Hostage's Wife on Painful Trek for Truth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

Neither Schelly nor U.S. officials have found any evidence to support that statement. And in the 31 months since the last contact, Schelly has heard scores of rumors and claims of sightings. None ever panned out.

Several captured guerrillas have told Indian army and U.S. officials that the four hostages were shot dead in late 1995 or early 1996.

One captured suspect, Nazir Ahmad Najar, told Indian authorities in June 1997 that the four hikers were shot in January 1996. The claim has never been verified because no bodies were ever found.

A $2-Million Reward

U.S. and Indian officials say they will continue to search for hostages--dead or alive. FBI agents still work the case, and the U.S. has offered a reward of as much as $2 million for information leading to the hostages' discovery.

Still, U.S. officials say they are expecting the worst.

"During the last 12 months, there has been no evidence or developments to sustain the hope that Donald Hutchings or any of the other three missing men kidnapped in July 1995 are still alive," said Kiki Munshi, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

The absence of confirmed sightings and the lack of demands by the kidnappers, Munshi said, "lead us to conclude that the hostages are no longer alive."

The State Department declared Harkat-ul-Ansar--the organization believed responsible for the kidnappings--a terrorist organization in 1997. Most of the militant Kashmiri groups, which maintain offices in Pakistan, have disavowed any connection with the kidnappings.

"The people who have done this are the enemies of Kashmir," said Amanullah Khan, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "We pray that the hostages are still alive."

The families of the other hostages have fallen into despair.

"I don't think there is anything more I can do," one hostage's wife, Julie Mangan, said from her home in Middlesbrough, England. "I've been living this for three years. Part of me wants to get on with my life. I need to get a job. I need to stand on my own two feet."

In India, Schelly handed out boxes and boxes of the pamphlets and matchbooks that carried Hutchings' photo. She traveled to Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, to distribute them to hiking centers, bazaars and Western tourists.

On July 4, the third anniversary of the kidnapping, Schelly persuaded Kashmir's Muslim leader, Umar Farooq, to appeal to his flock at Srinagar's Jama Masjid mosque, where about 15,000 people came to pray.

Schelly spoke in the women's wing of the mosque.

"The people were moved very much by her. It was an emotional scene," Farooq said. "Many of the women in the mosque have loved ones who died, and they began to weep."

2 Met in Climbing Club

Schelly, who still has the healthy, outdoorsy look of an avid backpacker, said she met her husband through a Spokane climbing club. With no children, they had the freedom to travel the world in search of great hiking: Bolivia, Nepal, Switzerland.

She recalled the sweltering summer day she and Hutchings arrived in India in 1995. Indian tourist officials, she said, assured them of the safety of a hike in Kashmir, as did other trekkers. She said she tried to call the U.S. Embassy but couldn't get through on New Delhi's notoriously dreadful phones.

"It was 115 degrees. We were jet-lagged. We were told it was safe," she said.

Had Schelly gotten through to the embassy, she would have been told of a U.S. travel advisory in effect at the time warning U.S. citizens to stay out of the area.

Schelly's ordeal has forced her to steel herself in order to operate in a region where women are afforded little respect.

She does not usually tell people that she and her husband lived together for seven years before getting married. She does not go out of her way to mention that the couple did not have children. She often wears a salwar kameez, traditional women's attire, and covers her hair whenever she goes into a mosque.

The ordeal has changed her in other ways.

"I don't hesitate to ask questions anymore," she said. "And I think I'm more flexible, not knowing what is ahead in life."

Schelly's friends say she has not flinched from the likelihood that her husband may have been killed.

"She has slowly come to recognize that there is far more of a chance--a 95% chance--that Don is dead," said Maria Ranniger, a friend in Spokane. "But as long as there is enough to go on, when do you stop? I don't think she can stop. That is her solace."

As the years drag on, Schelly tempers the mounting evidence of her husband's death with hope.

"After three years without contact, no demands from the kidnappers, you have to look at it as plausible that they may have been killed," Schelly said. "The day may come when I feel that I cannot accomplish anything by going on. And then, yes, I guess, the door is closed."

Schelly paused, then posed a question.

"But until they recover the bodies, who knows for certain?"

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