Munna Mia's dreams of escaping from the harsh realities of poverty crumbled when his family's escapade to the Middle East turned into a living nightmare. At the tender age of 5, the young Bangladeshi was forced into a life of danger, pain and hunger as a child camel jockey.
His father, a bricklayer, had been offered a job in the United Arab Emirates by a recruitment agent who told him he could bring his wife and three children if he paid a 4,500-dollar fee.
AdvertisementGrinding poverty and a lack of jobs in Bangladesh drove Mia's father to scrape together some of the money by selling the land he owned and getting loans from family and friends.
The rest he borrowed from the agent, with the promise it would be repaid with money he earned in Dubai.
But the dreams of Mia and his family were shattered when they arrived, and he and his two brothers -- all aged between three and eight -- were forced to ride in camel races for long hours under the desert sun.
"We didn't get much to eat and every morning they would weigh us. If we were even a gram over 20 kilograms we would be beaten with a stick that gave us electric shocks," Mia told AFP.
"My brothers and I were separated from our parents and lived in a hostel with other jockeys.
"For a year, they trained us by just throwing us on top of a camel and I often fell off. I still have lots of problems because of all the injuries."
Mia and his brothers were among thousands of South Asian children used as camel jockeys in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states after being brought in by traffickers or under false pretences with their families.
"The hot sand would burn my feet. We'd come back at night and we were exhausted. Every day I'd wonder if I would die," said Mia, who rode in races until he was nine.
He seldom wore a helmet and his uniform was a cotton pair of shorts and T-shirt.
The UAE this week gave Bangladeshi authorities nearly 1.5 million dollars to compensate almost 900 former child jockeys for the injuries and abuse they suffered.
Bangladesh's deputy home affairs minister, Tanjim Ahmed, whose department is in charge of distributing the funds, said each child would get between 1,000 and 10,000 dollars depending on their circumstances.
The money would pay for their medical treatment and education, he said.
"Using children as camel jockeys was despicable. It stirred the world's conscience," Ahmed said, adding that the UAE government told him that robots were now being used in place of children.
The UAE officially banned child jockeys in 1993 although abuses remained widespread until 2005.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), thousands of boys from Bangladesh, Pakistan and also Sudan were forced to become jockeys in the Middle East, where their small size was valued in the competitive camel racing scene.
They frequently fell off, sustaining injuries that could be fatal if they were trampled on.
For Mia's father, Abul Kashem Mia, 45, watching his sons being used in such a dangerous sport was heart-wrenching.
"I was naive. All I could think about was getting us out of poverty. It all sounded too good to be true and it was. I frantically tried to save to pay back my debt so we could leave but it took a long time."
Four years after arriving, Mia's family fled after paying their dues and saving for five air tickets back to Bangladesh.
Mia, now 17, works behind the counter at a small fabric shop in his home town of Gazipur in northern Bangladesh, earning 45 dollars a month, his hand permanently damaged after a fall in Dubai.
He said he was delighted to be among those who will be compensated but that he still suffers emotional and physical scars from his time as a camel jockey.
"I haven't seen a camel since leaving and I don't want to ever see one again," he said.
"We are poor. This money is like winning the lottery for us. We don't know how much we will get but it won't erase the pain and suffering my brothers and I went through."
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