LIFE is difficult in the swampy, marshy beds at the bottom of gulches in the creek areas near the Pakistan-Indian border at Shah Bandar. The disputed territory of Sir Creek isn’t that far from here, making this a high-security zone.

There are some 20 creeks interlinking each other here and when the water level is up, there is no way of telling the deep portions from the shallow. Getting around is a huge challenge and getting lost very possible. It is such conditions that the armed forces here must navigate.

The Marines 31st Creeks Battalion was brought into this area for the security of the creeks. “The defence of the creeks is important,” explains Commodore Faisal Mir, Commander Marines. “But in order to operate here, knowledge of the area is important, too.” He adds that mobility is a basic challenge, given that the banks of the creeks erode. “Amphibious movement is carried out in the form of layers and with special and the latest high-tech equipment, from small Zodiac inflatable boats to 2000TD and 8100TD hovercrafts for the deployment and movement of troops carrying the latest in weaponry,” he says.

According to the Commander Marines, apart from defence of the area, the Marines are also responsible for disaster management in emergency situations. They saved many lives during the recent devastating floods. This area is rich in hydrocarbons and gas, and so the Marines are also providing security for companies involved in the excavation of resources here.

Poor fishermen getting picked up by Indian coastguards is also a common and recurring phenomenon. Once taken to the other side, they don’t return for years — and if and when they do, they are not the same.

Before 2005, the fishing boats heading out to the sea through the creek area, which is wayward and zigzagging in nature, would have no choice and no way for returning other than to pass through the disputed Sir Creek, putting their freedom at risk. But in June that year, the 31st Creeks Battalion manually dug up a 6ft-deep, 1.5kilometre channel, creating a link from the sea to the creeks so that fishermen could avoid the danger zone. Up to medium-sized fishing boats can use it rather than passing through Sir Creek. The labour had to be done manually as it was not possible for heavy machinery to reach here. Thus, the name Marines Canal for this passage also seems appropriate.

To improve this passage and avoid silting, the Marines Canal was extended and expanded in 2012. From about 10ft in width, it was also widened further to 20ft, making it easier for bigger boats to pass through it.

And yet, fishermen are accosted and their boats confiscated by Indian authorities. Why is it still happening with a well-guarded, safe area provided to them?

“Yes, I was also informed by the Marines about the Marines Canal,” says Mohammad Ali Shah, chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF). “It is, no doubt, a great thing that they have done in this difficult area. We appreciate it very much as there really was no easy way for fishing boats to return.”

Asked why the fishermen continue to be detained by Indian authorities, Shah explains that the very forces there to provide security to the area sometimes stop the boats from going into the sea. “The fishermen are even stopped from using the canal for as long as six months,” he says.

“The boats then look for catch in the creek areas near the Harami Dhoro. The place has earned this name that the locals have given it because of its unpredictable nature. Before 1980, we could cross this area on foot. But it is an inland area where the coming in and flowing out of water brings many changes. Sea intrusion has opened it up so much that now, only boats pass through here. And the current or flow of water there is very fast — so fast that it can make the boats drift into the enemy territory.”

The PFF chairman informs Dawn that the fishermen are prevented from going out to sea through the area as they are seen as a nuisance by the companies involved in the excavation of oil and gas. “Thus, the security forces prevent them from going ahead. The persistent among them have also been beaten up, something that has led to many protests carried out by them. But no one listens. They are poor fishermen. They need to feed their families. Taking alternate routes, they often end up on the wrong side and then face dire consequences,” says Shah.