Not all Somali hostage situations end as happily at the one depicted in Tom Hanks’s new film Captain Phillips ‚Äì and some don‚Äôt end at all. Meet the British colonel trying to help
Sitting in his makeshift office in a spare bedroom of his home in Nairobi, Colonel John Steed has an unusual strategy for dealing with the¬†Somali pirates¬†who he speaks to by phone every day. He has no money to offer in ransom payments, and no navy with which to make threats. Instead, he has a polite, friendly manner, and asks if they might just release their hostages for free.
‚ÄúI make it clear I‚Äôve got nothing in my pocket to bargain with,‚Äù says Britain‚Äôs former military attach√© to Kenya, who has set up a new mission to free Somalia‚Äôs ‚Äúforgotten‚Äù hostages. ‚ÄúInstead I ask them to release their captives for humanitarian reasons.‚Äù Appealing to a pirate‚Äôs better nature may sound like an exercise in hopelessness, especially if you know the story of someone like¬†Captain Richard Phillips, the American seaman played by¬†Tom Hanks¬†in the nerve-shredding thriller¬†Captain Phillips, out later this month. However, the hijacks that Col Steed is seeking to resolve are mostly hopeless situations already.
While Somali piracy has by-and-large disappeared from the news headlines recently, thanks to a crackdown by shipping companies who have improved their on-board security, Col Steed‚Äôs caseload is the rump of nearly 100 sailors who still languish in captivity. They are crew members from Third World nations, whose own governments often show little interest in their fate, and whose families lack the financial or political clout to bring their case to the attention of the wider world. Many have simply been abandoned by their shipping companies, who prefer to leave them to the pirates‚Äô mercy rather than pay a ransom. Some have spent up to three years as hostages.
‚ÄúIt is disgraceful behaviour to send sailors into a high-risk area like the Indian Ocean without looking after them, but it does happen,‚Äù says Col Steed. ‚ÄúA lot of the crews are from Third World countries where the owners think they can get away with short cuts ‚Äì they don‚Äôt even pay the sailors‚Äô wages to their families while they‚Äôre kept hostage.‚Äù
One such case on his books is the¬†Albedo, a Malaysian-flagged container ship captured in November 2010 with a crew of more than 20 from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Rather than pay the $8 million ransom demanded by the pirates, the ship‚Äôs Iranian owners, who are thought to have been uninsured, have simply gone to ground, said Col Steed. The Pakistani crew members were freed after a Pakistani businessman raised a $1.2 million ransom payment, but their fellow crew members have enjoyed no such philanthropy. Nor has the international antipiracy force sent special forces to the rescue. The risk of casualties in such operations is so high that they are only carried out if hostages‚Äô lives are in imminent danger.
Three months ago, the Albedo sank in a storm, with five of the crew drowning along with five pirates as they abandoned ship. The rest have since been transferred to the Somali mainland, where they are now being held near the flyblows pirate port of Hobo.
The Albedo, says Col Steed, is typical of Somalia‚Äôs ‚Äúforgotten‚Äù hostage cases. With no negotiators or diplomats in contact with the pirates, the hostages‚Äô families often go for months or even years without hearing news of their loved ones.
Hence Col Steed‚Äôs decision, three months ago, to take up the cudgels on their behalf. A former Royal Signals officer, he first dealt with piracy cases while serving as defence attach√© to the British Embassy between 2007 and 2009, during which the British sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler were taken hostage. Recently he worked on counter-piracy issues for the United Nations Political Office for Somalia, but when that office was restructured earlier this year, he set up a new mission, the Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security, to try to resolve the most intractable hostage cases.
It is not as grand as the title sounds. While the UN has agreed to fund one of his staff, he runs it out of his house in a Nairobi suburb, and does not get paid himself. ‚ÄúI am doing it out of the kindness of my heart,‚Äù he says.
So how does he persuade the pirates to hand over their hostages without a ransom? ‚ÄúWith great difficulty,‚Äù comes the answer. Most pirate gangs, he points out, are themselves in debt to clan chiefs who have funded their missions, and are reluctant to accept that they have picked one of the few boats whose owners cannot pay a ransom. In previous cases, though, they have been persuaded to accept a cut-and-run payment for their ‚Äúexpenses‚Äù, which can sometimes be arranged via a whip-round in the shipping industry.
Another key part of Col Steed‚Äôs job, though, is simply establishing a rapport with the pirates. Last month, he brokered safe passage for a medical team out to visit the crew of the Albedo, for whom prolonged captivity has been a challenge to both body and soul. On another of his outstanding cases, the Thai-owned fishing trawler Prantalay 12, five sailors are already believed to have died from ill health. Originally hijacked in April 2010, they now have the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving hostages in modern pirate history.
When such crews will finally be freed remains to be seen, although Col Steed at least appears to be making some impression on their pirate captors, as he discovered recently when he spent a week in hospital. ‚ÄúI got several ‚Äòget well soon‚Äô messages from middlemen acting on the pirates‚Äô behalf,‚Äù he said.
