New Delhi: Many people have asked us why reinvestigate a kidnapping from 1995 when there are many more recent incidents, horrific and baffling, that remain unsolved? There are several reasons. For me, (and for Benazir Bhutto with whom we discussed the Kashmir kidnapping many times as it had struck such a chord with her as Prime Minister) it was a watershed, a point at which the West witnessed for the first time what some Islamist factions operating in and around Pakistan were actually capable of – and I'm talking primarily here of the beheading of Norwegian traveller Hans Christian Ostro - which came well before we had the wake up call of 9/11.
Sure, there were many serious and horrifying acts of terrorism that preceded it, yet somehow they seemed more remote and somehow did not engage the West. And the war in Afghanistan during which most of these jihadis had cut their teeth, was an esoteric, foreign news story for those insulated in Europe.
Ostro's killing was medieval, a new departure. It put Kashmir on the map for all the wrong reasons. These days, stories of kidnappings and executions are widespread and chillingly common, with Pakistan still the theatre of terror (Daniel Pearl, Piotr Stanczak, Khalil Dale are just a few names). But back then beheading a Western traveller in the presumed paradise of Kashmir seemed savage and nonsensical.
Masood Azhar, whose freedom was sought in exchange for the hostages, would, after his eventual release from Indian prison as a result of the IC 814 hijacking, revel in the incident. He understood its power too. As India and the UK both know to their cost, he went on to assume a crucial position in the pantheon of terror, using the lessons learned in the Meadow.
Another important reason for writing The Meadow was that it gave us the chance to highlight events over the past twenty years in the Kashmir Valley, a place that even today is still predominately thought of in the West as a stoner's paradise more than a conflict zone. Most of us in Europe are either completely ignorant about the blood letting in Kashmir although it remains one of the most critical, unresolved disputes in the world and acts as a significant recruiting sergeant to jihad, with Britain, Pakistan and India all having to share responsibility for what has unfolded, and all of targets of heinous acts committed in the name of the suffering endured in the Valley.
The numbers of dead, disappeared, tortured and imprisoned are mind boggling with one friend saying he thought that in Kashmir suffering had become a quantum affair, like the famed cat, that you know is there, even if you can't say what it's doing? The stories of the disappeared are there but somehow, like their subjects never gaining traction. In any other country 8 or 10000 missing would be a catastrophe that would fell governments. But how to tell these stories in the West? I saw a close correlation between the families of the still missing hostages with the mothers, sisters and wives across Kashmir who also have no idea what happened to their loved ones.
The kidnapping of 1995 was then a lens through which to see Kashmir as a whole and how in it, through that dispute, we have lost our humanity.
In "The Meadow", we demonstrate the terrible impact on the Western families caught up in this tragedy. Even after 17 years, the pain of not knowing is still excruciating, according to Bob Wells, father of British hostage Paul. The mother of Hans Christian, who helped us a great deal by sharing her son's deeply moving letters written secretly in captivity, said that at the time he died she felt that her world had fallen apart. But these days she has come to see herself as the lucky one. At least she knows what happened and has a grave over which to grieve. But for the families of Keith Mangan, Paul Wells, Don Hutchings and Dirk Hasert have been denied even that fundamental right, although Jane Schelly, wife of Don Hutchings, has never given up hope that one day she will uncover the fate of her husband.
It's the same story for Tahira Begum from Srinagar, Fahmeda Bano from Kupwara and Hajira Begum from Baramulla who, along with thousands more Kashmiri women, have been fruitlessly waiting up to 20 years for news about their missing husbands or sons who the authorities would have us believe are in Pakistan or anywhere else, other than in remote unmarked grave in some orchard or pine forest.
As an investigative reporter, the kidnapping was also always in my mind every time I flew over the Pir Panjal on my way into a reporting trip in Kashmir. Somewhere down there in that stunningly beautiful landscape lay four unmarked graves, the remains of a tragic story. "Someone knows what happened," said Paul Wells' girlfriend Catherine Moseley, during one visit she made back to Kashmir in a fruitless search of answers in 1997.
We, too, were determined to find that "someone" and locate the truth, if not graves. Recently, we have come to know that there are many thousands more graves, probably containing the bodies of missing Kashmiris. Or foreign fighters if you believe the army.
