Tiny heroes on race day, slaves before and after

Dubai's camel races hid an ugly truth: children conscripted as jockeys.

Published December 10, 2006

LAHORE, Pakistan - Sometimes, when he is not studying the Koran or learning to sew, Hassan Ali remembers his other life.

The glass towers of Dubai shimmering like a mirage in the hazy air. The camels snorting and straining at the dusty starting line. The rich Arabs cheering in the VIP stands.

It was there, on the camel tracks of the United Arab Emirates, that Hassan became a star.

Every Friday, the tiny boy donned red-and-white silks, climbed onto a camel four times his height and raced around a track so big the action on the back stretch was best viewed on monitors. Up and down, up and down, his skinny arms flicked the whip, because the faster his camel reached the finish line, the sooner Hassan would be allowed to eat.

Last year, under international pressure, the United Arab Emirates announced it was banning the use of child camel jockeys. Hundreds of boys were sent home to the poor countries from which they came: Sudan, Bangladesh, Mauritius and Pakistan.

And so it happened that Hassan - with a hint of a mustache but weighing just 81 pounds - arrived in July 2005 at the Child Protective Services Center in Lahore, where he would live while the staff tried to find his family. That would not be easy in a country of 170-million - Hassan was so young when a trafficker took him from Pakistan that he didn't remember his parents, his birthplace or even his real name and age.

All the staff had to go on was what met the eye: a man's face on a little boy's body. The only way they could approximate his age was by checking his teeth. As one would do with a horse.

'Unchildlike hands'

Camel racing has long been one of the most popular pastimes on the Arabian Peninsula. But with the explosion of oil wealth, it assumed the trappings of a major sport patronized by the rich and powerful.

In a recent lawsuit filed in Miami, the rulers of Dubai - close U.S. allies - are accused of enslaving thousands of boys and forcing them to work as camel jockeys in "one of the greatest humanitarian crimes of the last 50 years."

"Because camel racing is extremely dangerous and arduous, especially for children, the Arab sheiks would not make their own children jockeys and trainers," the suit says. "The sheiks instead bought boys who had been abducted and trafficked across international boundaries and enslaved as young as 2 years old."

The suit, filed by a team of U.S. lawyers on behalf of "John Doe" jockeys and their parents, is being brought in Florida because the defendants own a Jacksonville hotel and horses in Ocala among their billions of dollars in U.S. assets.

Through the UAE's embassy in Washington, the sheiks have denied the allegations. But the lawsuit echoes claims by Human Rights Watch and others that young jockeys in Persian Gulf countries were physically and sexually abused, starved to keep their weight down, injured or even trampled to death by camels weighing three-quarters of a ton.

In early 2005, the UAE banned jockeys younger than 16 and in a deal with the United Nations agreed to repatriate them to their native countries. While waiting to fly home, they would be cared for at a shelter in Abu Dhabi.

Dr. Faiza Ashgar, a Lahore pediatrician, visited the shelter that May. She was engulfed by dozens of boys, most of them Pakistani, some as young as 4.

"They came running and clung on my leg. I never felt such emotion. Everyone is saying, 'Take me with you!' I said, 'I can't take you now, but I will be back in a month.' They wouldn't let me go, the look on their faces was of such despair."

Ashgar was among the few women they had ever seen - most had been living in remote desert camps with men who roused them as early as 3 a.m. to start training. All were small for their age and looked malnourished. Many had scars and signs of broken bones, from beatings or falls, she said.

And "they had very rough hands," Ashgar said. "Very unchildlike hands."

That June, with plane tickets purchased by the UAE government or their Arab "owners," the first group of 22 boys arrived in Lahore. They were followed a month later by 84 more.

Some were so traumatized they remained mute for weeks.

"They have been through very difficult circumstances, and when they came here they were very scared," said Zai Anjum, a doctor at the center. "They have no concept of family. Pakistan was alien to them."

As they slowly opened up, relating what little they remembered, the hunt for their families began.

Newspapers published the boys' names, but they weren't always the ones they had at birth. Some parents no longer recognized children they had last seen as infants. And many poor people who had sold their children for just a few thousand dollars - assured they would have better lives in a rich Arab country - were reluctant to come forward for fear they'd be arrested.

"Families were scared, whether they were willingly or unwillingly involved in trafficking," Ashgar said. "We assured parents the purpose was not to disrupt but to reunite."

Incentives helped. The government offered parents 600 rupees - about $12 - a month as well as scholarships and bicycles. In turn, the parents were required to sign forms that they would not abuse or exploit their children.

DNA testing was needed in some cases, but the vast majority of jockeys eventually went back to their families.

That left just eight - Hassan Ali among them.

A winner beaten

Hassan said he was an only child, that he came from northern Pakistan, that he might have left the country with a man named Mohammed who pretended to be his father.

