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The great escape

July 8, 2am: An hour since his last toilet visit. John sat upright. Now was his time. He eased himself out from under the blanket, trying not to nudge or knock anyone as he lumped some clothes into the shape of a sleeping body. His comrades and the guards outside the hut slept as he tiptoed between them, his boots over his shoulder. John felt a pang of remorse for his fellow hostages. Don had been generous, and Keith was a straight-up guy. Paul was likeable, if hotheaded… They deserved better, but Don’s actions of the previous morning had convinced John that it was every man for himself: “Due to my weakened physical condition I was certain that I would be the first to be killed if the kidnappers’ demands were not met.” He took in his sleeping companions one last time. “I will seek help and come back for you,” he said under his breath. Then he turned. Slipping on his boots without tying the laces, his trekking jacket over his shoulder and gripping his stomach as if he was contorted with cramps, he pushed aside the tarpaulin door, opened the tin gate and, nodding at the dozing sentry, walked into the night air.

Seconds later he was squatting down behind a tree, heart clattering. “So far so good, the sentries have presumed once more that another bout of diarrhoea had kicked in.” But then, looking down, he realised his white jacket would make him an easy target in the dark for a gunman. “No, no, no,” he thought. All the dates and dried fruits and bits of bread and balls of rice he had been squirrelling away over the past four days and nights were stuffed in its pockets and lining, but he had no choice but to discard it, along with his emergency supplies…

At first he loped gently, crouching, lupine, trying to minimise his footfall as he put a little distance between himself and the militants. Then he became upright and, forgetting his torn feet, ran full tilt, pelting towards a copse, arms pumping...

Now his metabolism picked up, releasing adrenaline, nutrients, glucose, cholesterol, his heart thudding as he began to climb. This was the idea he had put all his hopes in. Up, and not down. Down to the trekking path and the white-skinned campers was the obvious way an escaping hostage would go. He was heading up, in the opposite direction, where nothing lived. Only a fool would climb higher into the deep freeze. Breathing deeper and longer, John could no longer feel his destroyed feet, as blood drawn from his skin and gut flooded his muscles and tissues. “My head was filled with the desire to live.” …

…A military chopper lifted off the tarmac at an air force base near Srinagar, carrying the governor of Kashmir’s Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. D.D. Saklani, a regal and highly decorated retired military officer...

Looking down through the helicopter’s window late on the afternoon of 8 July 1995, Saklani surveyed a steady stream of Hindu pilgrims... He had spotted a few Westerners too, trekking or camping. But there wasn’t much he could do, other than circle above them... He dictated some notes to his bagman, Altaf Ahmed, a policy security official who worked in his office, and who was sitting behind him...

Now that dusk was drawing in, Saklani turned to his pilot, Group Captain Jasminder Kahlon, and ordered him back to base. Kahlon was an ace, possibly the best India had, and Saklani liked being out with him and Altaf. “Just then, the Group Captain spotted a lone figure near Pissu Top,” Altaf recalled. Swooping down, they saw it was a man, roughly dressed and limping badly, making his way down the mountainside beside a stream. “We thought he was some kind of Paki infiltrator,” said Altaf… Saklani remembered: “I told Altaf to load a weapon and take that boy out.” Kahlon advised caution. Something was not right. The man was flimsily dressed, without any kind of coat or backpack. He did not look like a mujahid. His face was stripped with mud. But who else would be up here, and take such fright at seeing an Indian helicopter? “I can’t get in any closer,” Kahlon said. “The downdraught might blow him over the edge, or the rockface might take out of our rotors.”...

On the ground, John Childs had been thrown into utter panic by the sight of the helicopter. “I had heard it first from a distance, heading down the valley along which I was making my descent. I was in really bad shape, and thought I might be hallucinating... A few minutes later John heard the helicopter returning, and suddenly it reared up on him from over a ridge. “I was terrified. It was a big military thing, with gun muzzles poking out of the window and men dressed in uniform.” In a split second John had convinced himself that it was the Pakistanis, who had been searching for him on behalf of the kidnap party. He burrowed down a rock.

Inside the cabin, Saklani and Kahlon glimpsed the man’s face. “He was of European complexion,” Saklani recalled. “That was not a militant!” Altaf shouted. Kahlon butted in: “He’s foreigner. Let’s get him.”…

Then, with his usual poise, Kahlon gently brought the helicopter down, resting one of its runners on the hillside as delicately as if he were placing a glass of water on a mat... Saklanki threw the door open and screamed above the rotors: “Now! Now! Now! Come now! What are you doing here?” John shouted: “I was abducted! Save me! Please!” Saklani couldn’t believe it: one of the hostages. “Oh the gods, this is a miracle, this is a miracle from the gods!” he shouted.