Kidnapping reflects fears of Pakistan minorities

Peshawar, Pakistan - Five Sikh men who fled their hometown on the Afghan border were making a quick trip back home when masked men blocked their way with a pickup on a mountain road not far from the Khyber Pass.

There were no houses, no buildings, no other cars in sight. The kidnappers covered their faces with black scarves and carried machine-guns.

Surjeet Singh had just wanted to check on the small grocery store he had left behind in Dabori, the Pakistani town he fled a year ago when it was overrun with Taliban fighters and the government launched a bombing campaign against them. In an area torn by Islamist violence, it had quickly become a dangerous place for a non-Muslim.

Singh and the four friends traveling with him that day all wore the carefully wrapped turbans that made their Sikh religion clear.

They were going back to pick up money they were owed, or to check on their businesses. They had called friends ahead of time to check on the situation. They thought a quick trip would be safe.

"We were born there. We grew up there," said Singh, who today is recovering from a bullet wound in a small apartment in a crowded maze-like neighborhood of Peshawar, the largest city in Pakistan's northwest. "Our forefathers had been there for hundreds of years. We have houses, shops, land."

In today's Pakistan, though, that is not enough.

In a country beset by a powerful Islamist insurgency, where suicide bombings are commonplace and government offensives widely dismissed as ineffective, anyone can become a victim. But for the nation's minorities - its small communities of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs - life is particularly precarious. Thousands have fled their villages, crowding into urban slums. Thousands more have fled the country.

"With the rise in militancy in our society in general, and in the northwest in particular, minorities are feeling more threatened," said I.A. Rehman, a senior official with Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. He noted that many Sikhs have been driven from their homes, and those that remain are now often forced to pay the militants a "jizya" - a traditional tax for non-Muslim.

Singh's journey, which began on a cold morning in January and ended 42 days later with a March 1 bloody gunbattle, underscores the threats to those minorities, as well as the lawlessness of Pakistan's frontier regions.

Two months later, it's still not clear exactly why the Sikhs were targeted: Were the bandits waiting for them? Would they have kidnapped anyone who came by? Certainly their religion made them easier targets, since it is more difficult for them to make use of the region's informal power networks, the tribal and religious leaders who can protect people in the semiautonomous areas.

On that day, though, as armed men swarmed toward their car, shouting for the five Sikh men to move quickly, all Singh and his friends were thinking about was survival.

Two if them managed to slip away amid the chaos, but three - all sharing the same common Sikh surname, Singh - were quickly captured.

"They held us at gunpoint, immediately dragged us out of our car," said Surjeet Singh, a quiet composed man. He and his friends were blindfolded and driven for about an hour. Then they began walking.

They could see nothing through their blindfolds. They could only feel cold pressing in as they climbed higher into the Hindu Kush mountains.

After hours of walking, they were brought to a set of rooms carved into the mountainside. It would be their home for the next 42 days. There they would be kept chained and often blindfolded. Occasionally, they were beaten. The prisoners never saw their captors' faces - which were always covered with scarves - and even now they do not know who they were.

They clearly were militant Muslims, forcibly cutting their prisoners hair. Keeping hair uncut is a deeply important religious precept for Sikh men.

But the real reason for the kidnapping was quickly clear: money.

Surjeet Singh did not want to talk about ransom demands but the other survivor, 18-year-old Gurvinder Singh, told the Times of India newspaper that their captors brought them mobile phones on their first morning in the cave. They were ordered to call their families and say their freedom would cost 50 million rupees, or about $600,000. When it was clear that money could not be raised, the number dropped to 20 million rupees, or $240,000.

After that: nothing. The men made no further phone calls, their captors barely spoke to them. Their days passed in silence.

"Every day was like a month, and a month was like a year," Singh said.

After a few weeks, Jaspal Singh was suddenly taken away.

The other Sikhs were told he'd been freed. "'You will also be released if you give us money,'" their captors taunted them.

In the end, though, their captors got nothing.

Twelve days after Jaspal disappeared, the thunder of helicopters filled the air as teams of Pakistani commandos swarmed the camp.

The government has declined all comment on the raid, which was apparently among a series of attacks on insurgent camps. The Pakistani soldiers were surprised to find the kidnapped men who - with their hair now shorn - had a difficult time convincing their rescuers that they were Sikhs and not militants.

Amid the gunfire during the raid, Surjeet had been shot twice in the abdomen but is recovering well. Gurvinder, barely an adult, has moved in with family living in the far off city of Lahore. Both say that some day they hope to return home.

But the story doesn't end well.

When they arrived in Peshawar, the two friends discovered that Jaspal - 29 years old with a wife and four young children - was dead. He had been killed by the militants to pressure their families to pay a ransom.

He had been decapitated.