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'I got positive indications that the four hostages are alive and well'

Mukhtar Ahmad in Srinagar

When the life of a loved one is at stake, any risk is worth the taking.

Or so believes Julie Mangan, wife of British tourist Keith Mangan who was kidnapped, two years ago, by militants of the pro-Pakistan Al Faran group.

"I know that two years have passed, but I feel optimistic that Keith and the three others abducted with him are alive," Julie Mangan told Rediff On The NeT in an exclusive interview.

"It was a risk, I know, to go to Magam Kokemag (in south Kashmir) along with Birgit (Hasert, elder sister of German tourist Dirk Hasert who is Mangan's fellow captive). We went there without security, we went alone, but I believe it was a risk well worth taking.

"While there," Julie said, "I got to meet the villagers and from them, I got positive indications that the four hostages are alive and well."

Security forces and special teams had recently combed the Magam area, following claims by a captured militants that the four tourists were killed way back in December 1995. The search teams, however, drew a blank.

Julie's visit was prompted by this news. "I wanted to go there, I wanted to listen to the villagers and to talk to them and see at first hand if there was any reason to continue hoping. I am glad I did, because now I feel more confident about Keith's fate," she said.

Interestingly, Julie looked very relaxed during our chat -- a total contrast to the tear-stained wife who, a day earlier, had tied a yellow ribbon to the branch of a pine in a little churchyard and spoken of it as a symbol of hope. There was that in her body language that spoke of belief, of faith -- leading to a suspicion that she knew, or had found out, more than she was prepared to talk about.

Jane Schelly, wife of American hostage Donald Hutchings, did not accompany Julie and Birgit on the trip. However, she too refuses to give up hope. "We believe that someone must know what has happened to our loved ones," Jane said. "And we ask all of you for help, we ask that you find a way to let us know, one way or the other."

A teary eyed Jane recalled how, over a year ago, the mother of murdered hostage Hans Christian Ostro told her, "At least, you still have hope!"

Today, Jane recalls that moment. And with tears streaming down her face, says, "Today I think, at least Ostro's mother has answers, while we the relatives of the other four hostages have none."

When life is a bleak, black tunnel without light at either end, how then do you cope? Again, Jane had the answers. "When I get discouraged, when I need a reason to continue, I think of British hostage Terry Waite, who had been held captive in Beirut, Lebanon, for five years in the most horrible conditions. And still, he came back safe and sound. I think of this, and I tell myself I still have reason to hope - and that keeps me going."

Interestingly, Jane had met Terry Waite after his release from captivity. "I will never forget that moment when Terry looked in my eyes and said, 'Never give up hope until you have positive proof -- a definite answer'. He told me, 'My wife was told I was dead for four years, but I am living proof that it is possible your husband may still be alive, somewhere..."

On such slender precedents, or such slim straws, do the hopes of Jane, Julie and Birgit hang.

Then again, as Jane says, "Hope, any day, is better than total despair..."

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