Spokane teacher Jane Schelly returns to Kashmir next week with a plea to the shadowy rebel group that kidnapped her husband Donald Hutchings and three other Westerners nearly a year ago.
In the spirit of Islam, in keeping with traditional Kashmiri hospitality and in recognition of American Independence Day, release the men held hostage in the Himalayas, she’ll tell them.
The one-year anniversary of Hutchings’ kidnapping is July 4. Schelly herself was held hostage briefly by the group that calls itself Al-Faran.
“If they are thinking about freedom for their country - they claim to be fighting for freedom - how can they be denying someone else’s freedom?” Schelly said this week before leaving for India.
The Arlington Elementary School physical education teacher will issue the plea in person next week in Srinagar, the capital of the mountainous Indian state. Somewhere in the surrounding mountains, she believes Hutchings is still alive.
The guerrilla group that seized Hutchings, two Britons and a German last July has not talked with the Indian government for months. She hopes they will talk with her.
“They certainly will hear that I am there,” said Schelly. “They need to know that the families are suffering a great deal.”
The high-profile trip, and an interview this week with The Spokesman-Review, represent a major shift from Schelly’s strategy for dealing with her husband’s captivity over the last 11 months.
She and Hutchings, a neuropsychologist, were captured while hiking with a group in the strife-torn province that Westerners were urged to avoid.
Since being released July 5, she has followed the advice of diplomats and government officials to say as little as possible.
While deadlines passed, negotiations stalled and rumors of the captives’ deaths surfaced, Schelly kept a low profile. She issued brief statements asking for the release of hostages, but refused to answer questions about the crisis. She has remained hopeful, taught at the north Spokane school and talked with friends who call regularly for updates.
“I have felt that I’ve had good cooperation from the government. But the year has not produced anything,” she said. “Something has to change. The time has come.”
She will represent the families of the other three hostages - Paul Wells and Keith Mangan of England and Dirk Hasert of Germany - in a united appeal to the rebels and the two nations with the most at stake in Kashmir - India and Pakistan.
“I have the time now, and I’m going,” said Schelly, who last week finished the school year with the Spokane School District.
In the interview, she talked about keeping her hope alive during a year in which her husband was variously reported as seriously wounded in a skirmish, suffering from frostbite, needing a doctor, and buried in an unmarked grave near a Kashmiri village.
“I believe that they are still alive,” said Schelly. “We’ve had so many ups and downs, but I have tried not to allow myself to engage in the negatives and the what-ifs.”
She bases her hope on more than the theories of diplomats and negotiators who note hostages are valuable only if they are kept alive.
She recalled the first night of captivity before the guerrillas released her, three other Western women, a sick Canadian man and the Kashmiri guides leading the tourists on a trek through the Himalayan foothills.
The guides were cooking dinner when the camp was seized, and guerrillas allowed the group to eat. They told them to put on warm clothing when the night grew cold, and told them to go inside their tents when the rain started. They could have just as easily forced their hostages to stay hungry, shivering and wet in the Himalayan night, Schelly said.
John Childs of Simsbury, Conn., the captive who later escaped and was rescued, said the guerrillas always gave the hostages the best food they had. Most are in their 20s, and they treated Hutchings, who is 43 and the oldest of the captives, with respect.
They nicknamed him “Cha-Cha” which apparently means uncle, and allowed him to help Mangan, who was suffering from altitude sickness, Childs told her.
Unlike Hutchings and Schelly, who were hiking in the mountains for two weeks before their captivity and were acclimated to the thinner air, Mangan had been in the mountains only a few days. The rebels, who may have spent their entire lives in the mountains, did not understand altitude sickness, Childs told her.
Schelly is also hopeful because Hutchings is physically and mentally strong. An avid mountain climber, bicyclist and cross-country skier, she believes he could survive the winter months being shuttled from hut to hut in the world’s tallest mountains.
“He’s steady, and he doesn’t ruffle easily,” she said.
But there have been days when either facts or rumors have shaken her hope briefly. Some of the worst came early in the crisis, while she was still in India with relatives of the other hostages.
On July 21, the rebels claimed that two hostages were seriously wounded in a skirmish with the Indian Army. They even released a picture showing Hutchings with a bloody bandage around his torso. Government officials told her the skirmish may have occurred and began checking with military commanders in the mountains.
“We all went to sleep praying that the injured hostage wasn’t ours, knowing that meant it would have to be someone else who was loved by someone we were now close to - and feeling the guilt that gave us,” she said.
The government later said the skirmish did not occur, and rebels eventually released an audio tape in which Hutchings said he was in good health.
In August, the body of one hostage was found, decapitated, but the government was not immediately sure which one.
That evening, the family members gathered at the residence of the German ambassador to India to wait for news. As they prepared to leave, the family of Norwegian Hans Christian Ostroe, was called aside. As the others walked out, the ambassador touched Schelly on the shoulder and whispered “It’s not your husband.”
Ostroe was the one killed, she soon learned. Again, she felt tremendous relief for her husband and sorrow for someone else in the same situation.
If her return to Srinagar does not generate a response from the kidnappers, she plans to travel to Islamabad, Pakistan, and ask Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to personally intervene with the rebels.
Bhutto’s father was overthrown in a coup, and later hanged; her brother was poisoned. “She’s certainly had a lot of strife in her life. I’d like to ask for her help,” said Schelly, noting Bhutto already denounced hostage-taking as “un-Islamic and wrong.”
She will also ask the Indian government for a chance to speak with a jailed leader of a group that is seeking independence for Kashmir. Massoud Azhar - one of 15 prisoners the kidnappers want released in exchange for the hostages - is, like Schelly, a teacher.
She hopes to find common ground in their interest in teaching young people, and convince Azhar to issue a public statement asking for the hostages’ release.
Before returning to Kashmir, Schelly thanked three groups that kept her going while she waited and hoped: The medical community and Hutchings’ patients from his years as a psychologist dealing with serious brain injuries; longtime friends, particularly among the Spokane Mountaineers, who have rallied around her; and the Spokane School District, which accommodated her schedule.
“Teachers and students have been very concerned without being overbearing,” she said. “Teaching has been good for me, it kept my mind occupied.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Vigil planned Friends of Donald Hutchings will hold a rally July 1 for the Spokane psychologist held hostage in Kashmir. The event, “A Gathering of Friends,” is planned for 7:30 p.m. in the Lilac Bowl in Riverfront Park, the Spokane Mountaineers said Thursday. The group is asking participants to bring a candle for the vigil service.
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