KARACHI, Sept 30: There were tears, hugs and the joy of family reunions in the air as the Karachi Fish Harbour welcomed back 46 fishermen recently released from Indian jails.

Having had their first proper meal after months in Lahore and being handed over to Pakistan authorities at Wagah soon after that, the men boarded a coach which brought them to Karachi on Saturday evening.

Although the men’s ordeal lasted from six months to one-and-a-half years, the pain of bad memories from an excruciating time of their lives could be seen in their eyes and was heard in their voices when they shared their stories.

“We were fed curry which had worms floating on it,” said little Mir Mohammad of Thatta while speaking to Dawn. “But it was either that or going hungry. So we ate.” The slightly-built boy is only 14 and was part of the crew of a fishing trawler named Ghania that was said to have drifted to the Indian territory of the sea while catching fish. The boat was confiscated by Indian authorities and its crew arrested.

Another crew member of the same boat is 16-year-old Asghar Ali. He said that the boys were kept in the GIC Kutch Putch, a prison for adults in the Indian Gujarat. “No, we were not kept in any juvenile facility,” he said while answering questions about his wellbeing during confinement. “We were never included in any study courses or activities in the jail. However, during our time there were learned how to sweep and scrub floors.”

Another teenager, 18-year-old Abdul Kareem said, “The prison staff treated us like total criminals. They yelled and screamed at us day in and day out. ‘You are not here as a guest in your father’s wedding so you better work to earn your keep,’ is what they’d tell us.”

A more ‘experienced’ prisoner than others, Noorul Haq, a crew member of the Al Osama fishing trawler, said that he had been arrested at sea for the second time. “The first time was in 2008 and I spent 25 months in jail there before being released. This time around, I was arrested around six months ago,” said Mr Haq, but insisted that the fishing trawler had not crossed over to Indian waters when arrested.

“The Indians come over to our side and get hold of us to show that they are doing good work and keep adding to the numbers of Pakistani aliens they have arrested,” he said. “That’s all. It was never our fault. We were seven men on the Al Osama. Six of us have been released now but our captain, Abdul Kalam, was held back.”

Mohammad Alam, a crew member of the Al Khalid, said that he, too, hated the food in Indian prisons but not being allowed to write letters to get in touch with family back home was worse. “The food they gave us was just water added to rotten leftovers from some hotel but what was worse, was not letting us write a few lines to our family here,” he said. “The jail staff told us that if we kept insisting to write letters to our families then they might increase our jail terms by one or two years so we kept quiet.”

Most of the 46 Pakistani prisoners hail from Karachi, while five of them, Abdul Rahman, Ghulam Mustafa, Mir Mohammad, Asghar Ali and Ahmed, are from Thatta. The men were given a welcome reception and hearty meal by the Edhi Trust soon after crossing Wagah. Later, they were brought to Karachi by road by the Fishermen’s Cooperative Society (FCS), who also presented each of them with Rs1,000 in cash, food and refreshments before dropping them off at their homes.

Speaking on the occasion, the FCS manager Mohammad Rafiq Suleman said that it is very difficult to define territories at sea, which was why fishermen from both Pakistan and India were suffering. “Still, it is hopeful to see that the governments of both countries showing concern for these poor people who depend on the sea for their livelihood. It would be good if they are released after warnings when they cross the boundaries instead of arresting them right away,” he said.