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Hostage's Wife on Painful Trek for Truth

Asia: Three years after kidnapping, U.S. teacher is traveling the subcontinent, still trying to learn her husband's fate.

July 20, 1998|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — Jane Schelly knows that her husband may have died a gruesome death at the hands of terrorists, but the fading chance that he survives draws her back to the mountains where she last saw him alive.

Schelly, a schoolteacher from Spokane, Wash., is traveling through India and Pakistan this month to search for answers in the mysterious abduction of her husband, Donald Hutchings, and a group of other foreign backpackers in the Himalayas three years ago.

Although virtually everyone, including officials in the U.S. government, believes that Hutchings and the others were probably killed by rebels opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir, Schelly refuses to rest until she uncovers the truth.

"I never had a chance to say goodbye," Schelly, 43, said in an interview at the U.S. Embassy here. "As long as I can take a step ahead of me that is productive, I'll keep going."

Schelly's struggle has propelled her into the tangled heart of the Indian subcontinent, into mosques, bazaars and the headquarters of militant groups, through notorious bureaucracies and up against the region's antiquated stereotypes of women and wives.

She has traveled to Washington to talk to President Clinton. She has worked feverishly to drum up interest in a kidnapping that never garnered the same international notoriety as those of the Western hostages in Lebanon during the 1980s. This month alone, Schelly has handed out half a million matchboxes and pamphlets carrying her husband's photo and a plea for help.

Schelly's wedding band still adorns the ring finger of her left hand. She still refers to Hutchings in the present tense. Stopping short of tears, Schelly said she gets plenty of sympathy but not enough leads.

"My dear sister," Schelly said the militants tell her, "we have no information."

When she feels herself beginning to give up hope, she said, she calls up the memory of Terry Waite, the Anglican envoy who was abducted by Muslim militants in Lebanon in the 1980s.

"For four years, they were told he was dead," she said of Waite's family. "And he was alive."

Militants Suspected

U.S. officials believe that the hikers were seized by militants linked to Harkat-ul-Ansar, one of many Muslim bands fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. India and Pakistan each occupy part of the region, and each claims it entirely as its own.

Since 1989, militants supported by Pakistan have been waging an insurgency in India's Jammu and Kashmir state, and more than 20,000 people have died.

On July 4, 1995, Schelly, Hutchings and several others were trekking near a Himalayan glacier at 7,000 feet elevation when they encountered a band of militants calling themselves Al Faran, believed to be a front name for Harkat-ul-Ansar.

What Schelly first thought was a robbery turned into something far worse. The militants checked the passports of the backpackers and picked out four men: Hutchings--a neuro-psychologist who would now be 45 years old--British hikers Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, and another American, John Childs.

As the militants led the hostages away, Schelly said, the guerrillas said they would return the trekkers at dawn the next day.

That was the last time she saw her husband.

"I figured they would be back by 6:30 the next morning; I really thought they would be back," Schelly said. "I don't even remember what my last words to him were."

Four days after the kidnapping, Childs, the other American, escaped. That same day, the captors abducted Dirk Hasert of Germany and Hans Christian Ostro of Norway. A month later, Ostro was found beheaded, with the words Al Faran carved into his chest.

The guerrillas left behind a note demanding the release of 15 Kashmiri militants from Indian jails. Negotiations, conducted via intermediaries over shortwave radio, continued for months. Agents from the CIA and FBI arrived in New Delhi to help. American and British anti-terrorist teams were poised to strike.

Several deadlines set by the militants for the release of the prisoners came and went.

Early in the negotiations, militants released a picture to prove the hostages were still alive. At one point, the kidnappers even sought to prove that Hutchings was alive by having him answer personal questions posed by his wife.

Among them: the names of the couple's dogs, Bodhi and Homer.

"The first deadline was the worst," Schelly said. "After that, it got easier, because, you figure, they didn't kill him the last time."

The most ominous turn came in December 1995, when Abdul Hamid Turki, the man believed to be the chief of Al Faran, was killed in a surprise encounter with Indian troops. Indian soldiers combed the hills looking for the hostages but found none.

On Dec. 12, the kidnappers released a statement:

"The hostages of Al Faran are no longer with us. Three of them are with the Indian government, and one of them escaped."

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