Freedom at last

Print edition : March 21, 1998

THE 2,000-odd fishing families of Vanakabara, a hamlet in the picturesque island of Diu, had something to celebrate on July 17, 1997 - the homecoming of 50 fishermen who had been incarcerated in Pakistan for several years.

Raja Ram, Velji Ukara, Kanji Veera and Velji Laxman were returning home after spending nearly three years in Karachi's Landhi jail. They were apprehended by the Pakistan Navy on the morning of Deepavali in 1994.

Raja Ram said that they believed that they had not crossed the maritime boundary and that they were picked up from the Indian waters. He said that the group he was part of had not sailed even for 24 hours from home base.

Raja Ram, in his early forties, lost his boat. More important, the fate of his son Dhiru, who had accompanied him, was still unknown. After his capture by the Pakistan Navy, Dhiru was sent to a jail for juvenile delinquents, from where he was reported to have escaped. Velji and Kanji, who are in their early twenties, were reluctant to talk about the days they spent in Barrack No. 10 in Landhi jail. They did, however, remember the warmth and kindness of havaldar Aslam Baba. They said that Aslam Baba took good care of all the Indian fishermen in the jail where drug smugglers, robbers and other hardened criminals were also lodged.

Several fishermen said that they were not given enough food in the jails - they were served four rotis and a cup of dal a day. After the fishermen went on hunger strike and made representations to the jail superintendent, they were given provisions and allowed to cook their own food.

Raja Ram, Velji, Laxman and Kanji found it difficult to come to terms with their newfound freedom. However, they took courage from the fact that some of their friends ventured into the seas as soon as they returned.

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