Early in the morning of July 18, when Sonaullah Dar and his friends headed to a nearby village for an all-day cricket tournament, they had no idea they were about to be recruited to join a militant group based in Pakistan.
That, at least, is Mr. Dar's story, and he's sticking to it.
Dar and his friends appear to be the only people who were out of the loop. Back in their villages, rumors spread quickly that the young cricketers - some as young as 11 and 14 - were heading to Pakistan to join the 14-year-long struggle to wrest their Himalayan state from Indian control.
"We never intended to go to Pakistan," says Dar, adding that they stayed overnight at a friend's house and returned home the next day to surprised and relieved parents. "If they had taken us we would have returned. If they had taken us at gunpoint, then what could we have done?"
Across the vast and mountainous state of Jammu and Kashmir - which both India and Pakistan claim - the disappearance of some 600 boys and young men over the past year is a grave signal that the 14-year-long insurgency here is gaining energy. Kashmiri officials say that militant groups operating out of Pakistan are more aggressively going after local teenagers to fill their ranks.
Beyond roping in Kashmir's youth, the conflict has claimed nearly 60 lives a week for the past two months in a spate of suicide bombings that ended a five-month peace process between India and Pakistan. For India, this is a worrisome trend, in part because an increasing number of fighters are Kashmiri - undermining India's argument that the insurgency is a foreign (read Pakistani) invasion of their territory.
Since Delhi regards the Kashmir insurgency as an outside aggression, Indian officials tend to downplay the number of Kashmiri militants, many of whom are youths. Indian officials estimate there are 3,000 militants in the valley, and this week the state police inspector general, K. Rajendra, told reporters that 75 percent of the militants killed this year were Pakistani nationals.
Indian Army spokesman Lt. Col. Mukhtiar Singh says that local support for militants has declined over the past decade as militant attacks began to take a heavy toll on civilians, particularly the market-place grenade and bomb attacks by Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e Tayyaba and Jaish-e Mohammad.
"Kashmiris are used as guides or for providing food to militants, but not as fighters," says Colonel Singh. "Whatever support they have is under the threat of the gun."
But whether from fear or religious fervor or adventure, what is certain is that young Kashmiris are disappearing. In the advertising section of most local papers, wedged between the jobs wanted and the obituaries, are notices of "Boy Missing." Typical is the case of Amir Ah Reshi, son of Ghulam Mohammad of Bandipora. A recent notice described the boy as a ninth-grader who "left for school and did not return.... Amir was last seen in a local market where he had told a shopkeeper he was returning home."
According to local police chief Manzoor Ahmed, Bandipora is a major infiltration and recruitment zone for militant groups. Bandipora is about 30 kilometers from the Line of Control that separates Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, but Bandipora's rugged terrain makes it attractive to militants because Indian forces have difficulty operating here.
"They have good local support here," says Mr. Ahmed. "All the boys taken back to Pakistan by Lashkar and Jaish and Hizbul Mujahideen are working with [local] people they have worked with for almost 15 years."
While some boys say they were taken against their will, others may be motivated by an emerging variant of militant Islam preached in the estimated 3,000 new mosques built here in the last decade. Frustrated by the on-again, off-again peace process and fickle separatist leaders, today's "freedom fighters" have turned to something more rigid and dependable: militant Islam.
"Militancy is 14 years old now; all the boys who are joining the militants now were 1 or 2 years old when it began," says Surinder Oberoi, a journalist who has covered the Kashmir insurgency from its inception. "Before, the slogan was freedom, nationalism. Now, it's Islam, and we are starting to see young Kashmiri boys who are willing to do suicide attacks."
In the village of Vagera, where many of the rescued cricketers live, the boys' families proclaim ignorance at the presence of militants and are even wary of answering questions about their own sons.
The mother of Mumtaz Ahmed Dar says she was worried when her son didn't return on that night of July 18 because she had heard rumors that the boys were being taken across to Pakistan.
"I was worried that he might have gone across, but when he returned the next day I was extremely happy," she says. She doesn't necessarily think that her 18-year-old son wanted to become a militant, she quickly adds, but "we often hear of people from other areas going across and that is why I guessed the same had happened to Mumtaz."
Even though she says she is not worried about either the Army or the militants harassing her son, she refuses to give her name to a reporter. "You will have to record all the names of the other mothers who have lost their sons, and then you can come record my name," she says.
The father of Pervez Ahmed Dar says he was also relieved that his 19-year-old son didn't join the militants. "I was worried, but I have relatives in the village where they went, so I thought he might have stayed there overnight," he says, picking at a sickle to remove pieces of rice stalk from the ongoing harvest. Like other parents, he refuses to give his name.
"Militancy is in progress," he shrugs. "I'm an illiterate farmer. They can take my son across. Worrying is not a solution."
At this point, an elderly lady comes out, holding a small paring knife. "Why are you harassing us?" she shouts at a visiting reporter. "The ones with the guns are released and nobody bothers them. But you won't leave us alone."
BANDIPORA, INDIA - Two years ago, Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat went out to buy a candle. Nine months later, he returned a militant.
The story of this 18-year-old's capture in Kashmir and training in Pakistan will give discomfort to both sides of this 14-year-old struggle over the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir. Mr. Bhat believes he was trained in Pakistan, not by private guerrillas but by civilian officers of Pakistan's intelligence agencies. His story could not be independently corroborated and contradicts Pakistan's consistent assertions that it offers only "moral and diplomatic support" to the Kashmiri militants. But other youths tell a similar story. The profound support these militants receive inside Indian Kashmir also contradicts India's claim that the insurgency enjoys no local support.
"We lived in the homes of tribal people, we lived like families, cooked meals together," says the friendly, green-eyed teenager. "There were only militants in the mountain heights, but in the lower areas, we mixed with the local people [in Indian Kashmir], and they helped us."
Bhat's brief entry into the Kashmir militancy movement began on the dark streets of his hometown, Sopore. Gunmen from Harkatul Jihad-e Islami, a small but disciplined militant group, approached him on the main street itself, and told him they were taking him to Pakistan. If he resisted, or if he told his family, the gunmen said they would kill them.
Getting across the Line of Control into Pakistani-administered Kashmir was easy, Bhat says, since Indian Army or security forces go to the mountainous border only at rare intervals, perhaps once a week. On his arrival in Pakistan, Bhat says, the militants handed him over to Pakistanis.
"They wore civilian clothes like you," he tells a reporter, "and they asked me the same questions you are asking. They wanted to find out if I was an Indian spy." But the big tip-off that they were Pakistanis, not Kashmiris, is that they did not speak the Kashmiri language.
Bhat was then taken to a training camp in the mountains where he stayed for three months, along with 150 other young Kashmiris. They were trained, he says, by men in civilian clothes who had expert knowledge of weapons and military strategy that surpass that of typical militants.
Bhat also received some political and religious indoctrination, including speakers who would tell of the atrocities of the Indian forces in Kashmir and the need to protect Islam. "They were motivating us for carrying out military attacks," says Bhat.
He left the group, then under threat tried to return. He was arrested by Indian troops en route.