KARACHI, Oct 29: When the aroma of food cooking in other kitchens in their neighbourhood in Ibrahim Hyderi reaches her nose, Shama quickly shuts all windows so that her children won’t get a whiff and ask her what they are having that day.
“But it doesn’t help much,” says Shama, wife of Mohammad Ali, a Pakistani fisherman of Burmese descent serving time in India for having wandered into their waters two years ago.
“Even today we have no rice or wheat flour in the house. I have no idea where our next meal will come from,” she says, quietly shaking her head as she looks at the floor.
In 2010, Shama’s husband was on board their boat Al Asbab with their 14-year-old son Ahmed Noor and five others when they were arrested by Indian coastguards for crossing over to their side.
“Everyone on board was arrested and their boat seized. My son and the rest of the crew were released some nine months ago, but my husband is still there. They say that a boat’s captain isn’t let off that easily. We don’t know in which prison in what part of India he is as he was separated from my son, who was in the Jamnagar jail,” she says.
“Some others who have also returned recently and have heard about him tell me that he has lost his senses and keeps wondering about our son. Every teenage boy he sees, he calls him Ahmed Noor, they say. My poor husband doesn’t even know that his son is back home.”
As for the son, 16 now, she shares: “He used to be such a happy kid but the jail experience has changed him. He sits in a corner, brooding. He says the prison staff used to beat him up after he refused to go for pooja daily saying he was a Muslim and held different beliefs.”
Shama, who has been married for 32 years, has nine children — six girls and three boys. “My eldest daughter is married and earns a little through her beadwork embroidery. But she has her own family to take care of. Earlier, the neighbours used to help out a little by sending us some food or money sometimes, but after my son was released they have stopped that too as they say he can be the breadwinner now. But he is still a child, who is also disturbed about his father’s absence and our circumstances right now. He cries, too, sometimes. I can’t expect him to earn enough to support us all although he did go out on a boat once and returned with Rs4,000. But that’s all,” she says.
“Just like every Eid for the past two years, I hoped this time, too, that the Indian government would release my husband as a goodwill gesture. He used to take such fine care of us when he’d go to sea twice a month and returned with up to Rs13,000 whenever they got good catch.”
Asked if she would allow him to resume fishing when he returns, she thinks for a moment and says: “We have seen good times due to fishing. But we can live on less if my husband comes home. Having only fished for 40 years of his life, I know this is all that he knows, and he may not agree with me, but I will try to convince him to think about other options.”
“There is no demarcation at sea so we don’t know where Pakistan ends and where India begins,” says Abdul Karim, a Pakistani fisherman who was released sometime ago. “But still the trouble begins when we head towards the bordering Kajhar Creek for the bigger fish as the other nearby creeks only have shrimps and small fish. Only the bigger boats, the trawlers with big storage facilities and plenty of ice for carrying more fish head towards Kajhar and fish there for 10 to 15 days. The smaller boats stay nearby and I’m trying to go with them now as I can’t risk getting arrested again,” he explains. “Jails in India are sheer torture cells. They beat us all the time and give us small portions of rotten food that’s only enough to keep us alive.”
A few long narrow winding lanes away, another wife waits with her four little children for Dil Mohammad’s return. Rafiqa says her two boys, aged two and one, are not that aware of the situation but the two older girls often ask her about their father.
“My eldest, Razia, keeps taking out her father’s photograph whenever she misses him. Their grandfather, Maqbool Ahmed, an aging fisherman, got them new clothes and shoes on Eid but it is not the same thing. They want their father. I tell them that he will come back soon … I don’t know for how long I will have to keep telling them this until they lose hope completely. It has been seven months now,” she says.
“Dil Mohammad is in the Jamnagar jail, also known as GIC Kutch Putch,” provides Mohammad Hassan, a Pakistani fisherman of Burmese descent, who was released on Sept 28 with 45 other Pakistani fishermen. “All the other fishermen arrested with him have also been released now, but they have kept Dil Mohammad back because there is a problem with establishing his nationality,” he says.
“Like myself, he also doesn’t have a proper CNIC. Many of us fishermen of Burmese descent have been settled here in Ibrahim Hyderi for decades but are known as Bengalis. We have tried to get the identity cards but officials demand from Rs10,000 to 15,000 extra for that, which we cannot afford,” he said.
“Not having an identity card has posed several problems for us. For instance, we are not hired by factories, we cannot open bank accounts … Fishing is the only work we get and then if we get caught by the Indians for having crossed over to their border, there is no way of telling if we are Pakistani when they need to establish our nationality before deporting us.”
That’s where the non-government organisations come in. “We accept responsibility for these men while urging the Indian government for their early release,” says Kamal Shah, media coordinator of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum. “We have now been told that Dil Mohammad may be released within the next three months.”
The PFF official went on to say: “Normally we get in touch with the Indian authorities through the Arambagh police station the moment any of the fishing boats goes missing. That’s how we find out if our fishermen have been arrested at sea. Then we inform their families. Those who have no other means of earning also receive food rations from us, which is little consolation for their plight.
“There is also the matter of the way this fishermen problem is handled on both sides of the border. When the Pakistani government communicates with the Indian government about the nationality, etc, of a fisherman imprisoned here, they respond right away resulting in the quick release of the person after he has served his sentence. But when the Indian government does the same in the case of our people’s, our bureaucrats sit on the information or files for days and months, while the fishermen’s families suffer,” he says.
“Recently, a fishermen, Nawaz Ali Mohammad, died in India and it took 22 days for his remains to be brought here due to the red tape.”
Zahida Begum, wife of Abdur Rehman, is another victim of lack of information about her missing fisherman husband. “I have five sons and five daughters with the eldest being 17 and the youngest two years of age. The older children are all daughters so they can’t earn. My children don’t go to school. They go to bed on empty stomachs every night,” she says.
“My husband was suffering from a gastric ailment, which was so serious that I had on occasions seen him cough up blood. It has been eight months since my husband went missing at sea. I don’t know what’s become of him …”