We spent several years on this, dipping also into 18 years of prior work in the region that has aided us in developing really good contacts on both sides of the LoC. We have been working in Kashmir as writers and foreign correspondents, for "The Sunday Times" and then "The Guardian", since the era of the kidnappings, and following events unfold in J&K and across the subcontinent.
Some of the work was done while we were carrying out other reporting duties. We reported and investigated Pakistan's intervention in Kashmir, its backing of the armed struggle and its subtler steering of the political scene, too. We heard it from Indian intelligence agents and saw for ourselves in Pakistan that ISI-backed Islamist groups like Harkat ul-Ansar (aka Al Faran) were getting up steam to stoke Kashmir.
Some of this research went into our previous book Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, which charted how the US had secretly aided and abetted the Pakistan nuclear programme, creating a volatile regional landscape that today we are all still learning to deal with. We recounted how George Bush's "axis of evil" was enabled by the US itself that had had a lot to do also with unravelling the epoch of terror we are still living in now.
More recently, our work has been specific to the new book. We travelled extensively across J&K, interviewing hundreds of eyewitnesses, former intelligence agents and their assets, police officers serving and retired, politicians and civil servants, renegades and their families, army officers (retired), jihadis in Pakistan, former militants in Kashmir, intelligence and investigative agents and officers in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, as well as their opposite numbers in Delhi, Jammu and Srinagar.
We covered massacres and cold-blooded killings in J&K perpetrated by militants, Kashmiri jihadis, foreign fighters, Indian soldiers and spies. We witnessed Pakistan's adventurism in the Kargil heights, but we also gradually saw how all sides lost their bearings, their morality too, in the bloody melee that no one was winning.
The lack of oversight and accountability, through the judicial and parliamentary systems, which were often held in abeyance, led to massive abuses of power in J&K: rapes, murders, abductions, torture, disappearances. And seldom has a guilty party prosecuted or put on trial. J&K became a kind of proving ground for the intelligence agencies on both sides of the Line of Control, a place from where they have been reticent to leave and in which both sides did the unthinkable, with the Kashmir people caught in the middle.
While in the West, torture, renditions, political judgement and human rights abuses are now seized upon and fought over, igniting massive debates as to what defines our humanity, nothing of the sort has happened in Kashmir or elsewhere in India where the non-war (that has in recent years all but been extinguished in J&K) has been poorly reported and analysed, its real cost still unknown, any debate about its continuance framed by allegations of treason and heresy.
That changed somewhat after 2005 when the earthquake opened up vast areas of the Valley. Out of the disaster, which enabled lawyers and reporters to travel freely everywhere, rose the first accounts of unmarked and mass graves, as well as allegations of what it had been like to live along the non-border. An open discussion about the disappeared in Kashmir took flight too. By 2008, it became clear that the two issues were likely inter-related, leading to the first credible reports on the missing and the unlawfully buried, the scale of which gave some clue as to the full horrors of what had taken place in this non-war.
How much had Pakistan thrown into the Valley to set it on fire? How far had India gone to quell the insurgency and rebuff its neighbour? How badly had the residents of the state suffered, caught in the firing line? The price appeared unconscionable on all sides.
People also started to talk about Kashmir's most puzzling missing case: the Al Faran episode. New eye-witnesses, old hands who had investigated it, previously inaccessible villages all began to open up. A sea change also took place within the Indian establishment, with former and serving police officers and intelligence agents deciding to speak to us, as if they felt that enough was enough. For some the Al Faran case represented justice delayed, for others, justice denied, and for another faction it was a myth that needed to be dispelled. Many people we tracked down were relieved to talk and said they had been sitting guiltily on secrets for 17 years – although several wished to guard their identity for fear of future reprisals.
Only six people were directly affected in this case, and many tens of thousands of souls have been victims of the Kashmir crisis. Why pay undue attention to these six only? In Kashmir, we were asked this over and over as we began investigating. But we sensed that the numbers were not the story and that through this one small case of six trekkers who were abducted, a reader could see much of the entire Kashmir imbroglio. This one seemingly insignificant crime, when compared to the daily tragedies of Valley life, was a prism through which to assay the cost of the war.
With regard to our specific findings, we have been accused of pursuing an anti-Indian agenda. This is not true as anyone who knows our work over two decades will see. We simply set out to uncover the truth about the fates of Don, Paul, Keith and Dirk. No conspiracy. But from day one of our investigations it was clear that something was not right about the generally accepted story of their fate. What we eventually discovered – from those who were actually there - shocked us as much as it will shock the readers of the book.