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Between devil and deep blue sea

According to an international NGO, as of December 2013, eight of the 50 sailors from across the world held hostage by pirates are Indians. Both the government and shipowners have a system in place to help seafarers abducted by pirates. Why then does it take years to bring them back home?

india Updated: Dec 29, 2013 02:03 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times

For Ajay Furtado, a former sailor, probably the most vivid memory of his last sail in 2010 is one of fear. "My wife and daughters were accompanying me on that trip and I saw the ship in front of me being attacked by pirates. It was the scariest moment of my life, since I had my family with me," he recalls. Furtado had survived three pirate attacks prior to this, when the pirates had looted the ships and left.

According to Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP), an NGO, as of December 2013, 50 sailors from across the world are being held hostage by pirates. Eight of them are Indians.

The International Maritime Organisation, a specialised United Nations agency, describes piracy as any illegal act of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft.

But Furtado has another definition when talking of pirates: "The Asian pirates are more gentlemanly. They will take what you have and leave. The African pirates, especially the Somali pirates, are barbaric," he says.

A spokesperson for Essar Shipping says, " Since the 1990’s, South East Asia has been identified as one of the global ‘destination’ of pirate attacks on merchant vessels. However for the past several years, piracy has emerged as a significant threat to world shipping in Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea."

Adds Anjan Sinha, an Indian seafarer currently based in Singapore, "Piracy is also making its presence felt in the Gulf of Guinea, which includes littorals of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast. Unlike along the Horn of Africa (that includes Somalia), no effective naval forces are active here."

For the sailors, sailing in these high risk areas entail a constant threat to life. Abduction means captivity, sometimes for years, and physical ordeals that range from being beaten up to being left with little or no food for days at a stretch. "Between 2008 to 2013 more than 4,000 sailors have been held captive by pirates," informs Chirag Bahri, regional director, MPHRP. Thirty-three Indian sailors returned home in 2013 after being released by the pirates.

The issue of piracy was back in focus with the arrest of Captain Sunil James, an Indian seafarer, in Togo. James had alighted at Togo to report a pirate attack on his vessel.

He was finally released and returned home on December 19. His arrest again fanned the debate over the role of the government and shipowners/operators in securing a sailor’s release in case of a pirate attack and ensuing legalities, if any. Sinha gives the example of the hijacking of MV Maersk Alabama, an American vessel in April, 2009, while talking of the government’s role.

The US had used navy seals to kill the pirates and release the captain of the vehicle. The rescue operation inspired a book and the film Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks in the title role. "Every Navy is capable of this but does not do it to avoid international arguments," says Sinha.

The IMO has issued advisaries/guidelines to both the government and shipowners and operators to help prevent acts of piracy. While the Indian Navy is part of an international contingent that guards high risk areas, the government has been blamed of being lackadaisical in its attitude towards sailors.

In 2012, Delhi-based lawyer, Gaurav Kumar Bansal, moved the Supreme Court to direct the Centre to take urgent steps for ensuring release of Indian sailors held captive by Somali pirates since 2010 and for framing "effective" anti-piracy guidelines.

In response to the petition, the Centre, in April 2013 had informed the Supreme Court that it will soon bring in a legislation, the Anti Piracy Bill 2012, to address the problem. The sailors were released in 2013.

"The Bill is yet to be passed," says Bansal. Adds Furtado, "The lack of urgency shown by the Indian government in such cases is related to the lack of public awareness on marine piracy.

In 2011, on an average, approximately one ship a week was attacked by pirates. If the same had been true for aeroplanes it would have made international news." The MPHRP and the government itself, though, refute any lapse in action when it comes to extending all possible help to sailors and their families.

"In case of a pirate attack and abduction of an Indian seafarer, we get in touch with the shipowner/operator to gather information and reach out to the seafarer in any possible way. None of the cases of abduction/hostage yet have been on a vessel bearing an Indian flag.

So we get in touch with the flag nation of the vessel concerned, the country where the Indian national seafarer is being held hostage and also international law enforcement agencies concerned to ask them to use their influence over the shipowner/operator to help the seafarers.

Medical assistance wherever feasible and need based is also sought to be arranged," explains Deepak Shetty, joint director general, directorate general of shipping, Government of India. Shetty admits that communication can be a challenge when the Indian sailor is working in a foreign vessel.

"Some flag nations are less responsive than others. But we also raise the issue at international platforms," he says.

Shetty also talks of being in touch with and extending help to the family of the seafarer and efforts made to rehabilitate the sailor once he is released. "343 Indian sailors have been taken hostage by pirates since 2008, . Eight are still in captivity, one died and one is missing. All the others have been brought back," says Shetty.

He doesn’t talk of the time taken to ensure their release.

In case of abduction, to pay the ransom is, of course, the responsibility of the ship owner/operator. Big operators and ship owners usually have a policy in place to help sailors.

A spokesperson for Essar Shipping says, "The company has policy to provide armed security guards on board its vessels, as and when ships transit through the Gulf of Aden. All ships are registered under MSCHOA (Marine Security Center - Horn of Africa) while they transit the high risk area.

The seafarers are given counselling on what to do if pirates take control, in event of military action and emergency communication." But sailors share that all is not as it seems on paper.

Especially when it comes to smaller operators.

