Thursday, September 6, 2012

Parents in despair as deadline set by captors nears

KANGRA (HIMACHAL PRADESH), September 6, 2012

Kewal Sharma, 46, served in the Army everywhere, from the frontier regions of Leh and Ladakh to the Deccan Plateau.

So when his only son Aman, 18, announced that he wanted to join the merchant navy, Mr. Sharma had only one answer. "I said yes, I could not possibly hold him back here," he says. "My wife said we should not let him go," he adds quietly. None speaks for a long while. The silence is broken now and then by his wife's stifled sobbing coming from another room.

After Somali pirates struck in November 2010, life has never been the same for the family. The news came six months later from Aman himself, after the pirates made him call up his family. He asked them not to worry, confident that the government would secure their release. But the Sharmas could not stop worrying.

The foreboding began when Pakistan secured the release of seven of its citizens by paying off the hijackers. The couple turned desperate on hearing about the death of the other Indian hostage Raju Prasad, Aman's best friend in the training academy.

"All we can think about right now is come September 15, where our son will be — the deadline set by the pirates for either exchanging Aman for a hefty ransom or killing him," Mr. Sharma says, showing a photo album of the boys in the training academy.

The boys look many years younger than their age. Aman is much taller than Raju, both dressed in crisp white shirts and shorts. They are posing in a few of the photos as would-be sailors, tying sailor's knots in some, giving salutes or just smiling in the others — innocent smiles that reach their eyes.

Mr. Sharma then picks out a few clippings of e-mails and pictures that have been sent by the pirates or by Aman himself. In these pictures, Aman is very different, hardly recognisable. Gone is the innocent smile; his face has grown hard and expressionless as the pirates point a gun to the neck. In one photo, he is seated on a charpoy in what looks like a straw hut, probably his residence or jail for the past 20 months. He has grown a beard and looks scared, but also tired and defeated.

Mr. Sharma starts crying again. All the hostages have been separated, he says, and Aman is forced to work like a labourer, cooking and cleaning for the pirates. "He never got even to learn such work here; all the while when he was with us, he was either studying or playing."

A frequent visitor to the Sharma household is Aman's oldest friend Ankur Pathania, who is also in the merchant navy. He says the pirates make direct contact with the families. "The last time Aman called up from a pirate's number, he sounded panicked. He asked his father to tell the government to secure his release or he will surely die."

Mr. Sharma is now a bitter man. Initially, politicians in the State supported him and then they gave up on his case, he says. The issue was only raised recently when the former Tourism Minister, G.S. Bali, moved a calling attention motion, which forced the Chief Minister to ask the Centre to take up the issue. "… Himachal Pradesh does not have the clout of bigger States to even pressure the Centre and the Foreign Affairs Ministry to take up the issue," says Mr. Bali.

"I have tried everything I could. Knocked on doors, written to every Minister. Some people have even told me it is a lost cause … I will never give up though, I will continue trying, I have to," Mr. Sharma says, looking around at his relatives who have been visiting his house ever since the incident happened.

The house already has the atmosphere of a funeral home. The male relatives sit outside and talk in a hushed voice. Women surround Ms. Sharma and try to comfort her.
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