When news broke on Friday evening that many youngsters from Kerala had gone missing over the past couple of weeks and were suspected to have left to a country operating under the Sharia law - many families in Kasargod and Palakkad clutched at their hearts a little tighter.
A few of the families of close to 17 people -comprising married couples and their kids- who went missing on different dates in and around May this year, dread that they could have joined IS or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), a Salafi jihadist militant group indoctrinated in Wahabi fundamentalism. The Kerala police however say there is no conclusive proof to show that these people had joined any organisation.
While 13 of them hail from Kasargod district, the rest belong to Palakkad, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.
It was about a year ago that the families of 32-year old Bexen, his wife Nimisha, younger brother 24-year old Bestin and wife Merrin got to know about their conversion to Islam. None of the four however are likely to respond to these names anymore.
After conversion, Bexen, Bestin and Merrin, who were all born Christians, took the name Isa, Eshia and Mirriam respectively while Nimisha, who was born into a Hindu Nair family in Thiruvananthapuram chose the name Fathima.
Merrin and Bestin left home on May 15 for Sri Lanka to study Islam. Nimisha and Bexen followed suit three days later.
While Merrin has not maintained contact with her parents since then, Nimisha was in constant touch with her mother over WhatsApp. Nimishaâs mother Bindu says that her daughter stopped calling her after they purportedly left for Sri Lanka, but did constantly message her. However, she too has not heard from Nimisha since June 5.
It was over a year ago that Vincent and Elsi began to notice obvious changes in their sonsâ attire and behaviour. According to them, Bexen and Bestin began to maintain long beards and wore trousers that did not quite come up to their ankles.
Concerned by the sudden transformation, the parents questioned the brothers. It was then Bexen and Bestin revealed that they had converted to Islam.
âWhat could we have told them? They are both grown-up men. One fine day, they just got converted and married girls of their own choice,â said Elsi, their step-mother.
The parents are unclear about when exactly their sons converted to Islam, though Elsi says that it was Bestin who first did so. Bestin took the name Eshia, and later convinced his brother Bexen who went on to take the name Isa.
Both the brothers got married in a sudden move that surprised their parents, just like the conversion. Bestin brought Merrin home unannounced, saying that she had also converted to Islam and that they were now married.
âThey said their ânikkahuâ was over, so we helped them register their marriages,â recalls Vincent who runs a home appliance shop in Palakkad.
In November, the parents watched their elder son too bring home his bride -Fathima alias Nimisha.
Apparently, it was one Rashid who works at Peace International School who introduced Bexolen to Nimisha, a BDS student at CDS college in Poinachi. 29-year old Rashid, his wife Ayesha and their toddler have also been missing since May this year.
Bexen(Isa) and Nimisha (Fathima)
âBexen did not know Nimisha at all. It is Rashid who set up the meeting at her college in November,â Elsi remarks. Ayesha is believed to be instrumental in Bestin and Merrinâs decision to leave home.
Bestin, the younger brother, had moved to Ernakulam to pursue his Plus Two education. Thatâs where he and Merrin became a couple. Mini -Merrinâs mother- was aware of their relationship.
âWe knew about the affairâŚshe had told us. She also informed us about their break-up when Bestin converted to Islam. According to what she said, he did not contact her for three years, while she pursued her degree course. She got a job with a company in Mumbai last May. Till about four months into job, everything was normal,â Mini reminisces.
Merrin used to share an apartment with a friend from college. When Ebin -her elder brother- went to Mumbai in search of a job, he found Merrin was a regular visitor to mosques and a Muslim coupleâs home.
Bestin had also relocated to Mumbai and had eventually convinced Merrin to convert.
âWhen we insisted Ebin bring her back home at once, she did not object. Her friend later sent all her belongings and she never went back to Mumbai,â Mini adds.
But her âodd behaviourâ persisted with her refusal to go to church, rejection of evening prayers and questions on the authenticity of Christianity.
âShe would question me on many biblical verses, and insisted that St. Paulâs letters in the Bible were untrue. She once told me that Jesus is not the son of God,â Mini said.
Her familyâs persistent efforts to reason with her were met with arguments. Sometimes when she was unable to answer her parentâs questions, she would lock herself in her room, contact the couple in Mumbai who constantly âbrainwashedâ her and come back with counter-arguments.
It was a couple of weeks before the Ramadan month began that the family last heard from Merrin. Merrin used to speak to her parents over phone on most days.
However, when she did not contact them for a few days, Mini tried calling her instead. But Merrinâs phone was switched off: âThen one day it did ring, but in vain.â
Two weeks ago, Nimishaâs mother contacted Merrinâs family, worried over not being able to get in touch with Nimisha. However, both mothers are clueless about the whereabouts of their daughters, with Mini then not even aware of Merrinâs trip to Sri Lanka.
Mini recalls that Merrin used to make regular visits to Kasargod to meet Ayesha (Rashidâs wife and a convert herself): âMerrin had told me that converted girls like her would stay at Ayeshaâs house in Kasargod.â