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Starting a new life in Pakistan's Azad Nagar, a colony of ex-slaves

Starting a new life in Pakistan's Azad Nagar, a colony of ex-slaves

By Rabia Mehmood

Photos by Luke Duggleby / Redux

Produced by Mark Rykoff

Edited by Jayati Vora, Mark Rykoff

A mother and daughter, above, new arrivals to the village after being rescued from bonded labor, stand by a tent they will live in until they have time and money to build a solid house.

Published on Sunday, September 21, 2014

AZAD NAGAR, Pakistan — In 1998, Veeru Kohli, then a slave on a farm in southern Pakistan, ran away from her captors. She walked shoeless for miles until she reached the sanctuary of the village where her brother lived. “I had thorns in my bleeding feet, which were removed by my sister-in-law,” she recalls, breaking into tears.

The local police, hand in glove with the farm’s powerful owners, or zameendars, beat her up in an effort to force her to return. She received death threats against her children, who were still on the farm. She would be raped, Kohli was told. But she was determined to escape slavery and was able to win freedom for herself and her family.

Now a respected community leader and labor-rights activist, Kohli is a familiar face in Azad Nagar, or “home of the free,” a colony of ex-slaves like her who live on donated land on the outskirts of the city of Hyderabad, in Pakistan’s Sindh province. Sixty families live there, most helped by two local nonprofits, the Green Rural Development Organization and Action Aid, to escape their owners. Almost all are part of Pakistan’s minuscule Hindu minority and belong to the oppressed Scheduled Castes, a marginalized group who are victims of caste-based discrimination.

Veeru Kohli, 50, left, at the offices of the Green Rural Development Organization, in Hyderabad. Right, Hindu women, rescued from slavery, queue for the water pump in Azad Nagar. (Click to enlarge images)

It may sound like something from the pages of a history book, but slavery is still prevalent today. The most common type is bonded labor, a debt-based form of slavery in which a person’s labor is the means of repaying a loan. In several countries in South Asia, including Pakistan, whole families are enslaved in bonded labor, and children can be born into slavery when their parents are indebted. Unlike in some other countries where it is foreigners who are exploited, in Pakistan, bonded laborers are usually citizens, and the practice is caste- or debt-based and culturally tolerated.

According to the 2013 Global Slavery Index, Pakistan has more than 2 million enslaved people, the third most in the modern world, after India and China. These laborers generally work in brickmaking, fisheries, agriculture and the mining industry.

Kohli, a former bonded agricultural laborer, says that slaves can be free, too, if they fight back. And the first step is overcoming one’s own fear of the zameendar.

“I tell all haaris [landless peasants] that a feudal is not God,” says Kohli on a scorching hot July day, “so they should learn to talk back and hit them back with their chappals [slippers] if need be.”

When she ran for a seat in the provincial assembly as an independent candidate in May 2013, she faced death threats from local politicians and feudal lords. When vinegar didn’t work, they tried honey — Kohli was offered bribes worth millions of rupees, which she turned down. Though she lost the election, she earned praise for her courage in challenging the candidate from the Pakistan People’s Party.

Azad Nagar residents sit in the office of a workers' union, left, that they established to put pressure on landlords in the area not to mistreat their workers. Right, a small school set up to teach the children of the families in the village. (Click to enlarge images)

Despite the heat of the day, a large crowd of women has turned out to hear Kohli speak. They’re dressed in brightly colored ghagra cholis, traditional long skirts paired with blouses, their heads covered with long dupattas, or scarves, and hands encircled with plastic white bangles. They stand out in humble Azad Nagar, with an old and dilapidated school building shrouded in dust, few trees to provide shade and ordinary mud houses.

But this modest colony is leaps and bounds better than the circumstances of bonded labor. The cultural sanction of slavery in South Asia — across the border, India fared even worse in the GSI report — means that feudal landlords get away with just about anything, despite a 1992 act abolishing bonded labor in Pakistan. (It doesn’t hurt that the main political party in Sindh — PPP, the party of the late Benazir Bhutto and ex-Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari — is dominated by the feudal elite.)

Gull Bano, one of the residents of Azad Nagar, belongs to a clan of 84 former slaves who were all drugged and kept hostage by a Sindhi feudal lord until five years ago. Her shack is squeaky clean and adorned with handmade quilts; locally made steel utensils are scattered here and there.

“I was pregnant at the farm one day,” she says as she blinks back tears, and “the guard appointed by the zameendar did not let me stay back to give birth. So I took a break from harvesting the wheat crop and gave birth under a tree with my mother-in-law’s help.”

She’s not the only one: Several women at the colony have similar stories about childbirth under difficult conditions when they were slaves, of not being able to feed their children or stay at home with their babies.

Other former slaves volunteer their information. Kasturi, a 40-something mother of 10 who came to Azad Nagar after the devastating 2010 floods, in which nearly 2.5 million people were affected, recounts days spent building a dike to prevent the floodwaters from reaching the crops on the farm where she worked. Every time they stopped to take a break, she says, the guards would hit them. “During those days we were not even given wheat for bread,” she remembers, and soon after, they escaped from Mirpur Khaas, a city in Sindh, where the farm was located.

