A Hostage Story
A new report published by Oceans Beyond Piracy and One Earth Future, both programs of the One Earth Future Foundation, explores the long-term impact of piracy on seafarer and family recovery. The report relates one hostage’s story using the assumed name Mark:
In 2009, Mark was a seafarer aboard a merchant vessel that was attacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean. He described his experience:
I woke up Sunday quite late, as we slept quite late the other night. Suddenly, the emergency alarm went off. The emergency alarm was the most common alarm on board. Then it was followed by a public address by the duty officer, the Third Mate, asking all of the crewmembers to go up the bridge. So, I immediately run to the bridge from the cabin. All the officers were already at the bridge. The master said that there was a speedboat chasing us, the ship. So, we look for it. At that time, we can see the speedboat with our bare eyes, approximately two miles away. It was really fast, and our ship was running only at 14 knots. …After 30 minutes, the speedboat was very close to the ship. Within 30 minutes, the speedboat was approximately half a mile near the ship.
The ship defended itself with maneuvers to create waves to swamp the pirates, which the pirates easily avoided in their more nimble craft. Seafarers manned the water hoses, but abandoned them when the pirates began firing at the crew.
Then the pirates fired a 30-caliber gun. They fired a warning shot. It was a burst of fire that they fired.… They were on the starboard side, continuously firing. When they were really near, they were signaling the bridge to stop while they kept firing. They were five or six.
They were wearing camouflaged jackets; some were wearing shorts, faces covered. They were drawing attention to their guns; a RPG [rocket propelled grenade]. The pirates then, using the RPG, fired at the bridge without hitting the bridge. It was a clear warning shot, as the RPG was really close to hitting the bridge. They were still pointing the RPG at the bridge as if signaling they will not miss anymore if the ship does not stop. The master ordered to stop the ship’s engine. Then we stopped. The pirates, one by one, were boarding the ship.
They were shooting each passage that they were passing through. From the upper deck to the bridge, the pirates were shooting with their AK-47’s each corner that they pass[ed] by.
They used the ladder with the hook that they had in the speedboat. When they reached the upper deck, they used the ship’s stairways. The doors leading to the upper deck were all locked, so they used the stairs at the side of the vessel. When they reached the bridge, we locked ourselves in the bridge and we decided to squat, all of us, anyway, when we saw them reaching the bridge area. As we locked the doors of the bridge, most of the sides of the bridge were visible anyway as it was all glass. The pirates pointed their guns on us. They were signaling for us to open the door. [When the door was opened] one of the pirates immediately shouted, “Captain? Captain?”
I think it was clear to all of us that they were looking for the captain/master. The master raised his hand. Then the pirate asked, “You captain?” Without the master saying a word, he was immediately kicked in the thighs. The captain said something to the effect of, “Who are you? What was my fault? We are just working here.” The pirate said “Pirates, pirates.”
Obviously, all of us knew who they were. I think the captain asked those questions because he was attacked immediately. I think his reaction was normal under those circumstances. The captain was continuously attacked. He did not do anything, but he was man-handled. As if they were trying to scare him off by kicking him, punching him, and even striking him with the butt of the AK-47.
One of them who can speak some English ordered all personnel to assemble in the wings of the bridge. That is, they brought us outside and ordered us to give them our passports and crew list. They counted us, the passports, as reflected in the crew list. We were all there, the 24 of us, and our passports were all with the pirates. They told us to stay squatting outside with three armed pirates guarding us. They each had an AK-47, a 30-caliber and some handguns. One of the pirates was talking over a mobile phone.
Around 2:00 p.m., we were ordered to go in the bridge. It was really humid outside. We were really sweating hard because of the heat. The pirates systematically robbed the crew, and then the vessel and the crew were taken to a coastal town in Somalia. As the months passed and the pirates began the process of negotiating for ransom, the crew did what they could to keep their spirits up. As the time passed, the pirates grew frustrated with the delay in negotiation and began to abuse the crew.
What happened to us was, during the first three months they were ok, not that violent. After the fourth month of captivity, when the ransom negotiation was stalling, was when they started to get impatient and ill-tempered. They started to be physically violent and abusive.
They were really getting impatient with the ransom negotiation. In our case, when the ransom negotiation was stalling, we ourselves were getting anxious, though we were used to wait[ing], anyway. When the pirates were getting impatient, they were starting to be physically violent.
The crew was held hostage for more than a year before negotiations were completed and the crew and vessel was released. From Somalia, they were initially escorted by international naval vessels to a nearby port. After their release, the crew was provided with medical support, then flown home. Afterwards, they were debriefed by lawyers to document their experiences, and at the request of their employer went through another medical examination to assess the impact of their long imprisonment. While waiting to return home, Mark described the support that was given:
We took care of ourselves in the hotel. There were some staff from the [national] embassy in [that city] who visited us in the hotel. But it was just us crew members who took care of ourselves. What was really hurtful, too, was that when we were in [that city], we requested our onboard wages. Obviously, we needed clothes, shoes, etc. I was wearing flip flops and the boiler suit that I used for the seven months that we were there. I still had that boiler suit with me here back home…. What happened was they gave us each $500.
While Mark was captured by pirates, his family suffered in the absence of information. His wife lived far from the port city where Mark’s employers were, and so had to regularly travel at her own expense to talk to the company or government agencies to get information.
She reports that at one point, a government agency working on Mark’s release advised her not to search the internet for information about her husband. Understandably, she ignored that suggestion and discovered that the pirates had threatened to start killing crew members if the ransom went unpaid. She described her experience this way:
I knew about their captivity three days after they were captured. The problem was the company had my old and unused mobile phone number. The company sent me a letter regarding the news about their captivity. After which I cannot sleep for a straight seven days. It was straight seven days without sleep. I also cannot eat well. Our son took [it] hard. He was acting differently here in our house and in school. When I would go to [the port city], I cannot bring our son as it was expensive. So I left him with a relative. Our relative told us that our son would hide under [furniture] for hours. I was frequently travelling to [the port city]. When I was home, our son would feel and act a little bit better.
Mark was returned to his wife and son in 2010, and by the time of this interview had been home for almost a year and a half. He still struggled to deal with his experiences: he had not returned to sea, and he felt that he had experienced changes in his emotions and his relationships with other people.
The triumph of his release had faded into the work of rebuilding his life and coping with the extremely upsetting experiences that he had dealt with. His wife and family face challenges in their recovery as well.
Mark is only one of thousands of seafarers attacked by pirates in the last fifteen years, and one of more than 3,000 seafarers captured and held hostage by Somali pirates. The details of his story are specific to him and his family, but the broad strokes of his experience and the impact it has had on him are not. Many seafarers have had similar experiences. These kinds of experiences can leave marks, both physical and behavioral. A growing body of research over the past twenty years has demonstrated the effects that intense and upsetting experiences, such as being a victim of maritime piracy, can have on survivors.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.