Azad Nagar is a small, marked settlement around 200km north of Pakistan’s coastal city of Karachi.
Most of the houses in this community spread over 11 acres are made of baked clay with thatched roofs of straw strung together.
Azad Nagar means land of the free. The land was bought in 2006 by Green Rural Development Organisation (GRDO), a Pakistani NGO, with the help of Action Aid.
“The concept behind Azad Nagar was of a transit camp where freed bonded labourers would come and stay before moving on to where a job would take them,” Ghulam Haider, one of the co-founders of GRDO, told Al Jazeera.
Today, more than 100 families live here in houses that lack electricity and running water. A small temple serves as a place of worship for the Hindu-majority who live here.
Almost 45.8 million people are trapped in bonded labour across the world. Pakistan is home to more than two million of them, according to the Global Slavery Index.
A small loan taken out by a labourer – for a hospital bill or a small wedding – soon spirals out of reach. The landlord finds every excuse to trap the workers. They are threatened in every manner possible to prevent them from running away or asking for help.
Bonded labour can be found in agriculture, brick kilns, mining and fishing industries.
Syeda Ghulam Fatima, the award-winning activist who started the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), is another individual fighting for the abolishment of bonded labour.
“The condition these people find themselves in is something I can’t even describe,” said Fatima.
“The parliament building you see, it’s made of bricks these people made. But there is no law helping them. Hospitals are made out of bricks they made, but there is no health facility for them.
“There is no education for these poor people even in the schools that are made from the bricks those children made. There is no justice for them despite the court buildings made out of the bricks these people made in that scorching heat.”
‘When these people are freed with the help of the police, the feudal lords do not allow them to take their belongings. Therefore, these people come with nothing and have to start from scratch,’ said GRDO’s Haider. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
There is no organised layout for the houses in Azad Nagar. Those who come build their own houses, which are made of baked clay and baked bricks with thatched roofs. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
A few residents saved up enough money to buy cattle and survive on a day-to-day basis by selling buffalo and goat milk. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Some residents have been hired by owners of the farms adjacent to Azad Nagar. ‘We worked on farms while in bonded labour, so this is something we know quite well,’ said one of the workers. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Some of the women in Azad Nagar, including Sumar’s wife, are skilled at knitting and sewing. Most of what they make is used within the household or as gifts. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Soomri’s husband was kidnapped and beaten to death by the feudal lord he worked for. ‘They wouldn’t let us see him. They killed him in captivity,’ said Soomri. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
‘We were kept chained up after work, sometimes for days even, in a dark room without food,’ recalled Kasturi who now helps Kohli counsel and educate young girls in Azad Nagar. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
The two-room makeshift primary school in Azad Nagar has been shut down for lack of funding. GRDO is seeking funding to ensure the 160 children in the community get a basic education. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Of the 150 children of Azad Nagar, only 16 attend a school nearby. Previously, the children received primary-level education at the local school, but it was shut down. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Gauri is one of the 16 children enrolled at a government school a kilometre away. ‘School is fun for me. I enjoy it that’s why I don’t mind walking that much every day to get to it,’ she said of her daily journey to the nearby school. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Veeru Kohli was freed from bonded labour. She’s an award-winning activist. Kohli ran away from her captors and has since dedicated her life to not only freeing other bonded labourers in Pakistan but also to educating and counselling them. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Kohli is well-known in Azad Nagar. Women greet her and look up to her whenever she visits the community. ‘I tell them to find a job and eat from what you earn, no need to be a slave for any feudal lords,’ said Kohli. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
The small temple caters to the Hindu-majority population of Azad Nagar. In addition to holding religious celebrations like Diwali and other festivals, children also receive a basic religious education here. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
Sumar is the priest who takes care of the temple and teaches children in the afternoon. ‘We don’t ask for anything from the government, except education for our children. We have suffered all our life, we don’t want our kids to go through the same,’ he said. ‘There is no education for these poor people even in the schools that are made from the bricks those children made. There is no justice for them despite the court buildings made out of the bricks these people made in that scorching heat,’ said activist Syeda Ghulam Fatima. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]
A brick kiln is situated right next to Azad Nagar. Some of those who used to make bricks as bonded labourers have now been employed to work here. ‘It does bring back bad memories of the past,’ commented a worker. [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]