Abu Musa's ferry to the past

In the second of our series on the three disputed islands, residents of Abu Musa talk about the historic ferry link with the UAE.

SHARJAH // Along the Sharjah Corniche, near the Mareija roundabout, the ferry is a familiar sight. But for a handful of people it is much more than that - it is the only link they have left to the home they had to leave behind.

Hanging on a shabby wooden caravan, a dusty, white sign with blue Arabic letters informs people that the "boat to Abu Musa Island" is docked here. "The boat is the only lifeline we have to the island of our childhood," said Mohammed Obeid, 50, one of Abu Musa's hundreds of displaced residents. The proximity of Mr Obeid's estate agency, a few steps from the boat, is no coincidence. "I chose this place to always have a view of the boat," he said. "It gives me comfort to see it there, like somehow, our connection to the island is preserved and safe."

The boat, the Khater - "Thought" - is a 13-year-old locally made white passenger carrier. It bears a UAE flag on its stern and blue curtains along the windows. Run by the Sharjah Government, the boat is free of charge for its passengers. It can carry up to 50 people and is operated by three Filipinos - a captain, a chief engineer and a seaman. Twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, it makes the three-hour voyage to the island. Roughly circular with a 15km circumference, the island is 5km across at its widest point, and rises to 100m above sea level at its highest point, Jebel Halwa.

The ferry - and the brown cargo boat that carries heavier supplies such as food and medicine - is the only link the island's former residents have with the island, almost 40 years after it, along with the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, was occupied by Iranian forces. The troops moved in on the night of December 1, 1971, a day after the British withdrew from the Trucial Coast, and a day before the emirates made their declaration of union.

It was a cool, serene night, and the Obeid family were sleeping inside their home, until the peace was shattered by the sound of helicopters landing and warships docking along the shores. "We thought a war had started," recalled Mr Obeid. Along with other boys and men from the neighbourhood, the 11-year-old Mr Obeid ran out to investigate. The helicopters and warships belonged to the Iranian army, which has stayed there ever since.

Then, the island had more than 1,500 residents, mainly from three Arabian tribes - the al Suweidi, al Muhairi and al Mazroui. They lived a simple but comfortable life, with an average yearly income of Dh3,000 each. They shared one clinic, one supermarket, two schools and one police station, and travelled back and forth to the mainland on a daily airplane, provided by the Sharjah Government. Beside fishing and pearling industries, the island is famed for its red iron oxide mines as well as an oilfield, al Mubarak, 12km offshore.

It was not until the 1980s that things began to change for the inhabitants of Abu Musa. It began with the removal of the red and white Sharjah flag (the UAE flag had been banned since the occupation). "They stopped allowing any construction and maintenance supplies for the houses or cars from being brought into the island," said Mr Obeid. "They started to bully us and conduct random checks inside our homes and go through our things. They wouldn't allow a single brick to be brought onto the island."

The last straw for him came in 1985 when, as he was heading to the port, he was stopped by an Iranian officer who demanded that he name the waters around them. "I called it the Arabian Gulf, which angered him" he recalled. "He demanded I call it the Persian Gulf." Fearing further conflicts and possible imprisonment, Mr Obeid packed up and left with his wife and five children. "My children were growing up and life was getting difficult there," he said. "So I made that hard decision to pack our essentials and leave, and return only once the island returned back to the UAE."

"My family and I left the island on a small plane that used to regularly fly between Sharjah and the island," said Mr Obeid, who used to work as a policeman on Abu Musa. He left all his furniture, his car, and most of his belongings, taking just a few bags packed with clothes, valuables such as gold, and photographs. For others, it felt like a "siege" under which their main livelihood of fishing was being controlled.

"They would take fish and not pay for it, and forced us to take on an Iranian on each fishing boat that set off to the sea," said Ahmed, in his 50s. He asked for his last name to be withheld as three of his elderly family members are still on the island. "They refuse to go, out of fear that if all the Emiratis left the island, then there would be no chance of it ever returning to us," said Ahmed. He left 19 years ago to start a new life in al Khan, Sharjah.

Several of the Abu Musa families moved to the same area, which has traditional trading relations with the island. These days, special permission has to be granted from the Iranian authorities to visit the island. Often, visitors are turned back. Several years ago, Mr Ahmed tried to visit his home, but was not allowed. "They only allow old men to live on the island," he said. Only about 100 residents, mostly retired fishermen, remain, living out their last years in the place where they grew up.

But both Mr Ahmed and Mr Obeid refuse to give up. They are calling on the UAE Government to take up the case to the International Court of Justice and to open a local office to deal with their needs and start registering their properties in their names. The island's mayor, Khalifa bu Ghanem, was unavailable for an interview, but said the Government was doing its best to cater to all the needs of Abu Musa residents. He is always parked at the dock whenever the boat arrives to make sure everything is in order.

Mr Obeid does not want to involve himself with the politics of the situation, he says. He only wants his children and grandchildren to have a link to their ancestral home. "We want to make sure that our children have legal links to their homes on the island," said Mr Obeid. "Now, all they have is Google Earth, which allows them to see their parents' homes on the island. "It is an occupation of Emirati soil, regardless of size and significance, and it should not be forgotten."