Ndola — IT was on December 27, 2007 when Benard Chipengele and eight other men from Kalubuli village in Nchelenge district, Luapula Province, set off with their banana boats on Lake Mweru to go fishing.
Despite having full knowledge of a fish ban, commonly known in the local language as icibindo, Chipengele and his cohorts paddled on the lake and, kilometres away from their village, they cast their nets to catch some fish.
Elsewhere in Mukwakwa, Kalungwishi, Kasungwa and Chipuma villages, other fishermen were on the lake for the same reason.
But Chipengele's plans, like those of other fishermen, were not to come to fruition, because three days later, they met a group of people claiming to be security officers from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
These DRC people were in a speed boat patrolling the lake to enforce the fish ban that had taken effect on December 1.
The men made several incursions on the Zambian side of Lake Mweru and apprehended and detained those they found violating the annual fish ban.
According to some people in Mukwakwa village who had been apprehended but later set free after being fined, the security officers claimed that they had been allowed by the Zambian authorities to encroach Zambian waters and help in the enforcement of the fish ban.
A 15-year-old Mukwakwa village resident, John Mwelwa, who was one of the victims apprehended but later released after his father, Cosmas Kaunda, paid a ransom of K50, 000, said they saw a big boat approaching them on the lake.
But oblivious of who the men in the boat really were, John and his Zambian compatriots thoight that, as it always happened, the people in the boat had come from DRC to buy bags of salt from Zambia.
But what was surprising was that the 11 people on the boat were armed with guns.
They asked the nine Zambians to jump into their boat before they moved to Kalungwishi island where other Zambians were apprehended.
On the island, the 11 men explained that they had sent their colleagues to go and buy fuel and were hungry, needing something to eat while they waited for their friends to come back.
It was then that they asked the fishermen they found on Kalungwishi Island to cast their net on the lake so that they could catch a bit of fish for their relish.
"As the people they asked to catch the fish started to pull the net, the men produced the guns. For fear of being shot, some people jumped on the lake to try and flee but they were apprehended.
"We cried for mercy. We pleaded with them to let us go because we had not done anything wrong to deserve any kind of punishment," narrated Mwelwa.
He said the men then demanded money but since there was no one with money, among those apprehended, Mwelwa's brother, Patson Mpundu, was held hostage and tied with ropes while he (Mwelwa) and two men went to Mukwakwa village to get some money for ransom.
At the village, Mwelwa explained to his father what predicament had befallen his brother and why it was important that he gave the money to the two men for his brother to be released.
Mr Kaunda said after his son had explained what had happened, he had no option but to part away with K50, 000 - the only money he had at the time.
"The boys left this place at around 08:00 hours and we did not know what had happened to them until 20:00 hours when they sent one of my sons with two men to come and get money.
"They told Mwelwa that he had to go back to the lake with the money alone and if more than one other persons accompanied him, they would shoot them. The men demanded a lot of money but I only had K50, 000 which I gave them.
"Thank God they released my son without any harm," said Mr Kaunda who is a businessman at Mukwakwa village.
He said he was glad that his boys were not molested but he was saddened that the other people who were apprehended with the boys were not set free.
On this particular day in January, five Zambians were apprehended at Kalungwishi Island and three at Mukwakwa.
Although news had reached the village that the captives had escaped, no one had been seen at the village.
However, one escapee found in Mununga-Chiengi explained that he made a dramatic escape after making a makeshift sailing boat from the camp where they were kept after being apprehended in December.
"We were treated very badly and I was scared. All I knew was that we were going to be killed and it was for this reason that I thought of a way to escape. I made a sailing boat by tying a piece of tent I had stolen from the camp where the people who were guarding us were sleeping to two cross-shaped sticks which I fixed to the boat.
"It was after midnight and after I had done this, I awoke my friends and told them that we should escape because it was now or never. My friends were afraid and refused to escape saying if it was found out that we had run away, the officers would follow and kill us once they caught up with us.
I made up my mind and jumped into the boat after pushing it on the lake. Fortunately, the wind was blowing towards Zambia and it was around 04.00 hours when I reached the shore on the Zambian side of the lake," said the man who decided to remain anonymous.
Another escapee, Derrick Cheulu, of Kapampali village in Mununga, said he and four other men escaped from their captors last week but he was the only one who arrived at the village and did not know where the other three friends were.
"We were four of us who ran away. We scattered in different directions and I followed the electricity pylons, which I guessed were taking power to DRC. I did not know whether the direction I was heading to was right but finally I found myself in Chiengi. There were other people I came to learn had also escaped from the captors. From Chiengi, a good Samaritan gave us a lift to Mununga," said Cheulu.
At Kalubuli village which is one of the fishing camps in Nchelenge, Chipengele described the experience of captivity as hell on earth.
As spokesperson for the other seven people who managed to escape, Chipengele said it was on December 27, 2007 when they set off for the lake to catch some fish which they needed to sell to raise money for the New Year festivities and to keep some for their relish.
Around 10:00 hours on December 30, 11 men who had come on a speed boat approached them and accused them of defying the fish ban.
He said the men explained that they had agreed with the Zambian authorities to arrest those who defied the fish ban on the Zambian side while Zambian officers were also arresting those fishing on the DRC side of the lake.
"We did not go far from home. We were on the Zambian side of the lake and we only wanted to catch a bit of fish to sell and have a bit of money for New Year and keep some for our pots.
"The men came with guns and demanded K1 million and when we said we did not have the money, they apprehended us. They undressed us leaving us only with our under pants and tied both our hands and put us in their big boat.
