A village ails after Pakistani fishermen's arrest

The lives of the many who rely on the 26 fishermen who were arrested after straying into Indian waters are now at risk.

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    Sakina holds a photo released by Indian government agencies. In it are her nine family members who were among the 26 fishermen arrested by the Indian authorities on Dec 18 [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
    Sakina holds a photo released by Indian government agencies. In it are her nine family members who were among the 26 fishermen arrested by the Indian authorities on Dec 18 [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

    Kharo Chan, Pakistan - Hajiani lives in Ramzan Parerhi - a nondescript fishing village on Pakistan's coast near the Indian border, about 150km east of Karachi.

    She does not remember her surname, her age or where she is from.
    What she cannot forget, however, are the faces of her nine family members, who went fishing one morning last December and are yet to return.

    An eerie silence greets us as we enter this small village of five huts. Women and children, led by Hajiani, surround us. Their grief is palpable on their faces and their clothes are torn and grubby.

    On December 18, five boats carrying 26 fishermen were detained by India's Border Security Force (BSF) off the coast of the Indian state of Gujarat.

    The fishermen were imprisoned after straying into India's territorial waters. They had gone in search of a decent catch to feed their families and make enough money to fill the deep pockets of their contractors.

    Nine of those fishermen were from Hajiani's family of 39, all of whom survived on the earnings of eight men and a 12-year-old boy.

    They are now left with two adult men: 80-year-old Jumun, who had his right leg amputated two years ago, and 70-year-old Ramzan. 

    Abandoned fishing nets form a heap near the coast as the skilled fishermen of this village await their fate in an Indian prison [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

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    Nothing to eat

    Ever since the arrests, Hajiani's family has struggled to survive. Food supplies have run out and cooking pots lie overturned, unused for days. The women have now resorted to begging for food on the narrow, rarely frequented road connecting their isolated village to Baghan, a small town located 20km away.

    Villagers nearby help out with food donations from time to time, but it is never enough. They, too, lost a son, or a brother, or a husband in the December 18 arrests.

    "By arresting our men, the Indian forces took away our everything," Hajiani tells Al Jazeera, tears streaming down her heavily wrinkled face.

    "We don't have anything to eat. Our children will starve to death."

    The women start wailing and begging for the release of their men. The children hold up photos and the ID cards of their fathers and uncles.

    Hajiani's frail, trembling hands hold a photo of her grandson, whom she remembers as her "sweet boy". She then breaks into another cry, pleading to God, and anyone else willing to listen, to bring her boys back.

    The village itself is in a deteriorating state. Every time it is hit by rain or floods, the thatched roofs and doors, which are made out of sheets of straw and patched rags, give way. Even on a dry day, the conditions look far from easy to survive in.

    Inside each hut, earthen stoves lay abandoned; they have not been used in days. The villagers sleep on straw mats and broken charpais (woven cots), covered with traditional and colourful Sindhi quilts.

    Malnourished children play in the mud, in tattered clothes, as stray dogs, a fox and mongooses run around in the mostly marshy and bushy terrain of the village. Stagnant water from the Indus River washes over the shores of this village before meandering out to join the Arabian Sea.

    "We have no one to turn to except God," says Sakina, whose 12-year-old son Rustam was aboard one of the five captured vessels. "Sometimes, we eat one meal a day, sometimes we go to bed hungry."

    She is now scared of losing her daughter, too. Ten-year-old Rabia has not eaten in three days. She looks pale and does not respond to any questions.

    "Her fever won't go away, but what can I do? How do I take her to a hospital when I'm sitting here penniless? My husband is aged and sick, my son has been snatched from me, and my children don't have anything to eat."

    Hajiani pleads for her village's men to be returned home before their children starve to death [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

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    Watery borders

    India and Pakistan share a heavily-fenced land border which stretches over 3,000km. Over water, however, complications and disagreements over the decades-old Sir Creek delimitation mean that the maritime boundary remains unmarked and disputed. Often, fishermen from both sides, who do not have navigational equipment, traverse the contested demarcation and are arrested.

    Muhammad Ali Shah, a former fisherman, founded the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) to mobilise the fishing community. He tells Al Jazeera that crossing those borders in the Arabian Sea is an easy mistake to make.

    "It happens all the time as you can't draw lines or build walls in the ocean," Shah says.

    "The colour of the water remains the same on both sides. Sometimes, fishermen get caught and sometimes, they don't. Factors such as water current, cyclones and overnight shifting of vessels can push the unsuspecting fishermen across into the neighbouring country's territorial waters.

    "When they wake up, officials from India or Pakistan catch them unawares."

    In some cases, Shah adds, the breach of territory is simply done out of desperation for a good catch.

    "They have to go back and feed their families, who are relying on them. They are not terrorists, thieves or spies."

