Thari family still waiting, six years in, for their son’s return

by Cheree Franco

THARPARKER, PAKISTAN

Jumun, a white-haired, leather-skinned farmer belonging to the Thar Desert’s Bhil tribe, described his youngest son, Pehjal Jumun, as mentally unstable.  “His mind would start spinning, and he would be angry for awhile. He would refuse to eat, cry for no reason. Then he would become alright again,” said Jumun.

On May 17, 2006, Pehlaj was a loving but moody 13-year-old, attending school and nursing Bollywood ambitions in his tiny hometown of Diplo. That evening, he quarreled with his parents and stormed out of the house. At the time, neither Jumun nor Mulah realized that it might be the last time they ever saw their son.

Jumun has seven children, ranging in age from 18 to 35. His daily life is an agglomeration of the hardships familiar to almost all who dwell in Tharparker District: resources are scarce, water is precious and healthcare is primitive. Pehlaj should most likely be medicated for the seizures he experiences, but a conventional doctor was beyond Jumun’s finances and his education.

“We took Pehlaj to a Sufi pir. He said to give him lots of love,” Jumun said. For the most part, Jumun and Mulah claimed their home life was peaceful and happy.

“Our son was fond of studying, and we all used to take care of each other,” said Mulah.

Initially she and Jumun didn’t worry. Pehlaj took no food or water—they were sure he’d be back soon. But when the night passed and he didn’t return, his family and neighbors began to search. Two days later, a khoji, or foot-tracker, discovered evidence suggesting that Pehlaj had crossed the Indian border, some 30 kilometers from his home.

Now Jumun worries about constantly. For five years and two months, his son has been languishing in an Indian prison. Authorities on both sides of the Indian/Pakistan border seem unable to predict when or if Pehlaj will return home.

“I have cried for so long that I have no tears left,” said Mulah, hiding her face behind her pink dupatta. One of her eyes is visibly murky, a congenital condition that she thinks has been aggravated by her incessant weeping.

The Pakistani Rangers contacted the Indian border police immediately, but they denied any knowledge of the missing teenager. They repeated this claim four times over the next 15 days, at subsequent white flag meetings.

There are thousands of illegal border crossings each year. Some of these are purposeful, but many are inadvertent. Hundreds of these crossings are committed by children under 18, who may end up imprisoned under hostile conditions. Both India and Pakistan intermittently release these detainees. Even last week, India returned 11 Pakistani teens, most of who were fisherman. The teens had been jailed for periods ranging from four months to two years.

When human rights activists get involved, it speeds up the bureaucratic process. Ateeq, a 12-year-old from Lahore, was released in March 2010, after hopping a train that he didn’t realize would take him across the border. He was trying to evade his father, whom he feared would punish him for a day spent kite-flying. An Indian advocate discovered the boy in a juvenile prison in Hoshiarpur and, with the help of various aid groups, Ateeq was released within two months.

In October 2010, 16-year-old Nauman Arshad, also from Lahore, was released after eight months in another juvenile facility. He was subjected to prolonged interrogations where he ultimately confessed, falsely, to entering India as a suicide bomber. The truth was, Arshad had fought with his mother one morning, then taken a bus to the border instead of going to school. He crossed on foot, still dressed in his school uniform, with a pocketful of almonds and a chemistry book in hand. His release came after Human Rights International took up his case.

Pehlaj has been less fortunate. Four years after his disappearance, in 2010, Indian officials finally admitted to holding the boy. An International Red Cross worker visited Pehlaj in Jammu prison, confirming his identity and sending a letter to his family: “Dear Father, I hope everything is alright there. I wrote some letters but unfortunately, I did not get a response,” Pehlaj wrote.

Jumun was dismayed to learn that his son was imprisoned in Jammu, far from where he had crossed the border. Jammu is particularly notorious for prisoner abuse. According to a 2005 Red Cross report which became public via wikileaks, detainees at Jammu have undergone electric shock, extreme stretching, suspension from the ceiling, crushing, water torture and sexual assault. Detainees suspected of being militants are routinely killed. The report was taken from 177 prison visits and 1,491 detainee interviews, the majority of which were obtained privately. Eight-hundred-and-fifty two inmates from Jammu and other Kashmiri prisons reported mistreatment. The report has been disputed by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

While first-hand inmate accounts place conditions as somewhat better in Pakistani prisons, there is still cause for alarm. In1999, Human Rights Watch reported that Pakistani prisoners, including children, are routinely hung upside down, beaten with straps and subjected to other forms of torture.

“Jails are bad enough as is,” said Fawad Sherwani, a representative of the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. “If there is animosity between countries, harsh treatment is inevitable unless the jails are well monitored.”

According to Sherwani, there are currently 646 Pakistanis in Indian jails. India released 300 Pakistani inmates in 2010, and so far 110 have been released in 2011. In the last two years, six Pakistanis have had premature heart attacks in Indian jail cells. The deaths were filed as “due to natural causes.”

A representative at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad said that statistics for Indian prisoners held in Pakistani jails are not available.

For Jumun and Mulha, the nightmare is ongoing. At some point, the allegation against Pehlaj was changed from illegal border-crossing to the more serious charge of violating the1959 Arms Act. This change probably coincided with his on-record move from the border town of Gujarat to the Jammu jail.

Sherwani doesn’t know the basis of these new allegations, but Pehlaj’s trial has been perpetually delayed.  “He could be tried next week or in ten years,” Sherwani said. “The charges are serious, but Pehlaj himself is not very important in the scheme of the Indian justice system.”

Currently Pehlaj has no lawyer of his own, although at trial he will have access to one of the High Commission’s staff lawyers. Sherwani said that the High Commission is attempting to monitor Pehlaj’s treatment, but access to the prison has been repeatedly denied. “Years pass and we are given no information. Prisoners can be detained after their sentences. False accusations are made and they have no defense. In some cases, a prisoner freed by a court order is not even released,” he added.

A representative from the Pakistani consulate has interviewed Pehlaj once, for 10 minutes, in half a decade. The interview took place in March 2010, and at the time Pehjal appeared “mentally sharp without any signs of trauma or deficiency,” Sherwani noted.

That visit, a little over a year ago, is the last word that Jamun and Mulah have on their son.  Jamun keeps careful records about Pehlaj’s case, collecting scraps of paper in a battered blue folder. He wonders about his son’s health and mental condition and prays that one day he will see him again. “My son is in jail and miserable, begging for help. Not one day goes by that I don’t think of him,” said Jamun.

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