Missing New Jersey Man's Name Turns Up in Kabul
By DAVID ROHDE and JAMES RISEN
The New York Times
At Perth Amboy High, Hiram Torres was the valedictorian of the class of 1993, the son of a seamstress who charted a course from his hard- edged industrial hometown in New Jersey to Yale University.
He was also a headstrong teenager whose best friend said he nursed a disgust for American culture and a vision of traveling the world and becoming a revolutionary. He left Yale barely a month into his freshman year, moved to Bangladesh and then Pakistan, and last called his mother in 1998 to say he was studying in Afghanistan. She has not heard from him since.
But in December, Mr. Torres's name, his address in New Jersey and telephone number and other personal information were found on what appears to be a list of recruits left in a house in Kabul that neighbors said had been used by pro-Taliban Pakistani militants. The undated document, found by a reporter for The New York Times, says that Mr. Torres became a Muslim 10 months earlier in Pakistan and that he is also known as Mohammed Salman. "He is 20 years old, unmarried, knows driving," the document says. Mr. Torres would now be 27, suggesting that the list is seven years old.
The document is just one clue in the mystery of Hiram Torres's fate. Unlike John Walker Lindh, who was captured after fighting for the Taliban, there is no indication that Mr. Torres joined the anti-American forces in Afghanistan. But Mr. Torres is apparently the only American besides Mr. Walker whose name has been found connected in any way to militant groups that operated in Afghanistan.
The list, written in Urdu with some parts in English, includes the names of 17 other young men, 16 with Pakistani home addresses and one from Saudi Arabia. Code names are listed for many of them.
Although the list does not carry the name of any organization, it was found in a house strewn with documents and materials from Harkat ul- Mujahedeen, a Pakistani group with ties to Al Qaeda. Among the papers were tickets, passenger lists and boarding passes from an Indian Airlines flight hijacked in 1999, which Indian officials ascribed to Harkat.
By all appearances, the two-story house in the diplomatic section of Kabul was used as a base by the Pakistani militants. There were also business cards and stationery from Harkat, as well as combat and bomb- making manuals in Urdu, Arabic and English, and Qaeda military documents, apparently distributed by Osama bin Laden's group. Two of the other names on the list that includes Mr. Torres's were identified on the document as "previously related to Harkat ul-Mujahedeen." In an indictment unsealed yesterday, prosecutors said Mr. Lindh trained in a Harkat camp in Pakistan before entering Afghanistan.
American military and intelligence officials said they were unaware of Mr. Torres's identity or possible presence in Afghanistan. Officials at the United States Central Command, which is in charge of military operations in Afghanistan, said he was not being held as a detainee.
His mother, Olga Torres, who now lives in Puerto Rico, was stunned when told of the discovery of the list containing the name of her missing son, and she feared the worst. "I always think of him," she said, weeping. "I'm afraid he's dead. I don't know what to say."
The full story of Hiram Torres may never be known, but his eventual transformation to Mohammed Salman was foreshadowed during his years in Perth Amboy.
He grew up with his mother, a garment factory worker, in an apartment in a small building with a postage-stamp yard. The front windows look out on a narrow residential street crammed with other duplex houses. The rear windows overlook a truck depot.
Teachers at Perth Amboy High School said Mr. Torres was an introvert but an academic standout. His grades averaged 97 out of 100, and he scored 1350 on his SAT, according to records released by his mother and the school, and had nearly perfect attendance. Fluent in English and Spanish, he also studied German, Russian and Latin.
Some teachers also remember a hostile, alienated edge. They said Mr. Torres could be opinionated and difficult to deal with, and they remember his speaking his mind in a rude manner. He boycotted the National Honor Society, and at graduation refused to give his speech as valedictorian because school officials insisted that they be allowed to approve his text in advance, according to teachers, who asked not to be identified.
Mr. Torres formed a bond with Sachin Timbadia, the class salutatorian, the eldest son of a divorced mother of three from India. Bright and bored, Mr. Timbadia said they were alienated by American society and shared a contempt for the shallowness of their surroundings. "The culture of America, the materialism of America," he said. "The mediocrity around us."
