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Forgotten victims of 'Kashmir of the seas'

Birds fly over the snow-covered city of Srinagar, India, the Indian portion of Kashmir, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)

RERHY, Pakistan: The killings of Indian and Pakistani troops in Kashmir have once again captured the world's attention but the victims of a lesser-known border dispute between the two nations are largely forgotten.

In a fly-blown wooden hut in the Pakistani coastal village of Rerhy, at the edge of the vast metropolis of Karachi, Hamida mourns her husband Nawaz, once a fisherman like those preparing their multicoloured boats on the nearby shore.

Nawaz went to sea in 1999, two days before a violent storm struck. His family thought he was dead but seven years later they received a letter saying he was alive -- in an Indian prison.

Then last autumn Hamida suffered a shuddering blow: without any warning, her husband's body was delivered to the village.

The disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir has been the cause of two of the three wars between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947 and clashes between troops in the region regularly make headlines.

Five soldiers, three Pakistani and two Indian, have been killed in cross-border firing since January 6, threatening the two nuclear-armed countries' fragile efforts towards lasting peace.

But the dispute over Sir Creek, a 100-kilometre (60-mile) strip of water in marshland dividing the Indian province of Gujarat from the Pakistani province of Sindh, is less well-known.

The creek opens out into the Arabian Sea and is noted for its rich stocks of fish, but fishermen who brave the area are regularly locked up for illegally entering the neighbouring country.

Ganesh Kumar was detained by Pakistan in October in an Indian boat. "There were seven of us in the boat and I didn't know where I was. The man who owned the boat should have known," the 19-year-old told AFP in Karachi's Malir jail.

There are more than 200 Indian fishermen in custody in Malir, according to prison governor Nazir Hussain Shah.

In India, 125 Pakistani fishermen are imprisoned, according to Manish Lodhari, secretary of India's National Fishworkers' Forum.

Syed Sarim Burney, a lawyer who defends some of the Indians in Pakistan, said the fishermen are at the mercy of the authorities.

"They are thrown in jail for years without committing any crime," he said.

"There is no visible sea demarcation between the two countries so the navy of each country can arrest the people of the neighbouring country whenever they want."

The men fish using simple boats with little in the way of modern navigational technology such as GPS to help them pinpoint their location, Burney explained.

Delhi and Islamabad have been seeking to improve ties in recent years and fishermen were freed several times last year as "goodwill gestures", though in October Pakistan seized 33 Indians less than a month after freeing 48.

A joint committee was set up in 2007 to try and speed up the release of fishermen. Once freed, they return home overland under escort -- without their boats.

Depleting fish stocks as a result of environmental changes brought about by industrial pollution and the building of dams across the Indus, the great waterway that runs almost the entire length of Pakistan into the Arabian Sea, may also be playing a role in the territorial dispute.

The river's mangroves, an important ecosystem where fish and shellfish can feed and reproduce, have reduced in area from 300,000 hectares to 70,000 in 30 years, according to Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum.

As a result, Pakistani fishermen have spread further east, closer to India and disputed waters where they say stocks are more plentiful.

Hasan Dabla has been fishing in the Arabian Sea for most of his 80 years. He spent 18 months in an Indian prison in the 1990s, but recalls the simpler days of his youth.

"When I was a boy I went fishing with my father and there was no danger. After partition there was a wall created among people," he said.

Until India and Pakistan reach a settlement, Dabla's happy memories look likely to remain just that: memories.

 

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