The seven men were reunited with their families in Mumbai on Thursday.
After four years in the captivity of Somali pirates, seven freed Indian sailors were reunited with their family members in Mumbai on Thursday.
The sailors, including two from the city, provided details of the “unimaginable” abuse they endured from pirates, who had become more violent towards hostages after an international crackdown on piracy hit their thriving ransom business.
Bahadur Singh (58), Litton Daniston Anthony (27), George Joseph (60), Sohan Singh (45), Bhim Sen Singh (45), Manjeet Singh (57), T B Unnikrishna (57) were routinely battered with rods for no reason, had to drink water from a filthy snakeinfested pond and were sometimes held naked in a freezer room. They wore the same clothes for four years.
“Brutal is a soft word to describe the pirates. The way they treated us in those Somali jungles was unimaginable,” said Bahadur Singh, who hails from Thane.
“Every minute we lived in fear. There was no pattern of behaviour or rule we could follow to avoid upsetting them. They would subject us to random beatings. Often, we were too scared or tired to even eat.”
Manjeet Singh is also from Mumbai. Anthony hails from Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu; Joseph from Ernakulam, Kerala; Sohan Singh from Ludhiana, Punjab; Bhim Sen Singh from Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh and Unnikrishna from Kottayam, Kerala.
The seven sailors were part of the 15-member crew aboard MV Asphalt Venture, which was hijacked by Somali pirates southeast of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Sept 28, 2010.
The ship was carrying a cargo of asphalt and bitumen from Kenya to South Africa. Recounting the events, Bahadur Singh said that it was around lunchtime when officers of MV Asphalt spotted an object in the ship’s path.
“It was a fishing boat, about 15 foot long with a high bow and a rugged appearance,” he said. “Thirty minutes later, the boat came into view towards the starboard side. But there was no activity on its decks.”
Even as the crew kept a watch on the boat, three smaller boats appeared to be speeding towards the ship. “We realised then we were in trouble,” he said.
Manjeet Singh said the pirates were scrawny young men who were dressed in rags and barefoot. “Only their leader, Abdullah, was wearing shoes. He was of average built and had scars on his neck and shoulders. He had a gun,” Manjeet Singh said.
The pirates took command of MV Asphalt and changed its course towards Somalia. The ship and the crew were taken to Somalia’s main pirate lair of Haradheere.
Eight crew members and the ship were released in April 2011 after a ransom was paid. The seven Indians, however, were freed only on November 1 this year following payment of an undisclosed amount of ransom.
Bahadur Singh, Anthony, Joseph, Sohan Singh, Bhim Sen Singh, Manjeet and Unnikrishna then travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, and arrived in Mumbai on November 3.
Malnourished and traumatised, they were not allowed to leave with their families. The Directorate General of Shipping, India’s maritime authority, asked leading city psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty to counsel the seven men, some of who were struggling with insomnia and often broke down while recounting the time in captivity.
“It was an unending nightmare. The pirates would suddenly pick up rods and start beating us. We could not reason with them. They wouldn’t even see where they were hitting us, whether on our legs or on our heads,” Manjeet Singh said.
“The beatings left us so shaken that we would not even touch the food kept in front us. We were scared that any moment, they would start hitting us again.”
The captives were not provided any medical care, and they wore the same clothes and slept on the same mattress for four years.
“We were forced to collect wood in the jungle without any shoes and do other chores,” said Bahadur Singh. “We were not allowed to make asingle mistake. They would terrorise us by firing their guns in the air. Sometimes, they used to shoot in such a way that the bullets would whizz past our ears.”
The pirates also tried other torture methods: the hostages were sometimes locked up naked in a meat freezer room.
Joseph said that half-boiled rice or spaghetti was pirates’ staple diet. “We had to cook all the meals for them. The rice they stored was part of humanitarian aid Somalia received from countries like United Arab Emirates. Sometimes, pirates brought dough from the kitchen of a hijacked ship and we would then prepare chapatis for them,” Joseph said.
Monday was the last day of the seven sailors’ counselling. They will now try to rebuild life with their families. Anthony, the youngest in the group, said one of the first things they did on reaching Nairobi was to visit a mall. “We bought clothes and shoes, and went to a salon – we just wanted to feel civilised again,” he said.
Chirag Bahri, regional director of Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, played a key role in ensuring the safe return of the seven men. He said that the sailors would need time to overcome the trauma.
“We will provide them all possible support. If one day they are ready to return to the seas, we will help them get jobs in shipping companies,” Bahri said.