    Jumun, left, who lost his right leg in an accident, and Ramzan, right, are the only two adult men of their family left in the village [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

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    'All water looks the same to us'

    Back in the village, there is no sign of electricity. But thanks to an influx of solar panels, locals are able to use mobile phones - often their only connection to the outside world.

    Before his leg was amputated, Jumun spent most of his days in the ocean. He says the poor, deeply indebted fishermen from these small villages are unable to afford navigational equipment and simply rely on their own sense of seamanship.

    "Once we leave the coast and head into the ocean, there is no indication or marking for borders or territorial waters. We can't tell if we have crossed into Indian waters. All water looks the same to us."

    An official from Pakistan's navy, speaking to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, says not everyone who gets caught is innocent.

    "There is a good number involved in illegal activities, such as smuggling of contrabands and liquor," he says. "In some instances, they act as spies and even double agents."

    Al Jazeera made several attempts to contact India's BSF, but did not receive a response.

    Sundus holds up a national identity card belonging to her father Ibrahim, who was the sole provider for his family of seven [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

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    Fishermen for generations

    Fishing is the only skill these families have known for generations. Boys as young as five or six years old accompany their elders on fishing trips.

    By the time they reach their teens, they are experienced fishermen.

    "Typically, fishermen take huge loans from local contractors in order to buy boats and other fishing equipment," says Ilyas Samoon, a resident and shop owner from Baghan.

    "[The] price of a small boat is around 2m rupees ($18,750). Even though a good week's catch can earn them 200,000 rupees ($1,875), when all the loans are paid off and the money is split between the five or six men on a boat, each fisherman comes home with about 3,000 rupees ($29) for the week."

    Samoon helped Jumun write a plea for help to the local fisheries department, federal intelligence agencies and human rights organisations. They are still waiting to hear back from them.

    Jumun explains how money is borrowed from the contractors, who also buy the catch once the fishermen return.

    "The money is used for buying boats, fishing equipment, grocery and also food supplies for us on the boats. On our return, we pay the contractors back in the form of fish."

    Cross-border hostility

    Figures provided by PFF show that at least 150 Pakistani fishermen, 12 of whom are juveniles, are currently being held in Indian prisons. Similarly, 147 Indian fishermen are languishing in Pakistani prisons.

    Nasir Aslam Zahid, who is a former judge of Pakistan's Supreme Court and a member of the eight-person India-Pakistan Judicial Committee on Prisoners, believes that the fishermen are paying the price of cross-border hostility.

    "This problem persists because there is an 80-square-mile area close to the border where fish are found in the highest ratio. This area is no-man's land, but because fishermen veer out of it every now and then, they get caught by Indian or Pakistani forces who treat each other as enemies."

    Both countries occasionally
    release prisoners in publicity exercises termed "gestures of goodwill".

    But even after release orders are issued, it can take fishermen up to a year to return home after lengthy security checks are completed in both countries. They are then loaded on to buses - funded not by the governments, but by local philanthropists - and sent home on journeys that can take days.

    Fishermen return home empty-handed. Their seized boats, along with all their belongings and catch, remain across the border and are often sold off cheaply in local auctions.

    After going through the trauma of prison and uncertainty, the fishermen, under mounting debts, have to take out more loans in order to get back out to sea.

    "Border-crossing violators are held under the Foreigner's Act, and the maximum punishment for such cases is one year," Zahid explains.

    "However, due to thorny relations and bureaucratic delays, by the time these prisoners have their hearings, they have already spent two to three years in jails."

    Ejaz, who burned his leg in an accident, had not been to a doctor for six days as his father is in an Indian prison and his mother is in a hospital hundreds of kilometres away. His elderly grandmother can only watch over him and pray that he gets better [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

    Playing with lives

    The joint committee has forwarded several suggestions to both governments to minimise arrests, including inviting a neutral country's maritime force to resolve such violations.

    "If Sri Lankan maritime forces act as referee on sea, and simply put a fine on violators instead of arresting them, countless families would be spared the pain of separation on both sides of the border," Zahid says.

    According to the former judge, when relations between India and Pakista were better, Indian judges would visit fishermen held here and their counterparts would go to India on a regular basis.

    "The last cross-border visits took place three years ago as the governments aren't willing to arrange these visits or find a permanent solution," he says.

    "The prime ministers of both countries must sit together and resolve this issue," Zahid says. "It's not just the fishermen they are holding prisoners, they are playing with the lives of hundreds of families."

    On our way out of the village, we see a young boy lying in the shade of a straw cover, his elderly grandmother sitting by his side.

    Eight-year-old Ejaz had burned his leg in an accident. Lying on a straw mat, he winces in pain, as flies swarm to his burned, rotting skin. He has not moved from this spot or said a word for six days.

    "His father is in an Indian jail, his mother is admitted at a hospital in Karachi, so I am all that he has," the grandmother says, beating her head with her feeble hands.

    "Until his mother returns from Karachi after her surgery, or his father comes back from India, all I can do is sit here and pray."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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