Seventeen-year-old Vijay Babu is excited. After spending nine months in the Youthful Offenders Industrial School in Karachi, he is set to finally return to his village in Gujarat.
Vijay is one of the 311 Indian fishermen released here on Wednesday on orders of the Sindh High Court. The released inmates – 289 adults and 22 juveniles – will be taken to Lahore in an air-conditioned bus, from where they will enter India via the Wagah border. Officials say this is the largest batch of Indian prisoners to be released in the last decade.
Dressed in their best clothes and with all their worldly belongings in hand, they sat, smiling and wide-eyed, in three long columns. The excitement in the air was almost tangible, despite their long journey ahead.
As they boarded the bus, the fishermen embraced the police officials. One of the officials said quite humorously: “I hope I do not see any of you ever again.”
Two other adult prisoners have not completed their sentences while another 13-year-old fisherman is “unfit to travel”.
“He is ill and is currently admitted at the Civil Hospital Karachi. He has been officially released, and will be sent to India as soon as he gets well,” said Naseem Ahmed, assistant superintendent of the Malir jail.
Divided by invisible lines
Memories of the day of his arrest are still fresh in Vijay’s mind. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon, “the second of the tenth month, last year,” when he, with two friends from his village, went out fishing and unknowingly plied a few miles into Pakistani territory.
“There are no lines drawn out in the sea; how are we supposed to know where India ends and Pakistan begins?” he asked.
Vijay said they anchored their boat and had just begun spreading their net, when they saw a navy boat speeding in their direction. “That was when we realised we are in trouble.”
The three teenagers were then brought to the juvenile jail in Karachi, where they claimed they had been treated well. “We would be given food regularly, and they also let us have a lot of free time,” said Mahesh Bhagvan, who was on the boat with Vijay.
Sanjay, 13, was probably the youngest among the prisoners. He was wearing beaded necklaces, wrist bands and rings in his fingers. “We learnt how to make this during our time at the jail,” he said.
Sanjay solemnly swore that he would not practise his newly-learnt skills back in India, since, he said, “we don’t work in India, we only catch fish.”
He has not spoken to his parents since the day he left, and wonders if anyone from the family will be there to receive him.