"One of our friends tried to commit suicide by jumping onto the lake but he was retrieved. When we reached the shore on the DRC side, the man who wanted to commit suicide was given 25 strokes of the cane and he fainted," said Chipengele.
The captives were then taken to a place called Lukonzolo. There, they were made to sleep naked although it was cold and raining.
When they were taken to the camp where they found other captives, they were subjected to five strokes of the cane every two hours.
The day they were apprehended, they were not given any food for the whole day and for 13 days of their captivity, they were not allowed to bath.
"We were starved for the whole day when we were apprehended. The following day, we were given a small portion of nshima with katapa (cassava leaves) as relish. We scrambled for the nshima and others could not even manage a bite because in no time it was all eaten up," narrated Chipengele.
The captives said they lost all their possessions, which included bags of salt, tents, nets and boats.
"They grabbed our 90 kg bag of mealie meal, clothes, shoes, pots and everything we had," said other victims, Musonda Yamba and Gershom Mutale.
After staying 15 days at Lukonzolo, the captives were taken to Mpweto on 13 January.
On 13 February, they escaped after one of them burgled the door of the shelter in which they were sleeping after he stole an axe from the guards who were soundly asleep after apparently taking one too many.
They walked a long distance for days in the thick forest until they reached Chiengi where they were given a lift by a trucker to Mununga.
They walked to Kalubuli village, which was quite a distance away from Mununga.
When they arrived at the village, relatives were shocked to see them because they did not expect them to be alive.
"When we arrived at the village, our wives, children and relatives wailed and wept. They did not expect us to be alive," said Mutale.
After experiencing this episode, the escapees said they would never go back on the lake for fishing when there was a fish ban.
"I will never go back to the lake for fishing after this experience.I would rather eat wild vegetables," said Chipengele.
However, Chipengele and few other fishermen who were apprehended and tortured may have learnt a lesson for fishing during the ban and may not do this again.
What about those who have not undergone this predicament?
According to Safeli Chakaba , head teacher at Chiba basic school in Nchelenge, there was need for the Zambian Government to sensitise people on the importance of the fish ban.
He said chiefs and village headmen should be given powers to see that the fish ban was adhered to.
But a Mununga resident, Davey Mwaishile, pointed out that people in the fishing areas did not observe the fish bans even if their friends were arrested.
He said the law on the fish ban was not stiff because whenever the fishermen were arrested, only their nets were confiscated and they were charged a small amount of K30, 000 to get them back.
"When they charge them K30, 000 and give them back their nets, the same day they go back to the lake and start fishing. The illegal method used by those who recently apprehended them is helping because some people are scared," said Mr Mwaishile.
During the time of gathering this story in Mununga and Kashikishi, it was found that most, if not all of, the restaurants there, were selling nshima with big breams known as pale while there was a fish ban in place.
Is the Fisheries Department really serious about the fish bans?
Nchelenge District Commissioner, Wilson Kasoloko, hinted that Nchelenge did not perform well in the monitoring of the fish ban season.
He said compliance levels from the fishermen had not been good and urged the fishermen to comply to all regulations relating to the fish ban next season or else they would find themselves in a difficult situation because the Government was not going to sit idle and allow selfish fishermen to destroy what was in the lakes.
"We shall ensure that stringent measures are put in place to strengthen the monitoring of the fish ban in the coming rain season," said Mr Kasoloko.
He pointed out that the fisheries officers in Nchelenge, like in other places, were committed to controlling illegal fishing during the fish ban but the problem was inadequate funding.
Mr Kasoloko revealed that the officers had confiscated 50 nets, 22 boats and quite a large quantity of dried fish during this year's fish ban.
He said one man had been prosecuted and imprisoned one month and fined K50, 000 for fishing during the ban.
Mr Kasoloko also explained that prior to the fish ban, Nchelenge received K16.8 million from the office of the permanent secretary in Luapula province.
Another K6 million was received from the Programme for Luapula Agriculture and Rural Development to assist in the monitoring of the fish ban.
"In all, we received K22.8 million for the monitoring of the fish ban. The figure may sound big, but it was not enough. It was far below the required amount. If the fish ban is to be monitored effectively, fisheries departments require about K30 million," said Mr Kasoloko.
He said despite the meagre resources, the officers were putting in a lot of effort to ensure that fish conservation on Luapula River and Lake Mweru was improved.
But Mr Kasoloko lamented that the department of fisheries had a lot of constraints in the implementation of the fish ban because of poor staffing.
There are only five officers instead of 10 in the department.
The other problem was the use of illegal fishing nets by the fishermen and most of the nets used were the type that caught even juvenile fish.
"There are also too many fishermen on the lake which has exerted pressure. As such, fish is not given chance to grow and multiply," said Mr Kasoloko.
He also complained that people had settled in closed Mifimbo, which is supposed to be a fish breeding area.
"If we are to conserve fish, we need to remove these people who have settled in the prohibited area. To this effect, we are about to initiate a process of discussions with Senior Chief Kazembe and Chief Kambwali so that we find an agreeable way to remove people who have settled in Mifimbo," said Mr Kasoloko.
He urged people to take up farming between December and March when there was a fish ban and after that they could go back to the lake when the ban was over and by so doing, their families would be self-sustained because they would have maize or cassava for their nshima and fish for relish and for sell.
Indeed, fishermen in Luapula and other places where fish is the mainstay need to observe the fish ban for the good of their future.