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Intimate enemies

Indian sailors who were kept in captivity for 10 months by Somalian pirates speak of the danger and desperation that both captors and hostages shared at sea.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2011 01:16 IST
Varghese K George, Namita Kohli and Charu Sudan Kasturi
Varghese K George, Namita Kohli and Charu Sudan Kasturi
Hindustan Times

In the village of Kasandi in Sonepat, a little over two hours away from Delhi, Sampa Arya, 30, says it is normal for a wife to wait for ten months for her sailor husband. But the last ten months have seemed the longest for even a gritty woman such as Sampa, and her mild-mannered husband Ravinder Gulia.

On May 20, 2010, Ravinder, Sampa's husband of ten years, promised to be home in about eight months or so, as he boarded the MV Suez — that was to transport 17,000 tons of cement from Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu to various destinations. Last month, Ravinder returned to wife Sampa, only to make another promise to her: he would never go back to the sea again.

'f*#k crew, f*#k cargo'
The night of August 1, 2010, had begun as just another for the 22 sailors onboard the MV Suez, the property of Red Sea Navigation, an Egyptian shipping company headed by Mohammad Soubhi. At any given point in time, more than a lakh mechanised ships such as the MV Suez crowd the world's seas, transporting goods to far off places and keeping the world economy afloat. Manning these merchant ships — most of which require only a handful of crew members — are sailors such as Ravinder, 31, a science graduate, who manage safety equipment and navigation, while others such as Satnam Singh, 21, a commerce student from Ambala, perform other odd jobs. All of them took turns to keep a watch on the sea as the ship was moving towards Somalian waters. On vigil on the deck that night, Satnam saw a small boat approaching MV Suez and then disappearing. It was a recce — next morning, the pirates would strike.

MV Suez's Route
MV Suez had set sail from Tuticorin on May 2, 2010 and was to reach Eritrea in Africa on August 2, the day it was hijacked off Oman.

85 out of the total 142 incidents of actual or attempted piracy during January-March 2011 took place near the Somalian coast, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Number of sailors in the world is 14 lakh. Nearly two lakh of them are from the Indian subcontinent.

50% is the increase in seaborne trade since 1990 — from 4,008 million tonnes to 5,984 tonnes in 2008.

$394,200 is the estimated earning of each pirate. Assuming about 1,500 pirates off the coast of Somalia, each pirate can expect to earn that much over a five-year period.

MV Suez's bad luck had started ever since it set sail on its last lap from Karachi on July 29. Due to "slow speed", it missed the convoy escorted by NATO warships that would have helped them sail through the risky stretch of the Gulf of Aden, the hub of Somalian piracy.

"Ship hijacked, ship hijacked," a thick, strange voice had declared on the public address system of MV Suez at 7. 50 am, off the coast of Oman. Their crew's hands tied, guns on to their head, all 21, except Captain Wassi were on the floor of the bridge — the built-up portion on a ship that houses its controls. After the ship dropped anchor at Garad, Hassan, a translator who joined on board, made the first call for ransom to Soubhi in Suez, Egypt. The sailors were reassured by Soubhi's reputation. Three years ago, he had paid off the pirates in no time. This time, he didn't live upto his reputation.

"F*#k ship, f*#k crew, f*#k cargo," he snapped and switched off his phone. For Soubhi, letting the ship go could have made sense, as in many cases of hijacking. With a rise in piracy across busy shipping routes, an economy around it has emerged, making profits in exchange for "safety and security" of the ships, and the cargo, explains Rohit Negi, Assistant Professor, Ambedkar University Delhi. There are insurance companies and special agencies that negotiate ransom.

The sailors, hired through a chain of recruitment agents in developing countries hardly maintain any direct contact with shipping company. V K Sharma, a Karnal-based agent, who recruited Satnam and Prashant Chouhan says the demand for jobs are high — he took 50 in 2009; 85 in 2010. "We don't tell them the risks involved," he admits. Of the nearly 14 lakh seafarers, nearly two lakh are from the Indian subcontinent. Jobless youth in small towns are the target audience of advertisement that promise 'salaries upto 10 lakh for six months.' "Misleading," admits a Mumbai-based recruiter, as that is meant for senior level officers. Satnam, a helper who did carpentry and painting on board, and Prashant Chauhan from Shimla who is a cook, earned less than R 30,000.

In the seas, the sailors are by themselves. "I know I have insurance, but I am not sure of the details," says Ravinder. International laws do not permit merchant vessels to carry arms, he rues.