SOMALIA’S TOUGHEST HOSTAGE SITUATIONS
1. The Iceberg 1
The Iceberg 1¬†cargo ship set sail from the port of Aden in Yemen in the spring of 2010, and was hijacked by Somali pirates barely 10 miles out to sea. The ship‚Äôs Dubai-based owner, who shipping industry sources believe was not insured, refused to pay the $10 million ransom demanded by the pirates and simply went to ground. Even pleas for help from the hostages‚Äô families were ignored.
Meanwhile, the multinational antipiracy force that patrols the Indian Ocean was unwilling to mount a rescue attempt, knowing that close quarters combat would carry a high risk of casualties. The crew‚Äôs multinational make-up ‚Äì typical of modern commercial seafaring ‚Äì complicated the picture further. With six different nationalities on board ‚Äì six Indians, nine Yemenis, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese, two Pakistanis and one Filipino ‚Äì no one government was under pressure to take the responsibility for getting the sailors freed.
Instead, the crew were left alone to face one of the worst ordeals in modern seafaring history. Confined most of the time at gunpoint to a cramped, dark room in the ship‚Äôs hold, they lived on a diet of one bowl of rice per day, leaving many suffering sickness and malnutrition.
As the pirates grew ever more impatient, they began torturing the crew, whipping them with electrical cables and tying them upside down. Driven to the brink of madness, one officer committed suicide. Another who tried to drown himself was locked in a room alone for five months as punishment.
Eventually, they were rescued ‚Äì not by the multinational piracy fleet, with its warships, special forces, and hi-tech weaponry ‚Äì but by a ramshackle force from Somalia‚Äôs newly-reconstituted coastguard. After an armed siege that lasted for two whole weeks and saw heavy exchanges of gunfire, the pirates finally surrendered, three of their number dead.
‚ÄúWe didn‚Äôt think we were ever going to get out of there,‚Äù said Jewel Ahiable, 33, the ship‚Äôs Ghanian electrical engineer, in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph after being freed just before Christmas last year. ‚ÄúNow we feel like we have been reborn.‚Äù
2. The Albedo
The Malaysian-flagged container vessel was hijacked in November 2010 as it sailed through the Gulf of Aden bound for Kenya. Its Iranian owners are thought to be uninsured and have refused to pay a ransom, despite its crew of 23 enduring torture at the hands of their captors. Early on, the pirates even killed one young Indian crewman in a bid to raise the pressure.
Fellow crewmen have been beaten with gun butts, locked in containers, and had the skin of their palms torn with pliers. At one point, the entire crew were packed into an empty swimming pool without food or water for three days. The ship‚Äôs captain, Jawad Khan, bore the brunt of the hijackers‚Äô anger as he tried to keep them calm. On one occasion, he was tied up and lowered into the sea as pirates sprayed bullets around him.
In August 2012, Capt Khan and the other seven Pakistani crew members were freed after a $1.2 million ransom was paid by a Pakistani philanthropist. But the pirates have refused to release the remaining 15 sailors ‚àí seven Bangladeshis, six Sri Lankans, an Indian and an Iranian ‚àí unless more cash is handed over.
In July, the ship itself sank during heavy storms, with four of the sailors believed to have drowned along with a number of pirates. The rest have since been transferred to a pirate port on the Somali mainland. So far, there is little sign of progress in their case, despite a desperate SOS letter that the remaining hostages gave to Capt Khan when he was released, pleading with the outside world to help.
Signed by the crew of ‚Äúthe ill-fated MV Albedo,‚Äù it read: ‚ÄúHelp us, please save us. If you are not able to do so, we will die.‚Äù
3. The Prantalay¬†12
This Thai-owned fishing boat was one of three sister ships hijacked in April 2010 some 1,200 miles from the Somali coastline. The crew of its sister ship, the Prantalay 14, was rescued by the Indian Navy in early 2011, after a 12-hour gun battle. The crew of the Prantalay 11 were briefly press ganged into operating their vessel as a pirate mother ship ‚àí used to catch other ships ‚àí before also being rescued.
On board the Prantalay 12, five crew members are believed to have died from ill health. A number of others were released after a ransom was paid, but four were kept back in the hope of more money and are now believed to be on the Somali mainland. Having spent nearly three-and-a-half years in captivity, they are the longest-serving hostages in modern pirate history.
Recently Colonel John Steed, who works to free hostages on ‚Äúhumanitarian‚Äù grounds, said he had made contact with them after nothing had been heard from them for nearly two years. ‚ÄúThey told us they were OK,” he said, “But they are being held somewhere in the Somali bush, so God knows what it is like.‚Äù
‚ÄòCaptain Phillips‚Äô opens the¬†London Film Festival¬†on October 9, before going on general release on October 18