M A I N   N E W S

For 11 months, they stared death in the face"
Freed from pirates’ clutches, sailors recall ordeal
Vijay Mohan
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, April 23
Eleven months as a hostage on a ship adrift on the high seas, with alien gun-toting outlaws bearing down every second of the day, is a nightmare nobody would forget easily. So when 26 hostages aboard the RAK Afrikana were released last month, it was virtually the beginning of a new life for them.

The ship’s crew had 15 Indians, including Second Officer Partap Inder Singh of Mohali and Cadet Navdeep Singh of Kharar. They were here today along with their parents at Northern Mariners Conclave, organised by the Chandigarh chapter of The Company of Master Marines of India, an association of seafarers.

Reluctant to discuss details about their captivity and their traumatic experience, they gave out only sketchy information about their long stay under the barrel of the pirates’ guns. The 7600-tonne cargo ship flying the St Vincent and Grenadines flag was hijacked by Somali pirates on April 11, 2010, near Harardhere in the vicinity of Seychelles while en route to Zanzibar in Tanzania. The crew was finally released on March 8, 2011.

The food mainly consisted of rice and potatoes and when available, pulses. In the last four months of their captivity, food was cooked on firewood, as no power was available. Drinking water was scarce and available for only two hours a day. The crew members also lost considerable weight.

The ship’s owner, Capt A. Kotwal, had maintained a regular e-mail contact with the families of captives and also met them on May 20, 2010, during a visit to Delhi along with British experts. He also discussed measures for release of the crew. He again visited Delhi on November 26 to calm down the agitated families in view of the long period of captivity of their wards. He also asked the families not to approach the government or the shipping authorities.

There were 10 hostages in each of the two mess rooms and six on the navigation bridge. The captain, Prem Kumar, was forced to stay on the bridge for the entire period and he suffered a paralytic stoke due to intense stress. Unfortunately, he passed away a few days after being released.

There were also intense psychological pressures. On November 3, 2010, some of the hostages were taken ashore for communication with a news channel to state that the owner had abandoned the ship and its crew. Then on December 9, a translator was brought aboard and made 15 Indian and Zanzibar hostages talk to their families with a message to mount pressure on their governments to arrange ransom.

On February 10, 2011, family members of the crew from various parts of India met Preneet Kaur, Minister of State for External Affairs, at Delhi to take up the issue of release of crew members. They also met AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi.

The very next day a call was received from the ship owner that a deal had been clinched with the pirates.

On March 8, 2011, Captain Kotwal and AI Sindbad Shipping and Marine “dropped ransom” for pirates. Photographs made available here showed jubilant sea brigands in a motor-boat holding several large boxes. Other pictures showed armed pirates, including one with a mounted medium machine gun, manning various points on the deck.

The crew was released the next day and since the Afrikana was without power, they were picked up by an Italian naval ship, which responded to its distress call. The crew was transferred to a merchant cargo ship later.





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