September 23, 2005

Letters from Indian jail give Pakistani mother hope

By Athar Hussain

IBRAHIM HYDERI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Oblivious to the
overwhelming stench of cow dung, rotting fish and sewage, Mai
Aasi waits as she has done for 14 years for the return of two
sons and her daughter's husband from an Indian jail.

Hundreds of other impoverished homes along the Arabian Sea
coast were filled with joy this month following a mass release
of prisoners by New Delhi and Islamabad, most of them fishermen
who had strayed across disputed international maritime borders.

Living on the edge of the port city of Karachi, in a tiny
bamboo shack amid the teeming fishing community of Ibrahim
Hyderi, Aasi, 70, feels no such happiness as she prays for the
freedom of sons Siddiq and Achir Mullah and son-in-law Hussain.

"I don't remember the month or day when they were arrested
and I have now left it to God to reunite me with them," says
the old woman as she leans back on the floor of the hovel where
she lives with her youngest son, daughter and grandchildren.

Before the men disappeared the family owned two boats. Now
they live in squalor, barely able to afford the monthly rent of
500 rupees or cook a proper meal each day.

Frail and losing her sight, Aasi's hopes are kept alive by
letters from Achir saved in a small metal trunk to protect them
from the pervasive humidity.

"We keep writing regularly just to let you know we are
alive. Keep on praying for our release," Achir wrote in a
letter dated June 4 this year, in which he complains of never
getting replies.

India and Pakistan regularly catch droves of fishermen who
cross maritime boundaries.

But they let many more go, according to Lt-Cmdr.
Atiq-ur-Rehman of the Pakistan Maritime Security Services.

"Normally when they stray into our waters we warn them to
go back. We don't arrest them unless they come well into our
exclusive economic zone (EEZ)," Atiq said, referring to an area
that extends 200 nautical miles offshore.

"We know most of them are poor daily wage earners."

The unlucky ones are jailed without any trial or recourse
to legal aid, and routinely accused of smuggling or of working
for rival intelligence services, even though many are mere

Sami Memon of the Pakistan Fishermen Forum, a cooperative
body which looks after the welfare and rights of some 3 million
fishermen, said they were constantly fighting for the release
of those imprisoned in India.

When the forum took up the case of Aasi's sons with
Pakistani and Indian authorities it was told they had been
jailed for smuggling.


According to Sami there have been some cases where
Pakistani and Indian patrols have crossed into each other's
waters to snatch a fishing boat in retaliation.

"This happens when relations are not good."

At present, South Asia's nuclear rivals, which have fought
three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, are full of
goodwill gestures to nurture a peace process begun in January

On September 12, the two sides swapped hundreds of
prisoners at the Wagah border post, between the Pakistani city
of Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar.

Just 12 years old, but looking older, Rasool Baksh was
among 40 fortunate fishermen who returned home this month to
the fishing village of Thatta, 60 miles east of Karachi, after
spending a year in an Indian jail.

Despite the ordeal the boy insisted he would go back to sea
to make his living, just as generations of his family had done.

The first thing he and his mates did after alighting from
the bus into the arms of relatives and friends in Thatta was to
raise chants of "Pakistan Zindabad!"(long live Pakistan).

"It looked like Thatta would never come," said Mohammad
Hanif after the one-day drive from Lahore. He has grown a small
beard since he was arrested more than four years ago at the age
of 12.

"We were accused of being spies and I spent my time praying
to keep my spirits alive," Hanif said. "At times we were not
even allowed proper meals or to move out of our small cells for

The risks of fishing in these waters don't seem to match
the rewards.

Haroon Hussain Dabl, 71, has spent most of his life working
for thekidars, as boat owners are called.

"Ten years ago I used to spend up to two weeks out in the
deep sea, risking my life to earn 150 to 200 rupees a day.
Today the fishermen earn around 300 per day."