Mr. Timbadia, who has not seen his friend since they graduated but is eager to find him, said they had envisioned traveling the world and becoming revolutionaries. They vicariously escaped Perth Amboy by devouring books on World War II, moving through the philosophical treatises of Kafka and Kierkegaard and ultimately on to the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad-Gita. They read about secret societies and spy groups. In his bedroom, Mr. Torres hung a flag from "The Iron Guard," a fascist, anti-Semitic Romanian secret society, Mr. Timbadia said.
"His dream was to be part of a revolution somewhere," Mr. Timbadia recalled. As a senior, he said, Mr. Torres refused to have his yearbook picture taken, explaining that he "wanted to keep a low profile in case something happened in the future."
He said Mr. Torres explored several religions while in high school, including Buddhism. By his senior year, he was trying to teach himself to read Arabic. But Mr. Timbadia said he never knew of Mr. Torres visiting a mosque or practicing Islam. Instead, Mr. Timbadia said their interests were constantly shifting, part of a search for meaning. Hiram Torres had a yearning for rigor in his life and "to belong," Mr. Timbadia recalled.
"During the whole four years we were just spouting whatever we were reading," he said. But he said he did not think Mr. Torres would use violence. "I can't recollect any episodes where his anger came out," he said. "There was not any violence in this guy. It was just a lack of personal attention, lack of structure, lack of discipline."
Mr. Timbadia took the youthful yearnings for revolution less seriously. After graduating from New York University, he became a software consultant in Silicon Valley.
The two friends had grown distant by the end of their senior year in high school. Mr. Timbadia was no longer committed to their dream of fleeing, feeling he had to help his mother raise his two younger siblings. A few days before graduation, Mr. Torres asked Mr. Timbadia whether he was still interested. He said no. "At graduation, he came over and said, `Good luck,' " Mr. Timbadia recalled. "That was the last time I saw him."
During high school, Mr. Torres had participated in the Upward Bound program for talented, low-income minority high school students at nearby Rutgers University, and there had befriended a student whose family was from Bangladesh. The summer after graduation, he traveled with the boy and some of his relatives to Bangladesh.
Mr. Torres returned from a month in Bangladesh a changed person, his mother said. When Ms. Torres picked him up at the airport, he was wearing a white sharwal kamiz, the flowing, baggy pants and shirt worn throughout the Indian subcontinent.
"I did not recognize him," she recalled. "He said, `That is the country where I want to live.' "
Ms. Torres said her son began wrapping sheets around his head like a turban at home and expressed anger at the poverty he saw in Bangladesh. He also praised the role of women there.
"He said he liked it over there because women respect the men," his mother said, in an interview in Puerto Rico. "They didn't act that way in the States."
Ms. Torres managed to talk him into following through with his plans to attend Yale. But it was clear that his heart was no longer in college. He lasted barely a month at Yale and officially withdrew on Oct. 20, 1993, a university spokesman said.
William DiCanzio, who was dean of the residence where Mr. Torres had been assigned, wrote in a letter to Mr. Torres's mother that he was "very surprised by Hiram's decision which he made without consulting me." In an interview, Mr. DiCanzio said he remembered the incident largely because it was unusual for a student to leave college so quickly. He declined further comment, citing privacy issues.
After leaving Yale, Mr. Torres lived for several months with an aunt outside Boston and worked odd jobs, saying he was saving money to return to Bangladesh. He told his mother he preferred the culture there to that of the United States. But still she thought it was a bluff. "I didn't think he would do it," his mother said.
He spent the Christmas holidays with his mother in Perth Amboy, and she said she last saw him on New Year's Day 1994.
Mr. Torres called his mother after arriving in Bangladesh. But he did not stay there long. Several months later, he called her again, this time from Pakistan.
She heard from him for the next several months through intermittent calls from Pakistan or messages relayed through friends. But eventually - Ms. Torres cannot remember precisely when - her son called to say he was in Afghanistan. When she asked what he was doing, he said he was studying. His calls grew less frequent. She said she heard from him last in 1998, when he said he was still in Afghanistan, studying.
She has had no trace of him since, until she was shown her son's name on the list found in Kabul.
"Do you think this will help me find him?" she asked. "I don't want to die before seeing him again."
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