Two years later, fate of hostages remains a mystery
Mukhtar Ahmad in Srinagar
It is an anniversary sans cake and candles and champagne.
Sans celebrations of any sort.
For what is being "celebrated" in Kashmir on Friday is the second anniversary of the abduction of five foreigners from the Alpine hills of Pahalgam health resort
in south Kashmir.
Gathered not so much to commemorate the occasion as to make yet another desperate, almost despairing, bid to get back their loved ones are the sister of Dirk Hasert and wife of Keith Mangan, two of the hostages who vanished off the face of the earth that day two years back.
The two ladies plan -- yet one more time - to announce a reward for information leading to the rescue of their loved ones.
It has all been done before. Rewards have been announced -- by the relatives, by the state crime branch (Rs 1 million), by Israeli psychokinesis expert Uri Geller...
None of these offers have thus far yielded fruit. Not the tears of the ladies. Nor the sleuthing skills, such as they are, of the crime branch. And even Geller, who bends metal with a look, has not managed to bend the intractable Al Faran to his will.
What appals is that these days, the hostages are not even a story for the media, or an object of concern for the government. In fact, so total is the apathy that the vanished foreigners do not even form a topic of conversation for the locals.
They might as well not exist. In fact, come to think of it, they do not exist -- except in some hidden hideyhole under care of the Al Faran militants, and in the tears and memories of their loved ones.
Kashmir, meanwhile, has moved on to other concerns, other preoccupations. Not least the mounting death toll, with anywhere between six and nine persons getting killed per day in militancy-related incidents.
The government, with the aid of charts and graphs and statistical analysis, proves that the rate of killings has come down drastically since the holding of elections and the installation of the Farooq Abdullah-led government in Kashmir. However, six deaths a day is, the locals are finding out, still six deaths too many -- and given this situation, it is odds on that the natives couldn't even name kidnap victims -- American Donald Hutching,
Britons Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, and German Dirk Hasert -- far less recall that they were kidnapped by Al Faran militants two years ago, on July 4, 1995.
For the very small circle of people who remain concerned about the plight of the hostages -- and this includes the relatives, the handful of government officials who have been officially briefed to monitor developments, and a small section of the media -- there has been little reason to cheer.
In fact, the only reason the relatives of the victims continue to visit Kashmir, continue to offer rewards for information and prayers for divine intercession, is because the bodies of their loved ones have not yet been found -- and in the absence of the remains, there is always hope that the four are still alive.
Way back in December 1995, following an encounter at Dabran village which resulted in the death of a top Pan-islamist militant, Al Faran issued statements to the effect that the hostages had been taken away by the security
forces and that after that date, the entire responsibility for
the hostages rested with the government.
The statements have been denied by both the state administration and security officials. However, the fact remains that at this point, it is not even clear who actually holds the four hostages.
Speculation -- at least, that is how Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah terms it -- that the militants may have killed their hostages once they realised that their demands would never be met, have only piled on the agony. Even as the many reported "sightings" have increased the anguish, by sparking false hope for a while only to make despair all the greater as each successive "sighting" proves, on investigation, to be a false alarm.
Two years have passed. And today, two ladies are back in Kashmir, hoping against hope, seeking even they don't know what.
Word about the whereabouts of the hostages? Or at the least, one last glimpse of their remains if indeed they are dead?
Or, maybe, just an end to the uncertainty, one way or the other?
For one stuck for two years in a black, bleak tunnel of despair, any light is welcome, perhaps -- even if the light comes from the flames of a funeral pyre...
Then again, it is like the senior police official said: "Who is to say they are dead? Maybe, one day, the four will surface again... or be tracked down... who knows?"
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