Nairobi – On Somalia’s pirate coast, more than 50 sailors are being held for ransom in grim conditions, many abandoned by their ship’s owner whose willingness to pay to free them sank with their boat.
Almost all of the 54 sailors and fishermen that are still being held come from poor families in Asia, who say their pleas for help are falling on deaf ears.
Fifteen of the hostages are from the Malaysian-flagged container ship MV Albedo, which was captured in November 2010 and sank this month in rough seas, raising fears about the crew’s fate.
“Now that the vessel has sunk, the owner has no interest to pay money and rescue the crew,” families of some of the Albedo sailors wrote in a recent desperate appeal to the pirates.
Crew from the Albedo include men from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Iran, while other sailors being held come largely from southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, Philipines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Albedo’s crew was then shifted to the rusting hulk of the Omani-flagged but Taiwanese-owned fishing boat Naham 3, crammed into dark and harsh conditions below deck.
The Naham was seized by pirates in March last year, with 28 of its crew held hostage on board.
But with the Naham also at risk of sinking — and tethered dangerously to the wreck of the Albedo – sources say many hostages have been moved onshore.
“We appealed to everyone in this world to pay money towards the release of our people, but no one listened,” the families added.
“We are very poor people, we even do not have any money to pay for medicines, school fees, buy food for our children.”
Crew from at least two other vessels – four from the FV Prantaly 12 and seven from the Asphalt Venture – are also being held away from their boats.
Off Somalia’s pirate coastline, there is some good news however: rates of attacks have tumbled in the past two years.
At their peak in January 2011, Somali pirates held 736 hostages and 32 boats, some onshore and others on their vessels.
Today, the Naham is the last large boat left, kept a short distance offshore from the pirate town of Hobyo, on central Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast.
“These are poor people from poor families,” said John Steed, head of an internationally-backed liaison body, the Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security.
For many of the hostages, his organisation is the only one trying to persuade pirates to allow them to be released, liaising between the captured crews, the pirates and the desperate families back home.
“We hope and try for the best,” added Steed, a former British army colonel.
There are success stories: two Spanish aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, kidnapped in Kenya and later reportedly sold on to the pirate gangs in the Hobyo region, were released last week after almost two years in captivity.
Hostages remain valuable: the pirates, bandit businessmen driven by cash ransoms and not ideology, want financial recompense for their efforts.
Innocent poor people
Foreign special forces have launched raids to rescue their nationals, including one last year by US elite commandos who swooped in by helicopter to free two aid workers held for three months.
But those left behind come largely from nations without the capabilities or desire to send in troops to rescue impoverished fishermen.
Photographs taken by the European anti-piracy naval force flying overhead the Naham last week showed pirates with their guns trained on the helicopter.
Foreign navies say the risk of military action is too great.
“We are keeping a safe distance and monitoring the situation closely,” said EU naval force spokesperson Jacqueline Sherriff, a lieutenant commander in Britain’s navy.
“The pirates have shown violence… the worst case is that they become agitated and open fire.”
Last year, the pirates extorted over $31m in ransom payouts, a UN monitoring report this month read.
But the sums the pirates demand are far and above anything the families of the hostages left can raise.
“What will you tell to Allah? You will be punished by Him for taking the life of innocent poor people,” the families added.
“At least release them on humanitarian grounds, else they will die in your hands.”