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End of an ordeal

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 01:00 IST

They were fired upon with a rocket launcher and spent over two months living under the shadow of pirates’ guns. On Monday, five of the 18 Indians on board the MV Stolt Valor landed at the Mumbai airport, into the warm embrace of friends and family.

“There was no physical torture, only the mental torture of having to sit at gunpoint all the time,” said Naveed Burondkar (20), the youngest of the hostages. “The Somali pirates were carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Their only purpose was to get money and they seemed like they would do anything to get it.”

Burondkar’s mother clutched his hand as he spoke, as if fearful he would disappear again.

“I’m not letting this boy out of my sight now,” said father Murad, as a large crowd of relatives from his hometown of Dapoli — a tiny town in Ratnagiri, 235 km south of Mumbai — waited to take the young man home.

For 22-year-old Santosh Patil (22) and Omprakash Shukla (47), their long journey ended in Mumbai. Patil went home to Malad; Shukla to Kalyan. Isrdore (29) and Allister Fernandes (25) would have to wait another day to fly home to Goa.

“We spent 24 hours a day at gunpoint on the bridge and couldn’t do anything without the permission of the captors,” said cook Isrdore Fernandes. “And after the ransom was paid, we weren’t released for 12 hours. That was scary. We didn't know what we were in for.”

Added Allister: “They didn’t harm us physically, but it was very traumatic.” Patil said the crew was fed regularly, but it was of poor quality and “we ate it only to survive”.

The Stolt Valor, with 22 crewmembers on board, was hijacked by Somali pirates off the cost of Yemen on September 15. The vessel had passed through the Suez Canal just days earlier, heading for Mumbai with a cargo of 23,818 tonnes of oil products.

“We were sailing in calm waters in the Gulf of Aden when we suddenly saw a rocket-propelled grenade whoosh past us,” said Burondkar. “Then bullets started raining down on us and we realised pirates had attacked. About 24 men raced towards us in three speedboats, threw a rope ladder on board and took over.”

For over two months, the pirates held the men and vessel captive at the port of Eyl in Somalia, demanding a ransom of $6 million.

The Stolt Valor was finally released on November 16, after the ship’s Japanese owners reportedly paid a ransom of $2.5 million.

The vessel and the rest of the crew — including 13 other Indians — are still in the Omani capital of Muscat. They will begin heading home on Tuesday, depending on availability of flights.

The ship is expected to dock at Kandla port in Gujarat the same day.

The Stolt Valor was the 55th vessel to be hijacked by Somali pirates since January, according to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau.

Speaking at the Mumbai airport on Monday, Abdul G. Serang, general secretary of National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), said concerted international efforts were needed to contain piracy in the seas off Somalia. “It’s high time we stopped referring to them as pirates,” he added. “They are nothing but maritime terrorists and should be dealt with as such.”