'The food the Sri Lankans gave us was horrible. It used to stink. We used to throw most of it away.'
'In the night my legs used to be in someone's face and his legs used to be in my lap. There was no space... There was no toilet... Both our bathing water and drinking water were salty. We had to beg the guards for clean drinking water.'
Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar speaks to Indian fishermen just released from Sri Lankan custody.
Two hundred and seventy five Indian fishermen were held in Sri Lankan prisons and 175 Sri Lankan fishermen were held in Indian prisons when both countries agreed to hold talks on the issue of fishermen straying into eachy other's territorial waters.
Sri Lanka is 18 nautical miles away from India at the closest point, and 86 nautical miles away at the farthest point.
At Rameswaram, the closest point, unsavoury encounters between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen and the Sri Lankan navy are regular occurrences.
Near Nagapattinam, the farthest point, the clashes are not regular, but when it occurs, it occurs in large numbers.
The last time it occurred, 111 Indian fishermen were arrested and 15 boats seized.
The India-Sri Lanka talks on the issue to be held in Chennai -- all the Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan prisons are Tamil Nadu natives -- were scheduled for January 20; the talks have now been postponed to January 27.
Fishermen, fisheries department and other government officials will participate in the discussions.
S P Royappan, president of the Rameswaram country boat owners owner, complains, "Every day our fishermen are beaten up by the Sri Lankan navy, but they have not invited the country boat fishermen for the talks. Only mechanised boats and fibre (glass) boat (owning) fishermen are invited. No one is interested in the poorest amongst us."
In the run-up to the talks, it was decided that all the fishermen in each other's prisons would be released. Most -- if not all -- were jailed for straying into the other country's territorial waters.
Some fishermen are back in Tamil Nadu, and the others are on their way home.
"We left Jagathipattinam village (in Tamil Nadu's Pudukottai district) on November 20 and we travelled 24 nautical miles into the sea," recalls Parthiban, 25, one of the fishermen released.
"Half an hour past midnight the Sri Lankan navy caught us. It was foggy and raining that night. In seven years, we have never crossed the international boundary. Don't know how it happened that night."
"Our nets, ice box and all fishing material were destroyed by the navy," Parthiban says. "They confiscated our fish too. They took us to the KKS harbour and handed us over to the army. The soldiers took us to the army camp and took away our GPS, mobile phones, watches, everything of value. They told us we would get it back when we returned, but they have not done that."
Thirty-four fishermen, Parthiban adds, were locked up in a room meant for 20 people at the most.
"Indian high commission officials came and met us," he says. "They gave us clothes and toiletries and told us since they did not have large funds to buy us stuff we should share and manage with what they gave us."
"There were Hindi and English speaking officials," he adds. "They did not know Tamil and had brought a Sri Lankan Tamil girl to be their interpreter."
"The food the Sri Lankans gave us was horrible," Parthiban remembers. "It was rice and some gooey curry that used to stink. We used to throw most of it away and eat enough to satisfy our hunger."
"They gave us breakfast at 7 am, lunch at noon and dinner at 4 pm. How can you have dinner at 4 pm? And then stay without food for 15 hours?"
"In the night we slept in each other's arms. My legs used to be in someone's face and his legs used to be in my lap. There was no space."
"There was no toilet. We had to take permission from the guards to let us use the toilets outside. We were let out for half an hour to have a bath."
"Both our bathing water and drinking water," he says, "were salty. We had to beg the guards for clean drinking water."
Marimutthu, 36, Parthiban's brother-in-law and another one of the released fishermen, has been going to fish for 20 years.
"I have been in these waters for so long, I have never crossed the border and have never been arrested," says Marimutthu. "We always fish between 8 nautical miles and 24 nautical miles from the shore. Don't know when and how we crossed the border. Maybe it was because of the fog and rain that night."
"We were never ill-treated or beaten," he says. "But the food was bad and there was a total lack of fresh air. That room was too small for us and stinking. Sometimes, the guards refused to let us go to the toilet and we could not do anything."
"Every Sunday a priest used to come and give us a sermon. All of us prayed with him, irrespective of our religion," he says. "Once a week, a doctor came and sat in the police station next to the jail. Those who were sick met him. This doctor was only for the Indians. The Sri Lankan prisoners were not taken to the doctor."
Bharatan, 35, too has been fishing for 20 years, and for him too, this was the first arrest.
"It was a horrible experience," he says. "I will stay home till my health recovers. I lost a lot of weight there. We all did. We have to eat home-cooked food to recover. I will go back to the sea after a month. I have to go. I have to feed my wife and kids."
"Luckily, my father-in-law owns my boat, so he looked after my wife and children while I was in jail in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, my wife would have been borrowing from loan sharks at 10 percent interest per month," Bharatan adds.
"I hope they return all our belongings. It will take another Rs 5 lakhs (Rs 500,000) at least to start the boat again. The Sri Lankan navy battered the boat and destroyed all the equipment we use for fishing."
"There were five boys who were younger than 18 like me," says Robin, who has only been fishing in the last two years. "The court did not send us to jail. They sent us to a juvenile home, which was actually a school. The six of us stayed in a school. We were not locked up, could roam around the school grounds, but not go out. They gave us very good food."
The fishermen are worried about their boats.
"We pleaded that one of us should be allowed to stay back in the boat," says Marimutthu, "but they refused. Every week we asked to see our boats. They refused. The high commission officials said our boats were well looked after and safe."
"I hope my boat is brought back by the Indian government," Ramayan, a boat owner who was among those released, told Rediff.com, adding that his boat was worth Rs 1.5 million.
"There is nothing I can do about it."
Image: Fishermen released by Sri Lanka in Karaikal. Photograph: A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com