Residents of Nana Dinara and surrounding villages on the Indo-Pakistan border in Bhuj taluka of Kutch district erupted in joy and a festive mood prevailed as Ismail Sama, the cattle-herder who went missing in 2008, returned home on Friday after spending 13 years in a Pakistan jail.
Relatives flocked around Ismail as he got out of the car driven by his step-brother Junas at around dusk. Emotions ran high as the 50-year-old embraced his sons.
Minutes later, he was led to a local mosque where a huge crowd cheered him. He was seated in the middle of circles formed by young and old.
“After the Pakistani rangers caught me and intelligence agencies tortured me, suspecting me to be an Indian mole, I thought I may never return… I didn’t even dare think about home, as that would make me sad and drive me mad, as happens with many Indians held in Pakistan. I used to pray to Allah and he answered my prayers. Coming back home is second birth for me,” Ismail, who has had no formal education, told The Indian Express at his home in Allaiya Vandh area of Nana Dinara.
Nana Dinara is around 50 km from the Indo-Pakistan border.
Ismail had gone missing in August, 2008, while grazing his herd of cows. “A scorpion stung me and I felt giddy. I lost my direction. Next morning, around 10.30 am, Pakistan rangers caught me, telling me I had intruded into their country. They took me to hospital and after my condition improved, they handed me over to Inter Services Intelligence (ISI),” said Ismail, son of a farmer.
Adding that the ISI tortured him for six months, Ismail said, “They wanted me to confess that I was an Indian spy but I refused as I was not one. I told them that Allah was my protector and that I would prefer death over telling a lie… Then, they offered to let go of me if I worked for them, which was out of question.”
The father of five sons and three daughters was kept in a Pakistani military facility in Hyderabad for three years before a court convicted him of espionage and sentenced him to five years imprisonment in 2011, when he was shifted to Hyderabad Central Jail.
“I was kept with other Indians and Pakistanis suspected of being Indian agents. After my jail term got over, I was shifted to Karachi Central Jail. I applied four times to be shifted to Landhi jail where Indian fishermen are held. But none of them were accepted,” says Ismail.
He said that to prevent memories of home from haunting him, he got busy with work. “I learnt beadwork from other Pakistani inmates and kept myself busy as much as possible. When I was not working, I just prayed,” says Ismail, while ruffling the hair of Altaf, his youngest son, who was not even born when he was caught. Two of his children got married in his absence.
It was only in 2014 that he was granted consular access by Pakistan even as his family did not have any information about him. “I got fellow prisoners to write letters to my family from jail. I wrote 15 letters but I am learning it now that none was ever delivered,” he says.
His case was taken up with the Indian authorities by Mumbai-based activist Jatin Desai who was associated with the Indian chapter of Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD).
Ismail’s wife Kamabai came to know that her husband was in a Pakistani jail only when Rafiq Jat, a native of nearby village returned from Pakistan in 2017 and informed that he and Ismail were together in the jail.
After this revelation, Fazalla Sama, a social worker from Nana Dinara, and deputy sarpanch of the village took up his case, by writing letters to Indian and Pakistani governments and demanding his release as his prison term had already expired in 2016.
Eventually, the Islamabad High Court had cleared Ismail’s repatriation after Indian authorities mentioned his case during a hearing of Kulbhushan Jadhav case in December 2020. He was released from Karachi Central Jail on January 21 and was handed over to Indian authorities at Wagah border the next day. A team of Kutch (west) police brought him back on Friday.
“Ismail’s return is nothing less than the Eid or a wedding in the family,” Fazalla said.
Ataulla, Ismail’s eldest son, who was 20 and married when Ismail went missing, had to take care of the family in his father’s absence. They own a few acres of land and Ataulla also works as a casual labourer. Kamabai supports the family by stitching quilts that are gifted to women when they get married in the region. Four of his eight children are married now.
When asked about his next plans, Ismail struggled to give an answer.