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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Somalia Pirate Captives Tell Their Stories

April 19th, Zimbo - From:

Some hostages are little more than skin and bones, their food running out and illnesses setting in as negotiations for their release drag on, angering their volatile captors. Others report less brutal conditions, even being allowed to fish for extra provisions.

Still, fear is a constant for all the 300 or so merchant seamen now held by Somali pirates. Life for them — and their families back home — is a grueling stretch of days, weeks, even months in cramped conditions, wondering about the future.

Sometimes there are threats of execution, along with worries of what will happen if their employers refuse to pay ransom and their usefulness as bargaining chips ends.
There is a lot of time to pray.
The U.S. Navy may have rescued an American cargo ship captain and French commandos saved a hijacked yacht in the lawless seas off Somalia, but a military rescue is unlikely for most of the hostages because their ships now lie at anchor in pirate strongholds.
Seafarers from the Philippines account for 105 of the prisoners, not surprising for a poor Southeast Asian country that supplies about 30 percent of the world's 1.2 million merchant sailors.
Released hostage Mark Abalos hails from here, and he had spent 10 uneventful years at sea until his ship was waylaid last summer by Somali pirates who clambered aboard from a pair of twin-engine motor boats, brandishing a grenade launcher, an assault rifle, pistols and knives.
Some of the five pirates wore shorts, and two were barefoot, he recalled. They appeared to range in age from 20 to 50 and clearly hadn't bathed in a long time.
But Abalos said they were well organized, a sign that their criminal work has turned into a thriving business, complete with its own makeshift port offshore.
"They pointed at a map on the wall and ordered the captain to change route toward southern Somalia," Abalos said.
The Antigua-flagged MV BBC Trinidad had been a month into a trip hauling logs from Mexico to the Middle East when the pirates boarded last Aug. 21.
A few days later, the boat anchored within sight of Somalia's shore. Two or three other hijacked ships were already there, and others came later.
"The pirates apparently were from different gangs, each with their own hijacked ship, talking through two-way radios about the status of ransom negotiations," Abalos said.
After anchoring, 15 more pirates came out to join the initial hijackers. They asked for information — the ship's cargo, the owner's name and contact details — and took over the satellite phone on board. The chief pirate negotiator went by the name Abdi and spoke English well.
"We can hear Abdi talking," Abalos said. "We figured out they were demanding $8 million."
Some hostages have told of mock executions in which pirates, angered that ransom negotiations weren't going well, lined up their captives and fired weapons close to their heads. And there has been at least one gunfight among pirates.
Catherine Boretta, whose husband Rodell is part of a 23-man Filipino crew that has been held for five months, said he was shot in the leg, apparently by a stray bullet when two arguing pirates tried to shoot each other.
She spoke with him by phone April 10. Such calls from a ship's satellite phone or a cell phone are scant — often under a minute and apparently never more than five — and mostly seem designed to urge relatives to pressure ship owners to pay ransom. The pirates usually put the calls on speakers, and hostages warn loved ones not to ask too many questions.
Her husband told her food rations had run out and the sailors were emaciated, Mrs. Boretta said.
"They stay in one room," she said. "They sleep there and wear whatever they were wearing when they were attacked because everything is looted, including clothes, slippers.
"When he calls, my husband's voice would usually be shaking. He told me they were going through hell."
Still, he tries not to tell too much. Mrs. Boretta said she learned about his gunshot wound from the wives of other crewmen. They and shipping company workers passed on reports that the shooting appeared to have been accidental.
"He did not want to tell me about it because I have a heart disease," she said. "When he called and I asked him, he said, 'I was shot in the leg,' but he did not elaborate and said he was OK."
She thinks he is worried about a deep ache in his leg despite not talking in detail. "When he calls he only tells us he loves us, that we should take care and pray," she said.
One thing Mrs. Boretta is sure of is that she doesn't want any rescue attempt and hopes the ship's owner pays a ransom instead.
"The families of hostages are afraid of any rescue attempt because it might put the lives of the hostages in danger," she said.
Conditions weren't quite as bad for Abalos and his 12 crew mates.
"We got pillows and sheets from our cabins and we were all ordered to just stay in the bridge," which had air conditioning and a CD player that was constantly cranking out Bon Jovi and other rock songs, he said.
"I knew our fuel would eventually run out. I hoped that it will not run out before ransom was paid," he said.
"It was difficult to sleep. There was constant fear. Sometimes we will wake up to the yells of the pirates when the negotiations were not going well," he said. "When we felt at some point that the negotiations were on the verge of collapsing by the way they were talking, we thought that was the end.
"We constantly prayed. There was a rosary in my pocket. I'm a Christian. My mother, who is Catholic, gave it to me sometime before when I left for a trip."
When the ship's larders ran bare, the pirates brought goat meat and noodles on board.
After 21 days, a tugboat arrived with a long haggled-over $1.1 million ransom.
The pirates began to leave the ship.
"You're free," Abalos said they told the crew.
Leszek Adler of Poland was the technical officer on the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, which was hijacked off the coast of Somalia in November and released in January.
"Other than a few minor episodes they weren't hostile toward us all, although there were a few of them that had a hotter temper," he said. "They were never nice to us, and treated us the whole time as a potential threat and always acted toward us with a bit of distance.
"They all carried a machine gun with them, and some of them also had a pistol tucked into their belt or under their shirt, while others had knives."
Adler said he and his fellow sailors started rationing their 30-day food supply immediately after their capture, figuring negotiations could drag on for two or three months.
When the food ran out, they were allowed to fish from the deck with a hook and fishing line while a pair of guards watched.
"You put a piece of fish or meat on the end and that was it, kind of like Robinson Crusoe," Adler said with a laugh. "Those waters are very rich in fish, and in about two weeks of fishing we caught more than 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of fish."
Asked about the potential impact of the recent rescue of the American captain, Adler said: "It will definitely worsen the situation for sailors. The pirates were very careful the whole time, very sensitive to contact with the outside world, and were afraid of a possible rescue attempt the whole time."
Despite the risk, men like Adler will keep crewing ships, even to danger zones, because the pay is good. And some know no other work.
But the ties to the sea may be eroding. For Yekaterina Lomakina, her son's ordeal as a hostage has made her hope that her grandsons do not continue the family tradition of life at sea.
Roman Lomakin, of Kerch, a small port city wedged between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, was aboard the Saldanha, a Greek-owned cargo ship seized by pirates off Somalia's coast Feb. 22.
The wait for news has been excruciating.
"We've had no communication with him — none at all," Lomakina said, her voice breaking. "We just watch the TV news — watch and hope."
Lomakin's father and grandfather were sailors, and he and his wife have two sons. "I wouldn't want it for them," his mother said of a life at sea.
It's still too early for the 12-year-old boy to decide his life's work. As for the 4-year-old, he hasn't even been told that his father is a prisoner, Lomakina said.
"He just wants his father back."
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Ryan Lucas in Warsaw, Poland, Elizabeth Kennedy in Mombasa, Kenya, and Steve Gutterman in Moscow contributed to this report.

The Rest @ AP by way of Zimbo

1 comment:

Letters to the Philippines said...

Their experiences in the hand of the pirates are really terrible. It isn’t funny!
I wonder how they can do that to other people.
Glad that they survived and hope that the other prisoners will be set free.