Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Five Christian families have been freed after being held for more than two decades as slaves in a Muslim-run brick kiln in eastern Pakistan, Christian officials involved in the rescue operation told BosNewsLife.
The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), a major advocacy and aid group, said it provided two vehicles for the May 6 raids at the brick kiln in the industrial city Wazirabad in Punjab province.
Nasir Saeed, a CLAAS director, told BosNewsLife that “a total of eight” Christians were found working as slaves in the area, representing five families.
Some were detained around the brick kiln itself; others at a nearby location linked to the operation’s owner, Gul Nawaz Cheema, he added.
“CLAAS’s staff accompanied the bailiffs to two separate locations” after petitioning the the Lahore High Court, he explained.
There were no reports of arrests, with police allegedly reluctant to further investigate the case.
In statements obtained by BosNewsLife, Christians said they had been “in bonded labour for more than 25 years”. One of the women, Safia Bibi, said she started working at the brick kiln along with her husband Anwar Masih, soon after her marriage.
She said their nine children were all born at the brick kiln where they grew up and soon started working at the brick kiln.
The Christians claimed they lived in a house at the brick kiln without basic facilities such as a bathroom or toilet. Owner Gul Nawaz, whose name was publicly identified, “often made this family work without wages and whenever they tried to leave, he severely tortured them,” CLAAS investigators said.
Christians said they would “sometimes have to go for days without food” and when they demanded money, “were forced to work more”.
In 2013 Safia’s husband reportedly died due to sickness and weakness because he was forced to work without food. “He was prevented from visiting a doctor, but would not have been able to afford treatment even if allowed,” CLAAS said. “His children were not allowed to attend his funeral and were forced to work on the day.”
Though they were Christians, they were were not allowed to attend prayer meetings or celebrate Christmas and other religious festivals, according to investigators.
Saeed told BosNewsLife that “it is sad that even in the 21st century, slavery still continues” in Pakistan, a heavily Islamic nation.
“Although it is illegal to take employees into bonded labour, brick kiln owners are rich and influential, and therefore they are hardly questioned and brought to the justice,” he said.
“Even if they are raided they get away with offering bribes and drawing on their local influence.”
Many Christians are forced to work in brick kilns to pay off family debts, rights groups say. “Most of the money they earn goes towards paying their existing debt,” Saeed explained. “As a kiln owner charges them heavy interest, their debts are never paid and they run to the next generation.”
He said, “People are sometimes sold from one brick kiln owner to another.”
Saeed stressed that he personally visited and interviewed bonded labourers who “work for very low wages from dawn to dusk but still remain in debt for generations.”
The rights noted that many workers “live in unhygienic mud houses without any modern facilities” and they are now allowed to observe Christian holidays.
CLAAS says it provides free legal aid to slaves. “The government is aware of the situation, but unfortunately has never taken concentrated steps for the welfare of these people, and therefore slavery continues,” Saeed said.
(BosNewsLife (2004-2014) is the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians. It has been ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since May 2004).
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