Clad in blue jeans and a light blue T-shirt, Hina sits quietly between her mother, Fatima, and maternal aunt Mumtaz.
Now 11, Hina was born at an Amritsar jail in August 2006, soon after her mother, aunt and maternal grandmother, Rashida, were arrested at the Attari railway station on their way to Delhi to attend a family wedding on charges of possessing 400 grams of drugs.
While Rashida died of a heart attack in jail in 2008, Hina set foot on Pakistan soil for the first time on Nov 2 with her mother and the aunt after they were released.
“We have slept only for two hours since we got here. We’re elated to see so many people coming to meet us. It seems all of Gujranwala has come over to us,” says Mumtaz, Fatima’s younger sister.
About their May 7, 2006 ordeal, Mumtaz says they were arrested purely on suspicion because the real culprit a Lahore-based fellow passenger aboard the Samjhota Express had left his luggage with them while he went to take care of immigration.
All the drugs were found in his luggage, which he admitted to after arrest yet it were the women who were jailed.
“We were worried how we’ll be treated,” recalls Fatima. “We were so depressed that we ate very little for eight days. On the ninth day, the jail superintendent assured us we were his responsibility and that he’d take care of us.”
Four months later, Hina was born. “I was admitted to a hospital a month earlier and discharged 15 days after Hina was born.
The woman constables staying with me at the hospital took great care of me there,” Fatima says, adding that she had no trouble bringing up Hina and is thankful to the jail staff for their courtesy, help and support.
The inmates’ first contact with their family was a few weeks before Hina’s birth when officials of the Pakistan High Commission visited them for counselling.
The women were assigned a lawyer, D P Sharma, who assured them that he would get them out.
When the case was heard in the sessions court, the women were convicted.
Sharma then appealed in the high court, but kept charging the family back home without the women’s knowledge.
“He would tell us he was helping us for God’s sake, but he’d made around Rs500,000 from our family,” muses Fatima.
“Then we found out he wasn’t sincere and we sought another lawyer. Advocate Navjot Kaur Chhaba fought our case earnestly and ensured bail. She even contacted an NGO to arrange the Rs400,000 fine, but didn’t charge a penny herself.”
Hina was sent to school with other inmates’ children.
She studied just outside the jail premises until Grade 5.
She’s too shy to recall how she felt upon stepping into Pakistan, but her father, Saifur Rehman, chips in: “When she came home she wouldn’t talk for some time. She was scared.”
“I feel great. I’m really happy to have come to Pakistan,” is what she barely says now. “I went shopping with my father yesterday.”
Prodded by other family members, Hina talks almost in a whisper about having seen her family’s pictures when they exchanged letters in jail. “In school, I learned Hindi, Punjabi, gidda and boli. I also made five friends there whom I really miss.”
The day of return was no less than a celebration.
Fellow inmates congratulated them, jail staff wished them well, locals showered them with gifts, and Hina’s school principal and teachers saw her off at the border.
All three were given new clothes.
Fatima tells me there was an ex-inmate who developed a special bond with Hina; she would call the child her granddaughter.
The feeling of stepping back into their own country was overwhelming, the women say.
There was happiness, there were tears, there was azaan, and of course, some food.
Fatima says that the Punjab Rangers cooked food for them when they crossed over the border, and welcomed them warmly.
But Hina wouldn’t eat: “I insisted on meeting my father, brothers and sisters before eating anything,” she says.
Saifur Rehman recalls the distressing 11 years they had to go through.
“I had to marry off my two daughters in their mother’s absence. Now, thank God, my family is complete.
But I have hardly spent any time with Hina.”
The former inmates say they were treated warmly while they were in jail.
Yet the one person they say they will be eternally grateful to is their lawyer, Advocate Navjot Chhaba.
“We will never forget what Chhaba ma’am did for us. For a whole year she struggled tirelessly for our release. She didn’t help us because we were Pakistani, but on humanitarian grounds. She came to see us off at the border,” says Mumtaz.
Amid these celebratory moments, there is some bitterness.
Hina’s maternal uncle, Shafiq, believes that the Pakistani side did nothing to secure his family’s release.
“No one from the government asked us what had happened. We contacted many MNAs, MPAs, even sent a message to the chief minister when he visited before the 2013 elections,” he complains. “But there was no help forthcoming.”
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