat in the snow and closed my eyes. That's it, I thought: now we'll never know the truth. It's buried with Ibrahim, for ever.

Two days later I was back in London, which brings me up to date.  Out of the 19 kidnappers, one is still alive. And if I go back to Kashmir and meet him, then maybe, just maybe, we'll finally know the truth.

I doubt he'll ever tell me anything, to be honest, even if I do manage to make it through those mountains without dying on the way.

But as they told me, he's our last chance, and, more importantly, the last hope for the relatives of the hostages.

POSTSCRIPT: Sean Langan applied to the Indian High Commission for a return visa to Kashmir two months ago. He is still waiting for a reply.


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