Piracy: victims spell out during WISTA-UK Forum the brutal threats off West and East Africa, By James Brewer
Two highly qualified seafarers told the WISTA-UK Forum 2013 of their respective harrowing experiences at the hands of maritime pirates – one suffering his ordeal when his ship was hijacked off East Africa and the other as a victim off West Africa.
Chirag Bahri, a graduate marine engineer from India, has turned his shocking encounter into a positive benefit for the international maritime community. He has taken up a post as regional director for south Asia of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, a pan-industry body helping seafarers and their families deal with the trauma of attack, armed robbery and being taken hostage.
In a chilling personal account, Mr Bahri told the WISTA-UK gathering in London that he was one of a crew held for eight months and tortured by his pirate captors when he was an engineer on the 13, 000 dwt chemical tanker Marida Margueritewhich was seized on May 8 2010 in the Gulf of Aden.
The tanker had loaded benzine and gas oil in India and was bound for Antwerp via the Gulf of Aden. When the ship was 150 miles south of Salah, in calm seas, said Mr Bahri, “I was in the engine room when we received a call from the bridge saying someone was approaching us. About six pirates came on board, and the senior officers panicked. The pirates put a ladder on the side and it took them two minutes to come on board. They were heavily armed with AK47s.
“We tried to talk to the bridge, but nobody picked up the phone. We knocked on the bridge door and heard noises. We went inside and these guys made us sit down. The pointed a gun at us. They slapped the master and asked him, ‘let’s go to Somalia’. One of the pirate leaders knew a bit of English.”
More attackers boarded, and the ship was forced to sail for two and a half days to a town in Somalia where 25 pirates came on board.
The captors ransacked the ship. Personal goods were stolen: a laptop and even clothes and undergarments were taken away. After 10 days a negotiator introduced himself and sat down with the pirates, chewing khat, a popular substance that contains a stimulant.
What happened in the months before a drop of ransom money onto the ship meant the crew could go free? The pirates were cruel, without emotions, jobs or income, and to them it looked easy to go out to sea to capture a ship and get millions of dollars. “Their religion is money, money, money, ” said Mr Bahri. “Initially they were quite friendly. We used to live on one portion of the bridge deck. Then the chief engineer was beaten up and he did not know the reason. He was kept in the meat room at minus 18C for 40 minutes. Everybody was beaten up badly. They used to torture us for everything.” The crew was forced to perform tasks for the bandits instead of working to keep the ship in safe condition, and only one person was allowed to contact his family – a “divide and rule” tactic.
The hostages were released on December 28, and on returning home in January 2011, Mr Bahri decided to devote himself to the welfare of seafarers, and to help their families cope with trauma. He travels widely to campaign for support for victims, and provides guidance to the industry, including manning agents and shipping companies. Training and preparation for possible captivity is essential, he says.
Extracts from an interview recorded with Jurica Ruic, a Croatian seafarer who suffered 33 days of captivity while working off the west coast of Africa in 2007, were played to the WISTA-UK audience by Mark William Lowe, editor in chief of Maritime Security Review and a security and risk assessment specialist. Mr Ruic and four Italians and a US citizen who were kidnapped were reported to have been working for Chevron at the time.
In the recorded conversation with Mr Lowe, Mr Ruic explained that the men were attacked by members of MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta, which no longer exists in that form) while on board a moored storage tanker holding 1m barrels of crude oil, just off the Nigerian coast. The armed attackers came up in boats, throwing dynamite. The crew tried to get them on board to stop them doing this, as it risked blowing up the ship with loss of life and the danger of serious pollution.
Mr Ruic, who had been officer on watch, and the five others were transferred by tug and speedboat to a camp in the Nigerian jungle guarded by 200 people. While kidnapped, Mr Ruic was under such strain that “I could not remember my wife’s face, my kids’ face. I was expecting to be killed any moment.”
Mr Ruic was asked, how did you survive the kidnapping? “The best tactic is to live second by second, moment to moment and not to think what will happen. If you think what will happen in the future, it won’t be helpful. It will destroy your mind.”
Mr Ruic said: “My advice to the shipping companies is to use people like myself with knowledge in real life, not read from some book.” The aftercare provided by a shipping company had implications for future recruitment and retention of crew members.
The trouble was, said Mr Ruic, that companies felt that “by sharing my story among their workers they feel their workers will get scared even more to go to these dangerous areas.” He said that in West Africa pirates want to make money very quickly: they also attacked fishing vessels, passenger boats and other coastal traffic.
Mr Ruic is now a safety officer on a floating production and storage offloading unit.
Roy Paul, programme director for the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, reminded the WISTA meeting that there were 52 seafarers still held hostage ashore in Somalia. “There is very little negotiation going on for their release, because their vessels are all lost.” The relevant shipowners had walked away and not been heard of since.
Mr Paul said that West Africa was an even more alarming model than Somali piracy. There had been no successful attack off Somalia since May 2012, but “Is it over? We do not know.” Money had been donated by governments for development projects, but “try to find any money that has been given to the victims of piracy…”
Canon Ken Peters, director of justice and welfare for the Mission to Seafarers, said: “Whilst the seafarer may be held hostage, the same is true of the spouse at home. The effects are long lasting. It is well recognised that there is post-trauma stress. There must be significant aftercare. Insurance cover can insure business continuity: monetary loss is temporary, but the effect on people can be permanent. We have to help at the time of the incident and thereafter.”
The WISTA-UK Forum panel for the session entitled: “Piracy: how safe are our seafarers and our ships in West Africa?” was chaired by Sue Williams, a professional hostage negotiator, and WISTA-UK and WISTA International personality of the year 2010. The record length of time for a hostage taken in Somalia is 33 months. There are some 280 private maritime security companies – five years ago there were only six or seven.
Delegates to the annual conference of the International Union of Marine Insurance, which took place a few days later in London, were asked to pledge their organisations to donate to the MPHRC.
Neil Smith of Lloyd’s Market Association, which co-hosted the IUMI conference, said that the charity was chosen as it was a cause close to the heart of the marine insurance industry.
Mr Paul said: “We are extremely grateful to IUMI for their support. The marine insurance industry plays a role when vessels are captured but they serve their client which is the insured. If the owner abandons the crew or has not taken out the right insurance cover then the insurers’ hands are tied.”
Dr Peter Swift, chairman of the MPHRP, told the underwriter audiences that since 2007, some 4, 000 seafarers had been taken hostage in various locations and 70 had lost their lives. “Around the world every day we estimate that 100, 000 seafarers are sailing in or to piracy-affected areas.” Many victims return home with health problems and massive debts because of lack of pay during their time in captivity.