Members of the extended Bheel family, all of them former slaves, from left to right: Soomer Bheel, 48, enslaved for four years for owing $1700, Hami, age unknown, enslaved for seven years for borrowing $670, Khaton, 15, the child of slaves, lived in bondage until she was five. (Click to enlarge images)

Soomer Bheel, of the low Bheel subcaste, is one of the few literate residents of Azad Nagar. Out of respect, he is called Soomer Bhagat; in the South Asian religion of Sikhism, bhagats are holy men or devotees. A Hindu, Bhagat remembers being constantly afraid of forcible conversion to Islam by the guards and contractors hired to watch the workers. “It is a common threat,” he says, “and there is nothing that peasant men can do other than trying not to provoke the cruel oppressors.”

Explaining the accumulation of debt that makes it impossible for bonded laborers to buy their freedom, he says, “If the zameendar lends us 50,000 rupees, he would write down 150,000 in their accounts sheet. If we are given 20 kilograms of wheat to cook our chapaatis, the accounts would mention 60 kilograms. For our medical emergencies, if we are give 200 rupees and sent to local doctors recommended by the lords, the sheet would have the figure of 500 as the medical loan.”

Ninety-year-old Hamzio Babar, from one of the three Muslim families in the colony, was trapped in a cycle of debt that on paper totaled 150,000 rupees, or about $1,460. In an effort to free the 12 members of his family, he had to sell half his cattle to pay off the police and hire a lawyer. Now he and his wife, Nazam, are free, but too old and frail to work.

A Human Rights Watch report from 1995 on bonded laborers in Pakistan explains the historic dealings between the peasants and the landlords: “These relationships are reinforced by contemporary agricultural policies which give landlords privileged access to land, resources, and credit. In many cases peasant children inherit the debt, and thus the working conditions, of their parents.”

Denied credit by banks, landless laborers rely on zameendars to extend them loans for basic necessities, which quickly spiral into debt bondage. “Failed harvests, common occurrences in Pakistan, often result in such limited options for economic survival that peasants must literally mortgage themselves to a landlord,” says the HRW report.

Faisal Siddiqi, a renowned human-rights lawyer who has fought high-profile cases of “hard-core bonded labor” in Sindh, says that the absence of sufficient legal aid is a major obstacle in fighting slavery in Pakistan. “There has hardly been any case where landlords or their hired goons have been punished for keeping laborers under bondage, raping of peasant women … And the lack of effective legal recourse and aid to the poor, which is a general issue in the country, is not in the reach of bonded laborers. The courts need to resist such systematic persecution.”

But the rehabilitation of people who have only known oppression is not easy, says Karamat Ali, executive director of Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research. “Most of the political leaders in the Parliament and the top decision-making positions in the mainstream political parties still come from a feudal and landed background; they are heavily biased against the abolition of bondage despite the existence of constitutional provisions, laws and institutional provisions against its existence.”

A young girl stands by a fire in Azad Nagar. (Click to enlarge images)

Their freedom gives them courage, say the former bonded laborers. In the summer of 2008, a feudal lord with political influence came to the outskirts of Azad Nagar and started shooting at the mud huts in the middle of the night; he wanted to abduct former slaves who had escaped his landholding. Then he and his thugs tried to make away with a few young men from the colony, but several women came out with batons and shoes in hand and repelled the would-be kidnappers. Similar incidents with different landowners have occurred, Bhagat’s mother, Padma, declares proudly, and “we face armed attackers without weapons and we manage to scare them with our determination every time.”

There are at least seven similar camps or villages of freed slaves across Sindh, but there is still a long way to go, say Babar and Bhagat. One reason is their low wages: Bhagat, like Kasturi, Gull Bano and Kohli herself, makes a paltry 100 rupees (97 cents) for a 12- to 14-hour workday.

“Even now as a free farmworker,” Bhagat says, “we are paid without any profit, so [there is] hardly any improvement in our income.” Meanwhile, relatives who were not lucky enough to be rescued remain trapped in the haari system, and without help from a disinterested government, their situation doesn’t seem likely to change.

Some local sugar cane processing and brick-making businesses near the village have made agreements with the workers' union to give the laborers work that pays fairly and on time. (Click to enlarge images)

Babar’s daughter-in-law Nusrat believes that outsiders haven’t done as much as they can to improve the plight of landless laborers. “It has been six years since we are here,” she says, and “my kids can hardly read or write, as the Azad Nagar school is run inefficiently. There is no clean water to drink, my kids fall ill all the time, and I have no money to pay for my daughter’s eye operation. We cannot make it on our daily meager wages.”

Indeed, there are many deficiencies in the hamlet. There is no medical unit nearby, no functioning sewage system and a lack of latrines. The nearest government school is a long walk away. But Kohli sends her daughters to school despite the obstacles and she plans to run again in the next national election.

And Kasturi, the woman who was starved by guards while building a dike, says that at least she and her neighbors at Azad Nagar are free. Now, “if we want to take a break we can do so,” she says. “Nobody would force me to leave my home unless I need to… we can breathe with freedom.”

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