The leader of the pirate gang was Abdul Kus, who "looked 30-plus" and wore combat fatigues. Bashir, Ahmed, Mahmood and Abdul Salam — all in their teens — wore T-shirts and wraps and their AK 47s. They slapped and kicked the hostages occasionally, "more for effect than to harm," remembers Satnam. Members of gang were hired professionals, who the pirates got onboard on a monthly, weekly on even daily basis. Te weapons and boats are hired. Then there are financiers who underwrite the expenses until ransom is settled. The translators kept changing; Hasan, a "US citizen," left early, to be followed by Mossa, and then Khalid, the teenager who was half Portuguese, half Somalian. Haji Mohammad, the fourth and the last, clinched the ransom deal. The negotiations started with six million dollars, and Soubhi never went above 800,000. Haji Mohammad realised the ship owner didn't care much and began build pressure on the families of the sailors, by making them call home thrice a week.

'We are not murderers'
As talks stretched, the pirates and the captives settled into a boring routine. Meanwhile, Ravinder and co learnt how to filter rainwater by using the charcoal from the pirates' hookah and cotton from the first-aid kit on board. The water — and the wood from the ship's cabins, used to cook food — kept the sailors alive, even as the pirates watched Indian films on the sailors' laptops. "We are not murderers," the captors kept telling the captives. "Poverty has made them into hijackers," says N K Sharma, an engineer from Jammu's Samba district.

Pirates such as Kus grew up in a country with no national government over two decades and a vanishing livelihood due to illegal fishing by foreign trawlers. Fishermen and artisans of Garad and other villages across the 1,600-km coastline of Somalia, on the mouth of the Gulf of Eden, had always seen ships headed to, and from, Europe through the Suez Canal passing by them. Along with the ships, the world that was passing by the Somalians was getting richer, faster, as China, East and south Asia entered trade big time. With no government to protect the Somalian shores, boats from Yemen, Tanzania and even China and Taiwan began to fish in Somalian waters. The khat (narcotic)-chewing pirates started calling themselves ‘Badaadinta Badah', or ‘saviours of the sea'. Unlike the globally networked pirates of the South China Sea who can resell ships and cargo, all that the Somalians want is ransom, Negi points out. "Each time the ransom talks failed their face fell like that of a child denied a candy," remembers Satnam.

'Money is our religion'
By January 2011, it was difficult to tell who's more desperate — the captives or the captors. On the 23rd, the pirates decided to hijack another ship. The Captain refused. A scuffle ensued and an inebriated pirate put a gun on to the Gulia's head. Ali Philestine jumped to stop his comrade. "A good pirate," Sampa says, as if she had witnessed it. Indeed she had moved closer to the unending saga by now as, the families of all sailors had been mobilised into the rescue efforts. Haji Mohammad also asked the sailors to mobilise media opinion in Pakistan and India. By now, both the sailors and the pirates were working towards a common goal — the ransom. The efforts paid off. Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney got into the scene. In three months time, Burney mobilised the ransom, which by now was 2.1 million dollars. Nairobi-based Salama Fikira, a firm that specialises in issues as wide-ranging as 'conflict resolution and peace building seminars' and 'extreme logistics planning and support,' airdropped the ransom to the ship on June 13. The company refused to discuss details with Hindustan Times citing "client confidentiality."

The pirates began to count the currency using machines, an exercise that lasted nearly two days. They also used machines to check counterfeit. Once sure of the booty, Kus and his boys walked away — no smiles, no handshakes, no words. "Money is our religion," they had once said when asked why they were not offering namaaz. They, of course, share their religion with many who are not called pirates. Soon, Suez ran out of fuel. As the owners ignored request for fuel the men were shifted to a Pakistani warship. As Ravinder began the journey back, he watched the Suez sink, its bridge — their home for ten months disappearing last beneath the ocean.

Inputs from Amir Karim Tantray, Gaurav Bisht, Neyaz Farooquee.

Ravinder Gulia
Third officer
Ravinder Gulia, a resident of Laadpur village in Haryana, went on board the MV Suez on a contract of about eight months. He had a laptop, some clothes, gifts and about 700 dollars (his monthly salary) with him, all of which were seized by the pirates. Ravinder says sailors such as him are "unaware" of the risks of piracy, and recruitment agents never caution them when they are hired.

Satnam Singh
Maintenance personnel
21-year old Satnam Singh had completed his second year of B.Com at a local Ambala college when he decided to give shipping commerce a try as a maintenance hand on the MV Suez. His parents are worried whether he will recover from the trauma of living for 10 months at gunpoint — and keep telling him not to talk about what he went through to help him avoid reliving the near-death experience.

NK Sharma, Engineer
Perhaps wisened by his years, 38-year old Sharma, an engineer, realised that hiding behind the mask of terror that the pirates wore lay a story of desperation. "What we understood, pirates are basically fishermen but due to the lack of avenues, poverty and unemployment, they are in the business of hijacking ships. They don't want the ship, only money," he said.

Prashant Chauhan

Chauhan, 23, who had only two months' experience working on the ship was excited about the voyage. On August 1, 2010, Prashant along with five other seamen was on night patrol on the deck, when they first spotted the pirates' boat. "Boratoe (potato in Somali) was the first word we understood," he says. And that's all they had with rice for 10 months.

ht epaper

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