Omer and Mazin were only four and six years old, respectively, when their father sold them to a woman trafficker to work as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
"We had no money, and I could find no way to work," explained their father, Abdelrazig. The children laboured in the UAE in exchange for a salary that was paid to their parents. After two years, they were returned home.
"I didn't understand what was happening at the time," Omer, now 10, said with visible difficulty when talking about his experiences. "But I was scared to be away from my mother and my home."
Young children have worked as camel jockeys in the countries of the Persian Gulf for hundreds of years. Their small weight and size allows the camels to run faster.
According to a May 2005 report by Anti Slavery, a British nongovernmental organisation, hundreds of children are trafficked to the UAE to work as camel jockeys each year. The majority of the boys, who come from Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mauritania, are kidnapped or sold by family and friends.
Since May 2005, however, more than 150 children who had worked as camel jockeys in the UAE have been returned to Sudan as part of a rehabilitation and reintegration programme implemented by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Save the Children Sweden, the Sudanese Ministry of Justice and Labour and other NGOs.
Ahmed Mahmoud Ahmed, secretary-general of the Peace and Development Volunteer Organisation (PDVO), a local NGO that works closely with UNICEF and Anti Slavery on this issue, said they had interviewed some children upon their return.
"Most of the children said that they lived in stables, that they were given one meal a day in order to keep their weight down and they were weighed everyday," Ahmed said. When asked about their experience, not one could provide a positive response, he added.
A cultural tradition
A situation analysis of child rights conducted by Save the Children Sweden in 2003 reported that the majority of Sudanese children who worked as camel jockeys in the Gulf were members of the nomadic Rashaida community, which had originated in Saudi Arabia and then moved to the eastern Sudanese state of Kassala.
According to Ahmed, most children in Sudan were trafficked by their fathers, whereas in Bangladesh and Pakistan, children were usually abducted.
"Camel jockeying is a part of their [the Rashaida tribe] culture, and it is a major source of income for them because they are very poor and therefore very vulnerable," Ahmed said.
He explained that parents usually exchanged their child for a down payment and salary. The child received very little, if any, money for their work.
"The children will race until they are about nine or 10 or weigh about 45 kilos. After that they will work as cooks or cleaners until 13, 14, 15, and then they will be sent back home," Ahmed said.
In July 2005 the UAE government formally introduced a law prohibiting camel jockeys under age 18. Under this legislation, offenders face up to three years in prison and/or a fine of nearly $14,000.
In May 2005, representatives of the governments of Sudan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the UAE, together with UNICEF, agreed to establish the programme to rehabilitate and reintegrate boys who had been forced to work as camel jockeys.
Part of the plan required the UAE to list all children currently working in the country as camel jockeys.
The list totalled 3,000 children, 2,800 of whom were under age 10.
Catherine Turner, child labour officer for Anti Slavery, however, said these numbers were misleading.
"Numbers need to be much higher to be confident that most children are being sent back and not simply hidden or re-trafficked across borders, she said. "Moreover, interviews conducted with repatriated boys in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan indicate that some children may have been left behind in camps in the UAE or sent elsewhere."
The agreement also required the UAE to return all camel jockeys to their countries of origin and to contribute financially to the rehabilitation programme. Since the agreement was reached, 150 children had been returned to Sudan from the UAE, only 10 in accordance with the agreed procedures.
Turner suggested that the UAE's obligation to fund part of the rehabilitation programme was behind its lack of commitment to the agreement.
Once the camel jockeys had been returned to their home country, aid workers said the children's ordeal was far from over.
"Because the children were so young when they left, they have forgotten their language. So when they come back they cannot communicate with their families and they remember nothing about the nomadic way of life," said Osman Abufatima, a UNICEF child-protection officer in Sudan.
Another problem the boys faced was locating their families, as they had rarely been allowed to contact them while they were working. To address this issue, aid agencies established a system for family tracing and family communication.
Turner explained that rehabilitation needed to include medical care for physical injuries, as well as psychiatric care and counselling to help the boys deal with their traumatic experiences.
"We need to give them their freedom back and make it possible for them to gain an education and bring them up to speed with their peer groups," she said. Turner also noted that the UAE government had to provide solutions for those children whose families could not be found.
Although most communities expressed their support for ending this practice, the members of the Rashaida ethnic group did not.
"One of their chiefs told me that by attempting to put a stop to this practice we are disrupting one of their major sources of income and leaving them with few options," Abufatima said. He added that the community did not view the act of selling children for camel racing as unjust and considered it part of its traditional and cultural background.
"The chief asked me, ‘Why has UNICEF called it slavery and trafficking?’" he said.
PDVO's secretary-general Ahmed stressed that despite any setbacks, the focus needed to remain on ending the practice.
"Camel jockeying is one of the worst forms of child labour that has ever been reported. ... The work is very risky. So many reports have come in from children falling from camels during races and getting killed or seriously injured. It is very sad. Very sad," he said.
Children who survived the ordeal were emotionally scarred and ill equipped to return to their families.
"They all showed a lack of interest in living their lives," Ahmed said. "You see, this work has killed their spirits. Because of the harsh working conditions they have experienced at such an early age, it may be too late for them to live a normal life."
"There is nothing good about this experience," 12-year-old Mazin said. "I don't like to think about it, and I will try never to remember it."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions