The only thing constant was displacement and change

Rafi Iqbal

They were hallway out of Kasur when someone’s phone rang. It was a co-worker from kiln. They’ve found out you’re gone and they’re coming for you, the co-worker said. Panicking the three men started weighing their options. They had only 500 rupees and they had to be saved, their mother’s medication would cost exactly that.

Rafi Iqbal, youngest of the group proposed that they call Rescue 15 to pre-empt any violence against them. A lean man with dark eyes and a boyish face, Rafi was unlike most of the kiln workers. He had more than a decade of formal education and could read and write well. He could negotiate the terms of his contract and could easily confront the accountants of the kiln, who were not accustomed to accountability. Laborers at brick kilns are mostly illiterate, and the accountant can make up the terms and add however many zeroes they like. The laborer would not know.

But Rafi could call out the accountant’s manipulation at every turn. However, despite the strength it gave him at the kiln, Rafi was still sad at the minimal contribution played in his life at the moment.

Rescue 15 would not respond in time, Rafi would be bundled back to the kiln at gunpoint with his brother and father. The 500 rupees would be snatched and he would return to his mother without the oil needed to massage her hip. The life of suffering that had begun with his father’s posting would continue the same way.

Rafi was 14 when his father was posted to Kashmir. The move upset the family’s life. Kashmir was very far from Okara or Lahore where Rafi’s father had spent most of his service. It was unfamiliar territory for them. Plus the father had been bickering over petty issues lately. Sum up internal and external problems and you get a father who would stay clear of his family for some time.

Still, life of a non-commissioned Army officer’s family was comfortable than most people around them. A Punjabi Christian Family’s son, Rafi had managed to complete his matriculation. His Urdu was almost devoid of thick Punjabi accent that his family spoke in. His elder brother had learnt the trade of water proofing, and everyone was sure that he would make a fine living, maybe even his own business. In a religious minority affiliated with menial jobs, having educated or skilled sons indicated an affluent father.

But the father was moving away. Finances would be inevitably strained. Without the father’s cover, the family was exposed like the homeless in a storm.

A few months after his father’s departure, 14 year old Rafi left with his family for Lahore. They were to visit his maternal family who worked at a brick kiln. The visit would prove to be a fatal turn of events. For the rest of his life, Rafi would yearn for the pre-kiln days to return.

A few days at the kiln and his sister fell ill. Hospital rounds and medications quickly took the bill up to 10, 000 rupees. At the brick kiln there is only one person with enough money to lend. But that was okay, the family would work to repay it in a short span.

But then his mother got into an accident and dislocated a joint. 7,000 more rupees were needed. And when you walk to a Kiln owner for a second time in a few days, you’re not just asking for money. You’re surrendering to their terms.

At the kiln it didn’t matter that you were an officer’s son. It didn’t matter that you were fluent in Urdu or could write. All that mattered were bricks, and the family of 13 (of which 6 worked) were brick makers and nothing else. Their life story did not matter, all that mattered was meeting the daily count before sunset.

The owners were adept to breaking free spirits of course. In addition to verbal abuse and indefinite confinement, owners made loud examples of anyone who grew too human to force people into intimidation.

Video: How owners establish authority

But Rafi Iqbal and family held their ground. They and their wits were held together by Rafi’s mother, who in Rafi’s own words was an “unusually courageous” woman. In addition to the mother’s fibre, Rafi kept active track of their debt repayment. The owners had told him that the original 17,000 had turned to 28,000. Rafi showed them his calculations as soon as he figured the required amount had been met.

You’re going to Pattoki, was the reply. Rafi stared blankly, he should be going home not to Pattoki which was 80 Km away. “What’s in Pattoki”, he asked. Your new workplace, the owner told him.

Rafi would learn after much inquiry that he had been ‘sold’ to Malik Jafar who owned a kiln in Pattoki. Jafar had paid the current owner the 28,000 that rafi owned, plus more.

Sold. Rafi let that sink in with difficulty. He felt his family was being traded like cattle but the feeling would make itself familiar. In twelve years as a bonded labor, he would work at five different kilns. Every time, he would be shipped away as soon as they felt he was stirring. Ironically, the only thing constant in Rafi’s life would be displacement and change.

Video: Being sold as a Slave

And each new owner would insist that Rafi pay up the amount he had cost the owner. From 17,000 rupees initial debt he owed 11 lacs by the time he was sold to his fifth kiln in Kasur. Pay us what we paid for you, he would be told each time. Rafi doubted that he had cost the owner so much. The debt increased so rapidly that upon retirement, the father would join the family in making bricks.

It was 12 years of humiliation for Rafi and his family. Digressing with the owners could lead to extreme forms of physical punishment, and often the women of the family were targeted. For the sake of his sisters’ lives, Rafi had to keep quiet.

Video: The atmosphere I lived in

Life, as Rafi recalls, was just bricks. They were hardly allowed to visit other relatives, go to weddings, or participate in any festival. There was no feeling of being human and no end to the suffering. When his mother needed oil to massage her hip, the owners did not let Rafi go out to buy it. Rafi went anyway carrying the exact amount needed for the oil. But when he returned empty handed he had decide that he could take no more.

Rafi’s youngest brother, a 16 year old, was the only member of the family who did not work at the kiln. He went to school instead. The kiln accountant barged into Rafi’s home one day, demanding the young boy to begin working at the kiln, otherwise the loan would never be repaid. Rafi’s mother fought with the accountant. The whole family was doing labor and will repay the loan so let the boy go to school, she argued. The accountant was not willing to negotiate.

Rafi had gone to visit his in-laws and came back to find his younger brother being forced into making bricks at the kiln. Rafi was furious. He went to the accountant and threatened him that the whole family will stop working if his younger brother is forced to leave school to make bricks. When the accountant flatly said “We own you,” a fight erupted between the owner’s men and Rafi. Threatened for their life, Rafi’s family made a call to the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF) in nearby Lahore about whom they had recently learnt.

After a lengthy legal battle, Rafi and family were freed from the kiln. Having some level of education helped Rafi and his family rehabilitate more easily than other freed slaves. But you don’t simply become a free human overnight. Will he ever be able to live the life he had before the 12 years of slavery? He looks in the distance and replies with a hollow laugh, never.