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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 June, 2005, 02:56 GMT 03:56 UK
Child jockeys relive Gulf ordeal
By Shahrezad Samiuddin
BBC News, Lahore

Child jockeys back in Lahore
Authorities are reluctant to hand some jockeys back to parents
Twenty-two child camel jockeys who returned from the United Arab Emirates last week are undergoing psychotherapy to help them deal with their traumatic experiences in the Gulf.

Officials at the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau - a shelter for children run by the Punjab government - say that disorientation seems to be the "most immediate" of the jockeys' problems.

The boys were evidently traumatised by the abject conditions under which they were kept by the camel and racetrack owners.

The boys were crowded into huts and slept on hard floors.

"I shared a room with another boy and four camel workers," says Shaukat. "It used to be very, very hot."

At 10, he has already spent eight years in Abu Dhabi.

Looking after camels

Shaukat recalls getting only a piece of bread and tea for breakfast and some rice with lentils for the rest of the day.

Racing camels in the Gulf
The child jockeys talked of hard conditions in the Gulf

"I slept at 2300 and woke up for work at 0400," he says. "My life was OK but I felt very tired all the time."

Insufficient food and a lack of sleep was a common strategy used to keep the jockeys' weight down.

When not racing, the jockeys looked after the camels.

"The master cared more for the camels than for us," says Mohammad Yaqub, who is 14 years old but looks about 10.

Not surprisingly, punishments for misdemeanours were a common feature of life for Yaqub.

"My sheikh did not torture me," he says. "Of course, sometimes he would slap me or beat me if I stole something from him or made a mistake."

'Not scared'

Independent researchers, including documentary makers have, however, talked of severe torture methods that involved boys being hung from chains and flogged with camel whips.

Child jockey Yuqub (back)
Children fell off camels all the time, but if you didn't break a limb you just got up and continued
Yuqub (back), child jockey

But even if their employers were kind, injuries were a common occurrence.

The children at the Lahore shelter bear many scars caused by falling off racing camels.

"I am not scared of falling off a camel," says Yaqub, who started racing at six.

"I used to be scared in the beginning but now I am just used to it.

"Children fell off camels all the time, but if you didn't break a limb you just got up and continued," says Yaqub.

"Once when I fell, my head started to spin. I rested for 20 minutes, then a worker splashed water on my face and I was back at work."

Yaqub pointed to another boy who looked about eight years old. He had a broken arm that had obviously healed badly in the absence of proper medical attention.

Injured child jockeys were seldom taken to hospitals because that could bring the illegal nature of their employment to light.

'Sheer greed'

The Child Protection and Welfare Bureau's assistant director, Zubair Ahmad Shad, tells the BBC news website that the practice of sending young children to the Gulf to work as camel jockeys was linked to human trafficking.

Most of these children are completely unclear about the identity of their parents
Zubair Ahmad Shad,
Child welfare director

In most cases, he says, parents sell their children to "agents" who promise jobs for the children but end up selling them to camel racers. At times, the agent's cut is a mere $500.

Back in Pakistan, the child's parents get 250 to 500 dirhams ($68-$136) a month for as long as the child is of any use to the employer.

"It is not always poverty that forces parents to send their children away," says Mr Shad. "Sometimes, it is sheer greed."

Shaukat says his father accompanied him and his brother to the Gulf and left them there.

But Mr Shad says in many instances these "parents" are actually foster parents who adopted the children - preferably at a very young age.

The children's centre in Lahore
The children's centre in Lahore treats the jockeys' disorientation

"Most of these children are completely unclear about the identity of their parents," says Mr Shad.

It is not yet clear what lies in store for the repatriated children.

Their parents are reluctant to come forward and claim them as they fear punitive action from the authorities.

"Our biggest challenge is to identify their parents," says Mr Shad.

"We are working with an NGO and have set up an office in Rahim Yar Khan [southern Punjab], where the majority of these children come from."

But Mr Shad admits that the authorities are not yet clear if they want to hand these children over to the parents who sent them away in the first place.

Their main fear is that many of them may end up being pushed into some kind of hazardous employment again.

Asked if he would like to go back to Dubai, Yaqub smiles.

"I will go back when I am older. The laws have become too strict now. You have to be 16 years of age and weigh at least 45 kg," he says.

"This means that instead of losing weight, I now have to gain some if I am to go back."

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