On the bridge, with a gun to your head, all men are equal, whether captain or sailor; you eat together, sleep together, think you are going to die together, and cry together.” Sachin Pawshe, 23, has been home just four days since his release after 10 months in captivity aboard the ill-fated MV Suez. Even his candy-pink ground-floor home in Katemanavli in Mumbai’s Kalyan East, where narrow streets crumble into wide open drains, offers him renewed breathing space. Floral ceramic tiles on the walls, plaster-of-Paris frosting on the ceiling, and the black-and-gold trellis of the felt-upholstered sofa must seem disorienting to a man who, only a week ago, ate flour and never thought he’d see home again.
Flowers and plaques, felicitations from local political groups on Pawshe’s “safe return”, dot the showcase in a living room corner. His two siblings—a precocious 15-year-old brother and a mild-mannered 18-year-old sister—bound about with nervous energy. His widowed mother, Sunetra, lost the last local election she stood for as a Nagar Sevak five years ago, leaving Pawshe the only earning member of the family. Pawshe finished his class XII at the local Sai Vidyalaya, then completed a course in maritime studies and signed up with the Egypt-based Red Sea Navigation Company in 2008. Like all sea cadets, he dreamt of seeing the world. “Nobody in my family had ever left Mumbai. I wanted to be the first,” he says. He has not received his $500 salary (around Rs23,000) since May 2010, when he first boarded the MV Suez.
Not since the ships of the East India Company traversed the Spice Route with black gold in the 1690s has piracy been so violent and destructive a force on the high seas. The oldest existing merchant ship, Star of India, stands at the San Diego Maritime Museum, a reminder of this golden era of trade, and piracy. Today, there are rumblings of a seafarer strike across India, Bangladesh and Malaysia, of sailors refusing to travel the Gulf of Aden corridor; plans which Abdul Gani Serang, secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), says are still “in the initial stages, and will be implemented only if required to wake up governments that refuse to act”.
Capt. Howard Snaith, marine director at shipping industry forum International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko), points out that 40% of the world’s sea-borne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz into the Indian Ocean. As do $50 billion in imports and $60 billion in exports from Indian shores, according to Union shipping ministry estimates. Ron Widdows, chairman of the World Shipping
Pawshe calls himself the joker of the pack. ‘I had to keep laughing to keep everyone alive,’ he says.
Council, puts piracy costs to the world shipping industry at $3.5-8 billion a year. The impact on trade is brutal. According to London’s International Maritime Bureau, since the start of 2011 alone, there have been 71 attacks resulting in 21 hijackings off the coast of Somalia, with more than 3,500 sailors being held hostage. With India being the largest supplier of seafarers in the world, more than 65% of those held captive at any point in time are Indian, according to Save Our Seafarers, an international coalition of major shipping companies against piracy.
Also Read | Riders of the sea
Dipendra Singh Rathore, 22, studying to be a third mate at the Glasgow Institute of Maritime Studies, was aboard the MT Marida Marguerite when it was waylaid in May 2010 on its way to Antwerp. Rathore grew up in Chittorgarh and had always been fascinated by the sea. “I had never seen a ship in my life. I convinced my parents with great difficulty to let me go,” he says. “I was the youngest on that ship and at my age, physical pain is still bearable. But what actually got to me was watching or hearing people twice my age being tortured and beaten. I couldn’t help them. All I could do was pray. There came a time when I even stopped praying,” he says.
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As such captive sailors disembark, smile for the cameras and disappear into their homes in the towns and villages, away from the euphoria surrounding their release, stories of abuse and torture, careers cut short, financial handicaps, physical and mental scars, and recurring nightmares remain untold. Some inevitably return to the only source of income they know, while others choose to go jobless, paralysed into inaction by the trauma. It is almost as though Amitav Ghosh wrote of men such as Pawshe in his Sea of Poppies: “How had it happened that while choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines… It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”
Pawshe boarded MV Suez at Tuticorin and sailed to Karachi on 24 July 2010, where the ship picked up its cargo of cement bags intended for Eritrea via the IRTC (Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor) through the Gulf of Aden. “It was a journey that should have taken just 10 days,” says Pawshe, who was on watch the night of 1 August 2010. “It was the seventh day of our transit; at 11pm, we saw the pirates approach in speedboats and circle the ship, like sharks. I actually recorded it on my mobile phone because it was the first time I was seeing pirates.” The pirates were reconnoitring to check if the MV Suez had firearms. At 7am, they attacked. “It was like a game that just took 5 minutes to play,” recollects Pawshe, who stood ready, manning his high-pressure water hose. “These drills are pointless—they tossed a ladder with a hook over the side of the ship, despite the razor wire, and began to climb as their accomplices sprayed the bridge (made of glass) with their AK-47s.” Pawshe hid behind the hatch, but within minutes the pirates had taken a man hostage and reached the bridge, threatening to kill him, forcing the Pakistani captain, Syed Wasi Hasan, to shut down the engines and summon the 22-member crew. Beaten, kicked and punched, the crew was forced to huddle in complete silence. By the time a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) helicopter responded to the distress signal an hour later, it was too late. The crew was forced to divert the ship to Danana, Somalia, from where it was periodically shifted to Garth, and docked at a distance from 10-15 other hijacked ships. The sailors’ belongings were looted. Pawshe says: “On the first two days, we were given only packaged food to eat; biscuits, bread. We were hit if we tried to speak to each other. The captain and chief engineer were isolated. We were not allowed to even use the toilet.”
