Footprints: Lost at sea

Published February 8, 2015
SHAH Bano, the mother of eight-year-old Ghulam Mohammad, quietly goes about her 
daily chores. Her son is one of the 238 Pakistani fishermen languishing in Indian jails.
—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
SHAH Bano, the mother of eight-year-old Ghulam Mohammad, quietly goes about her daily chores. Her son is one of the 238 Pakistani fishermen languishing in Indian jails. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

The sun crosses the meridian yet again and shines directly on the head. A lazy mutt with drooping ears twice circles the ground before collapsing on the dried mud veranda. A young goat nibbles at the twigs in the firewood piled up outside the little open-air kitchen. As her other children play and run around, Shah Bano quietly goes about her daily chores, every now and then her eyes pool up at the thought of the one not with her. She has no idea of how he is doing, whether he has eaten something or not.

Eight-year-old Ghulam Mohammad had heard stories about catching fish at sea from his father but after hearing about the experiences of Abdul Majeed, his12-year-old friend and neighbour, he had been after his parents to let him go, too. Of course, they refused each time until finally relenting some 12 months back. Ghulam Mohammad’s first sea trip aboard the fishing boat Allah Madad ended in his being caught with his five mates by the Indian coastguard.

Zainab Bibi, mother of the 12-year-old Abdul Majeed, says her son would talk about making money catching fish, which he wanted her to save up for him until he could buy a mobile phone for himself and set up a paan kiosk.

“There are around 238 Pakistani fishermen languishing in Indian jails for longer than the set punishment of three months for trespassing into alien territory. But even after the passing of that time, they are not deported and kept there while being treated like criminals. Children among them are the most vulnerable. They are not the same after returning from Indian jails. They are quiet most of the time and it seems that they have just forgotten how to smile,” says Gulab Shah, who works for the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF).

In Thatta’s Goth Yaqoob Katiar, six homes, including the two children’s, wait for the return of the fishermen lost at sea. Most Pakistani fishermen arrested by the Indian coastguard belong to Thatta (only 25 hail from Karachi) as Sir Creek, the disputed territory off India’s Gujarat can be accessed from here only.

“Of course, when at sea you can always drift into Indian waters and not know it but eyewitnesses have reported seeing Indian boats come into Pakistan’s Kajhar Creek to take away the fishermen with their boats from there as well. They are in full force here. They have boats, hovercraft and even helicopters patrolling their Kori Creek while Pakistan barely has a presence of that sort out here,” the social worker says.

“Unless another fishing boat witnesses what has happened, there is complete information blackout when a boat first goes missing around here. They could also have had an accident like we had assumed about the fishermen going missing during the 1999 cyclone,” says Gulab Shah. “But then the lucky ones deported from India come back with news of finding them in Indian jails.

Many fishermen caught also require establishing their nationality. For instance, the children from here obviously don’t have a computerised national identity card. That’s when the PFF comes into action to complete their documentation, which they hand over to the Fishermen Cooperative Society to be forwarded to India so that they can be repatriated to their country.

“Sometimes when there is news that India is releasing some of our fishermen, my phone just doesn’t stop ringing. Everyone here who has a loved one there wants to know if their relative is among the ones coming back. Then when the list arrives there are tears of joy in some homes and that of anguish in others,” he adds.

Despite the experience, all who return go back to fishing. Gulab Shah points to the carpenters building a new cottage in the village. “The owner just returned from a trip with Rs250,000 in his pocket. Fishing pays well usually and this is despite 50 per cent of the profits going to the boat owner and only the remaining half being distributed among the fishermen,” Gulab Shah explains. “Besides, with seawater seeping into the ground here, the land is no longer very good for farming.”

Yaqoob Katiar, the village elder after whom the goth has been named, himself has his only son, 17-year-old Habibullah, behind bars in India. “He appears in my dream sometimes and asks me to pray for him,” says Yaqoob’s ageing wife and Habibullah’s mother, Aina Bibi.

“My son Ali Akbar has us all, including his wife and five children, awaiting his return,” says Jannat Bibi, another mother whose daughter-in-law and missing son’s wife, Zeenat, says that the children keep asking her when their father is coming back. “They think he is still on a fishing trip. They don’t understand. And sometimes when they don’t stop asking me about what’s taking him so long, I just break down. That’s when the questions stop and we all have a good cry together,” she says.

“And with no MPA or MNA here to answer their queries about what is happening about the matter at the government level, these helpless people turn to us. Hearing of their pain, it is sometimes difficult even for us to hold back our tears,” says Gulab Shah.

Published in Dawn February 8th , 2015

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