When peasant Tago Bheel and his wife, Mira, fled from the captivity of their feudal lord last month, they knew it was a matter of life or death. Barefooted and starving, both ran all night, collapsing on reaching safety as the sun dawned on a new day for the couple.
They escaped from agricultural fields where they had worked for the past ten years as bonded laborers in Pakistan's Sindh Province. "We were living like slaves," says Mr. Tago after his escape. "We used to dream of freedom every day and now it has become a reality."
There are more than 7,000 bonded laborers like Tago, who either escaped or were released by human rights activists in Sindh Province during the past decade from the clutches of feudal lords.
Human rights activists say there are thousands more still forced to work in the fields, struggling to pay off debts taken anywhere from a few years to a few generations ago. In Sindh Province, feudal lords have clout in the main political parties and some are even members of parliament - while the peasants have been long disadvantaged as part of a low-caste Hindu minority.
"Bonded laborers are the new face of slavery," says Hassan Dars, a sociologist in Hyderabad. "Here, people are still being bought, sold, and bartered."
These indentured workers are mostly inhabitants of Pakistan's Thar Desert, bordering India's Rajasthan arid zone. They entered this cyclical trap when they needed money to survive during their seasonal migration from the drought-hit desert. Taking a cash advance on their services, laborers pay off their bonds in captivity, sometimes being exchanged between landlords across the country.
Tago's troubles started when he had no money to pay for his sister's marriage. He borrowed $175 from the local feudal lord and agreed to work off the debt in his fields.
"We worked in the fields all day and would be given bread, green chilies, and onion for meals. We were not allowed to go outside the fields to attend weddings or funerals. For us, the field was a prison," says the skinny Tago.
"Once the hari [peasant] is caught in debt then he and his family becomes virtual prisoners of the feudal lord," says Nasreen Pathan with Pakistan-based Human Rights Commission. "Peasants are illiterate and cannot keep account, and the interest on the loan increases on the whims and wishes of feudal lords and their men."
People are either born into bondage, sold into it by family members, or enter through loans they cannot repay.
"I was born on the fields, married there, but did not want to die there," says Sanwal Kohli, who was released three years ago by the human rights activists during a police-led raid. Showing scars on his back and legs, he says, "They used to beat us up for slightest mistakes and kept us chained at nights. Armed men guarded the fields so nobody would run away."
Activists say the nexus of powerful feudal lords and law-enforcement agencies is hampering the implementation of a bonded labor act passed in 1992, which abolishes the practice. Anybody who violates the law could face two to five years of imprisonment or a fine of $875, but no feudal lord has been found guilty yet.
Freed laborers are brought to makeshift camps in the surroundings of Hyderabad. In Udero Lal camp, where Tago is currently staying, mud-baked and thatched huts are perched along a dirty canal.
Residents of the camp cannot return safely to their home villages, nor are they entirely safe in the camps. In 1998, armed men of a feudal lord attacked a camp in the nearby town of Matli, where hundreds of freed bonded laborers had been given a piece of land for shelter by a local Catholic church. (Some of the bonded laborers are Christian converts.) They kidnapped around 80 bonded laborers and whisked them away in jeeps, injuring the priest and several others.
"They [feudal lords] are powerful and these bonded laborers are already marginalized people in society," says Aftab Ahmed, a leading human rights activist.
Fakir Jadim Mangrio is one of those whom the rights activists have accused. "It is a pack of lies of foreign-funded agents of the NGOs," Mr. Mangrio says. "It is a conspiracy to destroy the agriculture of Sindh. We share the crops with peasants and don't make them slaves. This propaganda is actually harming these poor people of the desert, depriving them of employment."
Freed laborers sometimes manage to find seasonal, menial jobs in fields around the camps, but there are few opportunities for a consistent livelihood. Human rights activists are trying to launch training programs for them.
"We are happy, but the real happiness will only come when they start living a life as others do," says freed laborer and activist, Mohammad Ramzan.