January issue 2009
Pirating with Impunity
On November 24, Al-Hamza 14929-B, a boat with seven Bengali crew members and one million rupees worth of fish, was attacked by a group of seven pirates. The boat was returning to the harbour at Ibrahim Hyderi, Karachi, after spending seven days at sea, when it was attacked. Fisherman Abdul Ghaffar, who was on the boat, says, “This is not the first such incident. It usually happens to us [Bengalis].” This time, the pirates escaped with the entire catch of fish, fishing equipment and other valuables.
Ghaffar describes how the incident took place. “We were returning to Ibrahim Hyderi. At Dabi Creek, pirates besieged our boat and took away everything.” Fellow crewmember Noor-ul-Islam continues the story: “Upon approaching us, the pirates started firing in the air, which confused and harassed us. Then they jumped on our boat and started hitting us with sticks and the butts of their weapons.” Noor-ul-Islam is one of those who were badly injured by the pirates. “They beat me up badly because I was too slow in moving fish to their boat.”
According to one fisherman, the sheer number of pirates roaming along the coast of Karachi has caused panic among fishermen. Sami Memon, a representative of a fisherfolk organisation, says, “It started happening just five years ago. These pirates are not like the big Somali pirates. They are locals belonging to the coastal communities and are involved in narcotics and human trafficking.” At first, he says, only Bengali fishers were targeted. Now, everyone is fair game.
The police usually do little to stop the piracy. In the case of the Al-Hamza looting, while the police did register an FIR (which Ghaffar says is the first time the police have registered an FIR when a Bengali fisherman was targeted), they did nothing to follow up on it. Meanwhile, a local influential convened a meeting to settle the issue but no one showed up.
Noor-ul-Islam laments, “There is injustice against the Bengali fishing community because we are weak. On the sea, we can’t escape the pirates because they have powerful motor boats and automatic guns. On land, we don’t get justice because justice and rights are only for the mighty.”
Just four days before Al-Hamza was attacked, another Bengali boat had been attacked by pirates and one fisherman, Muhammed Shafi, lost three front teeth. Nearly two years ago, fisherman Muhammad Irfan was also the victim of a pirate attack. He says, “After 19 days at sea, we started heading towards Ibrahim Hyderi. Suddenly, a boat approached us and while shouting at us to stop, started firing indiscriminately.” Irfan was hit by a bullet in his left shoulder, and he, along with the rest of the crew, had to float along for 12 hours before they were rescued by another boat.
Irfan describes the ordeal: “I could hear my friends telling me not to fall asleep. It was very painful and I was losing consciousness. They were holding my shoulder and trying to stop the bleeding.” Fourteen hours later, Irfan arrived at the Jinnah Hospital in Karachi. He was operated on three times, first to remove the bullet and then to remove the poison that had spread through his left arm. In all, Irfan spent three months at the hospital.
The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a grassroots organisation that advocates fishermen’s rights, carried out an investigation into maritime piracy. It found that the first case of small-scale piracy was recorded in 2003. Since then, 679 fishermen and 97 small boats have been robbed of fish and other valuable items worth an estimated Rs.24 million. On average, two incidents of piracy are reported each month.
The Maritime Security Agency is responsible for dealing with piracy under the Maritime Security Agency Act of 1994. However, while the agency has proved to be extremely efficient at capturing the poor Indian fishermen who accidentally cross the unmarked border, there has not been a single case of a pirate being caught. The police also absolve themselves from any responsibility for tackling piracy by claiming that it does not take place under their jurisdiction. But all such incidents have to be reported to the Dock Police Station.
Ghaffar, complaining about the attitude of the police, says, “The maritime security agencies check us when we go fishing and return with our catch, but they do not stop looters who carry automatic weapons.” He believes no one listens to them because, in the eyes of the authorities, they are “just Bengalis, not human beings.”