Blow the man down: An Indian naval rescue ship approaching the hijacked dhow MV Nafeya on 15 July 2009. The pirates abandoned it the following day. AFP/HO/PIB
Since 2007, according to the International Maritime Bureau, 62 sailors have died due to piracy: some from heart attacks during torture, some from injuries, some committing suicide.
On the MV Suez, some men broke down as bullets whizzed past. Frying pans were thrown at their heads. Their ankles and wrists were tied. When the pirates were satisfied the crew was submissive, they summoned the cook and a rudimentary supply of rice, flour, onions and potatoes was rationed out twice a day—at 11am and 6pm—while the crew worked its shifts with armed guards. “Till the stocks lasted, we got food. That was three months. But none of us thought we would be there for so long. We thought, maximum six months? But 10 months?” Pawshe’s voice trails off in anger as he adds, “At the end of one month, the captain told us the owner had said ‘kill the men and keep the ship, I don’t want either back’.”
Lounge was unable to get through to the Red Sea Navigation Company, Suez.
Ansar Burney, a Pakistani lawyer who works to free innocents incarcerated worldwide, explains on the phone from London how he travelled to Somalia, Yemen, Aden, Egypt, Pakistan, India and Dubai repeatedly after being contacted by the families of the Pakistani crew. When the Indians on board appealed to him, he couldn’t refuse. “I do not believe in boundaries or religion. There is only one religion—human dignity,” he says. Burney refused the pirates’ offer to release only the Pakistanis. He explains why: “If I had accepted, the four Pakistanis would have been released but the 18 remaining would have died.”
Return to safety: (clockwise from top, left) Indian Coast Guard’s chief of Western Command A.K. Mahajan inspecting 15 pirates aboard the Veera in November 1999; Sachin Pawshe (left) reunited with his family in Kalyan in June; Dipendra Rathore (right) and the crew of the Marida Marguerite celebrating their release in December; and the Star of India at the San Diego Maritime Museum.
In the West, kidnap-and-ransom insurance is common, allowing companies to secure their employees’ lives more quickly. The profile of the shipping company can dictate how quickly you will be set free, but it can also determine the extent of torture. Sandeep Dangwal, 27, was hostage aboard the MT Marida Marguerite. Captive for eight months, until their release on 28 December, the 22-member crew of the Marguerite was subjected to physical abuse, by all accounts much worse than what the crew of the MV Suez underwent. Their owner, OMCI, a German company, was more likely to shell out the ransom money that saw negotiations begin at $25 million. Dangwal, speaking from his home in Dehradun, says: “The pirates asked us to run the ship for 30 days on three days’ worth of fuel. If the captain said he couldn’t, he was hit, strung by the legs and dunked repeatedly in the sea. A polythene bag was put on his face until he began to choke. We were stripped, our genitals tied with cables; the pirates would fire around us, tie us to air ducts where temperatures were upward of 40 degrees (Celsius).” Yet during their captivity, Dangwal says, officials sat with their families, conveyed crucial information, relayed salaries and negotiated patiently with the pirates.
On the MV Suez, the pirates began tapping the crew’s native governments through translators. In the meanwhile, fuel and food supplies dried up. “After six months, we lost all hope that we would live. We had heard ‘the money is being arranged’ so many times, it didn’t matter any more,” says Pawshe. Four translators came on board during that time, he says. “The first, Hasan, a well-dressed advocate from London, kept telling them ‘this company will not pay you. At best they have $1 million’, but they wouldn’t listen. They wanted $5 million. The second was the son of a Somalian minister. The pirates were scared of him; he got money out of the owner, but he kept it for himself. He also got money out of the pirates.” Then the revolution in Egypt derailed talks.
Every time a deal died, the sailors were grouped by nationality and beaten. “They would pull out the Indians saying ‘your government doesn’t want you, is it?’ and they would start hitting us,” Pawshe recalls, bitterly. It was November by the time the Indians persuaded the pirates to allow them to speak to their families and convince them to collect the ransom money.
N.K. Sharma, 39, a third engineer aboard the MV Suez, now home in Jammu, echoes Pawshe’s sense of abandonment. He says: “It was hell and more. Yet for those the owner let down, the governments stepped in. While the Pakistani captain had access to Burney, Ahmed Chinoy (citizen-police liaison chairman) and the governor of Sind with just one phone call, whenever the pirates asked us Indians to call home, we had nobody to talk to but our families.” Pawshe thought relief would never come. But finally it did. After Khalid (the third translator, a teenager) came and went, the fourth translator, Mohammed, a sales manager from Dubai, convinced the pirates to negotiate with the families. The five families of the Indian crew, except for Pawshe’s which did not have the resources, collected Rs3 lakh each, to be handed over via MP K.D. Singh. Singh was to be the Indian conduit to Burney, the liaison at the Pakistan end, who would make the transfer to the pirates.