Beyond that he recalls almost nothing of his early years.

"He told me that when he started to speak properly he was in the camp" in the UAE, said Dr. Naila Tahir, a psychologist. "Children start to speak in full sentences at age 3 or 31/2, so we assume he was 21/2 or 3 when he went."

As he grew, so did his memories.

He lived with four other boys in a single room. To keep their weight down, they ate mostly vegetables and lentil soup. They had no milk and rarely any meat.

For his taleem, or education in camel riding, Hassan had a trainer, also a Pakistani, who slapped him and hit him with a stick if he didn't do exactly as told. When mounted, the tiny jockeys were at least 6 feet off the ground as they sped around a track 5 miles long at speeds approaching 40 mph.

"In the beginning, I was very scared," Hassan said in a soft, shy voice. "After I fell off three or four times, I wasn't afraid any more."

Friday was the major race day, when crowds "were big as a cricket match," he remembers. He won more often than he lost. Sometimes his owner gave him money. But his biggest reward for winning was a full meal.

In July 2005, Hassan was among the second group of jockeys returned to Pakistan. When he arrived at the children's center in Lahore, he had the height and weight of a boy of 9. But doctors concluded he was much older.

"He has facial hair, he has permanent molars, and he has canines," said Dr. Zai Anjum, gently cupping Hassan's face as she examined his mouth. "If the molars are permanent, the person is probably 15."

For months, the staff worried about how weak and thin Hassan was. He coughed so much they twice sent him to a hospital, fearing he had tuberculosis. Tests came back negative, and doctors finally decided he was suffering the lingering effects of malnourishment.

Since then, Hassan has gained nine pounds and grown an inch and a half, to 4 feet, 10 inches. But he probably is as tall as he will ever get, the doctors say.

The jockeys were deprived intellectually, too. Illiterate when he came back to Pakistan, Hassan is now learning to read and write his native Urdu. He has a paperback Koran and spends two hours a day in religious instruction. It is his favorite class.

He is training to be a tailor, a good trade in a country with a huge textile industry. He and other jockeys will also have some savings: Their employers in the UAE were required to pay back wages, which the center is investing for them until they go out on their own.

Chances are Hassan will never again see his parents.

"We advertised in the newspaper, but all his features have changed," said Tahir, the psychologist. "We have no data at all about him or his parents. We don't have a clue."

'Above the law'

Camel tracks in the UAE now use robo-jockeys. Dressed in silks and caps with foot-long whips, they look eerily like small children. Trainers drive alongside the track, activating the whips by remote control.

The trainers say they prefer the robots. But there is concern that young boys are still being used to feed and care for camels in remote camps.

"I'm sure there are still a large number of children over there who are working on the farms," said Ashgar, the pediatrician who helped bring the jockeys home. "They might not be actually sitting on the camels for the racing, but cleaning up."

A total of 603 children have returned to Pakistan, far fewer than the 2,100 originally estimated, Ashgar said. UAE authorities told her some of the boys went to live with relatives in Dubai, where many adult Pakistanis work, and that monitoring of camps and racetracks shows "there are no more children there."

However, Ashgar said, the government has not responded to suggestions that outside organizations check the farms.

"Victims of child camel jockey trafficking may still remain in the UAE," the U.S. State Department said in its 2006 report on international human trafficking. "Questions persist as to the effectiveness of the ban, and the number of victims is still unidentified."

In the Miami lawsuit, Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, and others are alleged to have used underage jockeys even after the UAE passed laws in 1992 and 2000 aimed at stopping a "trade in small children that seems unimaginable in the 21st century."

Maktoum and co-defendants "treated their camels better than they treated their slave boys for the simple reason that the camels were far more valuable," the suit alleges. "Camel prices exceeded $1-million, while boys could be had for much, much less. The defendants built hospitals for their camels equipped with operating tables that could accommodate humps. The enslaved boys usually did without medical care."

In addition to hundreds of horses kept on Ocala farms, the lawsuit said, Maktoum's financial empire includes the Hyatt Regency in Jacksonville, other luxury hotels in New York and San Francisco, and control of Dubai Ports World, which made a controversial bid this year to operate the Port of Miami and several other U.S. ports. The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, says the case is being brought in the United States because Maktoum and co-defendants are "above the law" in their own country.

In an effort to reduce child trafficking, Pakistan has passed laws and stepped up surveillance at airports and borders. Some "agents," as the traffickers are known, have been prosecuted.

But as Ashgar looks at Hassan and other former jockeys, wondering who they really are, she says she is angry that they sacrificed so much of their childhoods to such a dangerous sport.

"It was very inhumane," she said. "I wonder if spectators really knew what children were going through. But the people who ought to know can have no excuse."

Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.