Make the bricks, then bury the dead

Majeedan Bibi

Calls from the Bonded Labor Liberation Front’s office, even if they are just to invite her for an interview, still make her afraid. She and her family have now been freed from the kilns they worked at- but fear still follows them. Phone calls make her heart sink. “What now?” she thinks.

Majeedan Bibi is bulky, old and weary. Deep lines etch on her face. Her eyes are dim and sorrowful. The color of her skin is customary to those working on kilns; a deep shade of reddish bronze. Over exposure to sunlight causes the skin to deeply darken and wrinkle over time; the hopelessness takes away the brightness from the eyes. Hard labor has made the skin on Majeedan’s hands harsh. Her front teeth are broken. Years of torture and abuse on the kilns she and her family were enslaved at have made her a nervous and frightful woman. Recalling her life at the kilns moves her to tears instantly.

Majeedan Bibi and 18 members of her family had been working on a farm where they also lived as tenants. The owner of that land owned kilns and after she took a loan from the landowner for a hundred thousand rupees, the landowner convinced her that working on the kiln will help her repay the loan faster. Since this man was both the brick kiln owner and landowner, Majeedan had nobody else to take the loan from. Five years ago, Majeedan and her family began working at the kilns of this powerful landowner and politician, Chaudhry Khalid Gujjar. It was here that she and her family were subjected to abuse and violence which has left a deep mark on the family. The kiln was at Gujjar Colony, Chungi Amar Sidhu, in Lahore.

Majeedan Bibi’s cries as she recalls her life at the kiln are justified; the family worked in conditions remarkably worse from those of other kilns. They were given small portions to eat, some bread and butter for two meals. Sometimes, not even that. It was normal for them to beaten with heavy chains by the owner’s men. At night, they were chained and were not allowed to go relieve themselves. A toilet facility, as per the norm, was not available at the kilns. They were not allowed to shower or comb their hair. Male laborers could not shave their beards or hair. Majeedan had no contact with the rest of her relatives; she and her family could not leave the kilns. It was a life of starvation, abuse, fear and hopelessness.

Video: When Police Raids a kiln

Work was grueling. Majeedan’s daughter Nadia was made to complete her required number of bricks even in her last months of pregnancy. She was thrown outside the emergency ward of Lahore’s General Hospital, without being properly admitted. It was there she delivered her still born baby. She was told to return immediately back to the kilns for work. If she wouldn’t return, the lives of the rest of the family could be in danger.

The “invisible chains” that tie the laborers to the kilns are often the violence inflicted upon relatives of the enslaved laborer who tries to escape. If Nadia tried to escape from the hospital, she was sure that her life as well as those of her children, mother and uncles would be in danger. So, hours after delivering her dead baby, Nadia was back at the kiln to make bricks.

Majeedan Bibi’s son Karamat sought his escape from this kiln to work at another owner’s kiln. But his old owner tricked him into coming back to the kiln by promising he will free the family and Karamat can come get them. When Karamat reached the kiln, he and his wife were stripped of their clothes and beaten in public. The owner had to set an example of punishment for Karamat’s unauthorized leave from the kiln. Hot iron was used to burn their faces, causing deep gashes on Karamat’s wife’s face. Their young children were also made to work on the kilns from then onwards.

Video: Seeing your family tortured

Majeedan ‘s brother Sadique was called by the Jamadarni, an intermediary between the owners and workers of the kiln. She felt sympathetic to the poor woman and her children who had been subject to such violence, and asked Sadique why he hasn’t saved his sister from this torture yet. Sadique told her he has been trying to repay the lended money and file a case against the kiln owner. She called Sadique to the owner’s office to discuss financial matters with the accountants of the kiln. There, the accountants and the owner’s men beat Sadique and his wife. They forced him to start work at the kilns. It was after efforts made by Sadique’s former employee, a factory owner, to rescue Sadique, that he was freed.

Rape and forced marriages were common at this kiln, and nobody could dare report them. It was common for owners at the kiln to forcefully marry couples; sometimes the couple were from different religions. This helps in bonding the labor- money-lended, “paishgi,” is commonly taken at the time of marriage as the laborers cannot otherwise afford the wedding. Their offspring is also added to the labor force.

Laborers are ‘disposable’, in the words of a Professor of Contemporary Slavery, University of Hull, Kevin Bales. Bales explains in his TED Talk, How to Combat Slavery, how people have become ‘like Styrofoam cups’. Cheap labor found in places like India, Pakistan and Nepal, brought for as little as $5 or $10, allow owners to easily discard those they don’t need any more and simply buy more people. It was the same at this kiln.

Video: Death and illness at a kiln

Labor could be increased as long as the laborers are marrying and giving birth on the kiln. The children have to accompany their mothers to the kiln, and from starting with the work of carrying moist mud in steel wheelbarrows, they gradually end up doing major operations on the kiln, leaving little time for school. In any case, on kilns with owners like that of Majeedan’s, there wasn’t an option given to these children. Work was forced.

In 2016, Majeedan’s brother Sadique took help from the Bonded Labor Liberation Front in Lahore to free Majeedan and her children from the kilns of Chaudhary Khalid Gujjar. They arrived in pathetic conditions, their bodies were full of lice and the men had long, overgrown beards. They were being chased by the goons of the brick kiln owner, but BLLF lawyers filed writ petitions and court orders allowed the family to be free.

But, the future ahead for Majeedan and her children is bleak, despite numerous attempts by the legal teams of BLLF. The family has no family tree and NADRA cannot trace back where they have come from, which stands in the way of the family receiving identification. Without CNICs, Majeedan’s sons cannot get jobs. Finding a place to stay has been difficult; being from the minority Christian faith and without identification, it has been hard for Majeedan to rent a house.

The life Majeedan Bibi has left behind still haunts her. Her eyes permanently plead for help, her hands are clasped together, as if asking for mercy. Even after being freed, Majeedan is a slave to her memories. She recalls her helplessness when she saw her daughter, son and daughter-in-law tortured and abused in front of her eyes. Her silent cries turn to wails, which reverberate quietly in the room long after she goes.