"Sailors are supposed to have a choice when it comes to sailing in high risk areas. If a sailor refuses, the company is to arrange for his return. But most often, if a sailor refuses to sail to a high risk area, he has to arrange for his own return.

Also, I have noticed that sailors who have refused to sail in such areas find it difficult to find employment subsequently," says a sailor on condition of anonymity.

Those in authority feel awareness is the best protection. "Sailors should choose only authorised/licensed recruitment and placement seafarers’ service providers/agencies," cautions Shetty. "Knowing about the possible risks helps a sailor to be mentally alert and prepared," says Bahri.

In troubled waters: case studies

Trapped, beaten, starved for three years

Jadhav was on watch-keeping duty on the MV Iceberg 1 when eight Somali pirates took the wheel at gunpoint on March 28, 2010. The vessel was carrying a cargo of tin and automobiles and was on its way to Dubai when it was waylaid and steered towards Somalia.

It would stay there until December 23, 2012.

For nearly three years, Jadhav and his colleagues lived in fear for their lives, with virtually no contact with their families and no idea of what would become of them.

"I was allowed to speak to my family only five times," he says. "The only reason we were allowed to call at all was because the pirates wanted us to tell our families that we would all be killed if someone didn’t pay them their ransom."

To intimidate the men further, sailors were often picked at random, beaten and locked alone in a room.

"Sometimes they would be gone for days, sometimes for months," Jadhav says.

When one Yemeni sailor committed suicide, his body was kept in a freezer for four months. "When the ship ran out of diesel, they threw him in the water. Of all their mistreatment, that shook us the most," says Jadhav.

Food was scarce for the prisoners. "We were given one chapati and a little boiled rice whenever the pirates felt like feeding us," says Jadhav.

Their captors wanted 10 million dollars from the owners of the ship. "They kept telling us that we would be kept for 10 years if their demands were not met," says Jadhav. "Our families said the government was trying to rescue us, but there was no immediate help, so we soon lost all hope."

The 22 men on board the vessel were finally rescued by the Puntland maritime police, after a fight that lasted 13 days. During this rescue operation, Jadhav was injured after a bullet pierced his leg. There was no medical aid on the ship, so he spent four days of his captivity with a numb and bleeding leg, in excruciating pain from injuries, assaults by the pirates, and from having his limbs tied together.

"When we finally saw a chopper in the air, we knew that we were going home," says Jadhav.

Five of the six Indian sailors on board returned on a flight organised by the Indian Air Force; the sixth was never found.

"My parents just kept weeping at the airport," says Jadhav. "They don’t want me to go off to sea any more. They’re terrified that, next time, they won’t get me back."

— Anubhuti Matta

Released, after 371 days in captivity

Both Arun and Kumar were working on the MT Royal Grace, when it was captured by pirates on 2 March, 2012, near Oman. MT Royal Grace had set sail from Dubai on 28 February, 2012, with a 22-member crew. Seventeen of the 22 on board were Indians. Previously owned by a Dubai-based company, the vessel had just been acquired by a Nigerian owner, and the crew were taking the ship to hand it over.

"We had no cargo on board, but we had filled the ship with sea water to reduce the rocking of the vessel and so it appeared loaded," explains Kumar. It was at approximately 4pm on 2 March that the pirates boarded the ship and took the crew hostage.

"The group of ten pirates came in a speedboat. They wouldn’t believe us when we told them that the ship was empty. When they found it really was, they became very angry. They were Somali pirates, known to come far away from their own shores to attack ships. After they took us hostage, they took the ship to Somalia. Then they called the Nigerian owner of the ship and demanded 25 million dollars as ransom. The owner said that it was too high a sum, and then negotiations started," remembers Kumar.

Arun remembers that he was allowed to call home two-three times. "They always wanted us to tell our families to arrange for the money or they would kill us," he says. Food was scarce, "a little rice and potato. And we didn’t get food everyday. I weighed only 40kgs when I was released. If I had been in captivity for a few more days I would have died," says Arun.

Adds Kumar, "Some of us had been given permission to fish. Physical abuse was routine. Sometimes they would tie us up and hang us upside down. A senior Nigerian officer died of a heart attack a month after we were taken hostage. We preserved his body for a month, but when we realised we weren’t getting released anytime soon, we had to give him a sea burial."

Finally the owner agreed to pay 10 million dollars, but then he started putting off the payments. "There was no cargo. For so much money he could have bought a new ship. He probably wasn’t too keen on paying the ransom," says Arun.

The crew were finally released on 8 March 2013, after 371 days in captivity. "We are still not sure who paid the ransom money. The owner of our ship didn’t. We heard that soon after capturing our ship, the same group of pirates had captured a ship owned by a Greek company. Many of the crew members of that ship were Indian.

The owner of that ship paid 18 million dollars to the pirates, as a result of which they let us off too," says Kumar, adding, "The Indian government did nothing to help us. Our families met many senior politicians. They would assure them of helping us, but nothing transpired. After we were released they gave us some bravery award. A few also managed to get jobs with big companies. But there was little help when we were in trouble."

Kumar would like to return to sea, but his parents are terrified of letting him go again. He is now busy setting up a business of his own. Arun would like a shore job, but he is still recuperating from the trauma of that year spent in captivity.

— PB

First Published: Dec 29, 2013 00:57 IST