“I will never forget 23 May 2011 in my life,” Pawshe says. “The money was to be handed over. The dates had been conveyed. Four times, Singh made excuses after reaching Dubai. When only the money for the six Indian crew members didn’t come, the pirates beat us brutally.” Burney realized what was happening, and paid for the Indian crew.
Burney says: “Ransom is illegal under international law. I could not pay the pirates directly. At best, we could put the money into accounts for the families and transfer to the shipping company as ‘humanitarian aid’. On the day of the transfer, the MP from India disappeared. When I informed the pirates, they called the Egyptian crew member and poured boiling hot oil on him as he screamed into the phone. I pleaded with them for three days time and literally got on to the pavement—you know the state our nation is in now. In Pakistan, it is not easy to raise money for Indians.”
A spokesperson for Singh says: “We had attempted to raise money and had approached corporates but we could not even collect Rs1 crore, when the demand was much higher, so we gave up. As you know there is no official policy from the government on ransom so as an MP, there was little Mr Singh could do as an individual. We did collect money from sailors’ families for the Sailors’ Relief Fund, which is in an ICICI Bank account, KG Road branch. Mr Singh is not signatory to the account—only the sailors’ families are.”
The modus operandi pirates use while leaving a ship is as set as when they attack. The money is airdropped by a Dubai-based chartered plane. The engines are started 4 hours before the money arrives. The pirates bring counting machines and check it for fakes. Then they leave. At the MV Suez, the $2.1 million was dropped on 14 June.
What was Pawshe’s first thought when the pirates left? “To return the ship to its owner,” he replies. “To a sailor, that is our duty. It ensures we get our salary.” Amazingly, the beleaguered crew, who by now had nothing—no clothes, no luggage, no food, no electronics, no fuel—simply got back to work. The crew contacted the owner repeatedly. Maritime protocol has it a warship must accompany a hijacked ship into safe waters. “The warship is coming. It’s behind you,” the owner promised. A day passed. The crew sent a distress call and a Pakistani navy vessel responded, accompanying them to Karachi. “Soon, the MV Suez began to fill with water and we didn’t have enough diesel to pump it out. The owner promised to send a tugboat. When the captain realized it was not coming, he gave the order to abandon ship,” says Pawshe. Transferred to the Pakistani warship, the crew watched the MV Suez sink.
The room falls silent. The smell of hot chappatis fills the afternoon air. Sharma comes to mind. “I have not seen vegetables for 10 months,” he had said on the phone. “I think our owner wanted to kill us,” says Pawshe. “He did not want to pay our salary claims, settlements, and besides, he could collect insurance on the ship. And us.” It is a realization that has come to haunt him.
The saga does not end for Burney. Another set of families of crew held hostage for more than a year has contacted him via email. “I am a human rights activist. If you were a doctor and a man called you and said he was dying, what would you do?” he says.
Despite his own ordeal, Dangwal is all praise for the Indian Navy. “Why should the government negotiate with terrorists? It will simply set precedents. Blame Nato and the UN who don’t deem Somalia important as it has no oil. After all, the Indian Navy is the only navy in the world that has even arrested 120 pirates. It’s just that internationally, there is no maritime law to support their prosecution.” Governing laws make provision for measures and drills that Dangwal calls “bull****”. “We can neither carry weapons, nor fight the pirates, nor kill them. If caught, they have to be released. Why?” he asks.
Anil Devli, CEO of the Indian National Shipowners Association, says laws are changing and the anger against the government’s lack of action is unjustified. “The (Union) law ministry is in the process of drafting a new law to support the action taken by our navy,” he says. The Bill is scheduled to be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament. The government is also considering a proposal to allow armed guards on board commercial ships. But as Devli says, “The onus on international action lies with the United Nations, which needs to empower navies currently patrolling these waters, to act.”
Sharma, a father of two, will not return to the sea. He calls his life back on shore a rebirth. “There should be some time limit. When the government can see that everything that could be done has been done, owners are irresponsible, and crew member’s lives are on the line, it is important to step in,” he says. Pawshe, however, needs the money. He will sail again in two months, wiser, he believes. “I will go straight to the captain and tell him to shut all hatches, kill the electricity and gather every man to the engine room with walkie-talkies, where we can call for help sealed in. When they cannot find us, they cannot navigate the ship, and they will leave,” he says. For Rathore, the hardest lesson came after being released: that astounding sense of aloneness. He refused to quit the sea, much to his parents’ annoyance. He is completing his exams. “I am sorry for causing my father pain, but I can’t just quit the sea. One can’t just surrender to the terror of Somali pirates like most of our governments have. The sea to me is synonymous with freedom, and a bunch of maniacs can’t scare me.”