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Post Magazine – Smokescreen

For more than a decade Himachal Pradesh in northern India has attracted thousands of Westerners in search of cheap hashish. Some never return: they are either murdered or their names are added to a growing list of the disappeared. Those who go in search of their loved ones face a hostile reception. So what is the dangerous secret of this beguiling region? Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark embark on a quest to find out.

Shepherds found the body, beached on the banks of the holy Beas River that thunders through northern India from the glaciers of the 3,541 metre Chandrakhani Pass. A police photograph taken last August, before the human remains were transferred to a ramshackle mortuary, shows what resembles a bald mannequin, of unidentifiable gender, its legs snapped off below the knee, possibly by the force of the river. The lips are contorted into a swollen pout and a small slit parts the skin on the crown of the head.

The police chief of the small mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, through which the river flows, told the Divya Himachal newspaper this was not the result of one of the dozens of fatal accidents that occur every year: farmers who slip off icy goat-tracks or become disorientated in violent snowstorms.

Launching criminal inquiry number 302, Superintendent Venu Gopal, confirmed the body was that of a Western traveller who had almost certainly been murdered. News of the killing sent a shudder through the isolated community. The region’s legendary name is Kulanthapitha, meaning the “end of the habitable world”, a spiritual land that drew pilgrims reassured by the fact its crime rate was among the lowest in Asia. Guidebooks described its inhabitants as a “joyful and gentle people”, some of whom claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great. It was said Lord Shiva, the Hindu god with the power to destroy and restore worlds, meditated here for 1,100 years, drawn by the majesty of the region. In the past 20 years, Western travellers have turned Himachal Pradesh into their Shangri-la. Psychedelic Israelis freed from the draft, Italian eco-warriors, British hikers, yogic flyers and “Eurostoners” are couriered in toy-town buses to the valleys of Kullu, Parvati and Malana. Beyond lies a rough-hewn landscape of escarpments and alpine forests where marijuana bushes grow three metres high and life has barely changed in 2,000 years.

Indian sadhus, dreadlocked living saints, mingle with travellers from the West and refugees from Tibet. Nepali porters tout for business alongside traders from Kashmir. The only difficult decision facing foreign visitors is whether to climb another mountain or roll a spliff at the riverside Ish cafe. News that a body had been fished from the Beas River threatened to change all that. It was not the first suspicious death in what locals call the Valley of the Gods. Himachal Pradesh was already being stalked by a series of brutal assaults and killings: there was a trail of bodies, stolen passports and traveller’s cheques that locals had tried their best to conceal.

There were recent reports that a 25-year-old Briton, Joel Kitchen, had gone missing on a paragliding trip in the state. Bad weather has been cited as a cause, and it is likely he was forced to make an unplanned landing. Other cases have more sinister implications. In July 2000, two German walkers were shot as they slept in their tent; Jorge Weihrauch, 26, was killed, while his friend Adrian Mayer-Tasch, 28, escaped with four shotgun wounds to the leg. No witnesses came forward. A month later, British civil engineer Martin Young, 32, his 34-year-old Spanish girlfriend, Maria Girones, and her 14-year-old son, Cristobal, were set upon and beaten while sleeping in their tent; Young survived, the other two died. Their killers were never found. Last December, a skeleton, still wrapped in its sleeping bag, was identified as missing Israeli military pilot Nadav Mintzer. His passport had quietly been offered for sale in the markets of Manali.

Initially, Gopal made little progress in the latest murder hunt, despite conducting 60 interviews and a fingertip search of the riverbank and surrounding villages: a considerable drain on his tiny mountain force. No one came forward to claim the body and no one would admit to knowing the dead foreigner. Modern science failed to assist the hunt for the killer. Dr D.K. Ghosh, the head of forensic medicine in the state capital of Shimla, concluded decomposition and water-logging had made it impossible to establish the exact cause or time of death. Gopal’s officers were already struggling to investigate more than 30 disappearances, all of them foreign travellers. When the police chief contacted embassies in New Delhi, his report was relayed to Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Russia, Australia and Canada. Emails passed between anxious families who had formed an amateur investigative network after their sons and daughters had all vanished in the same neighbouring valleys of Kullu, Parvati and Malana.

Was the body in the river that of Ian Mogford, a 21-year-old student at Britain’s Bristol University, who had gone missing on August 23, 1996? Or was it Ardavan Taherzadeh, a Canadian graduate who had vanished in May 1997; or Maarten de Bruijn, the 21-year-old son of a banker from Rotterdam, who had gone missing in May 1999; or a Russian economist, Alexei Ivanov, aged 33, who had disappeared in April 2000? The names fill several files in Gopal’s office: Paul Roche, Odette Houghton, Heinz Ruegg, Marianne Heer, Greg Powell … the list goes on.

In the kitchen window of her home in Chippenham, England, Chrystalla Mogford, the mother of missing student Ian, lights a candle every morning in memory of her son. Her husband, Frank, a retired RAF Wing Commander, says: “Every time we hear news of another body found in Himachal Pradesh, we dread the phone call. We still believe Ian is alive, but it’s been six years since he went missing. I’m sure people know what happened to him and the others. But why is it such a close-knit community refuses to talk?”

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