India: 332 days at the mercy of Somali pirates - a survivor's account
For 22-year-old student Pralav Dhyani from India, piracy was a very distant reality. "I had heard of piracy from my colleagues, but I really did not know much about it," he says. All this changed on the morning of 11 April 2010, when MV RAK Afrikana, a cargo vessel he was sailing with from Seychelles to Zanzibar was hijacked by Somali pirates. A nautical sciences student, Pralav and his shipmates were held hostage in Somalia for 332 days, only to be released after a ransom was paid.
"On that morning of 11th April, we were just drifting as we were having problems in our engine," recounts Pralav. "The maintenance work was going on when we heard gun shots. The alarm was sounded and the crew started running and shouting that we had been attacked."
Pralav says a boat with some armed men rapidly approached the ship and before the ship crew could call for help, the armed men boarded the ship. They threatened the crew at gun point, ordering them to repair the engine quickly and sail to Somalia.
"We were taken to Harardhere in Somalia where we anchored the ship. A group of men came to assess the ship, cargo and crew, so they could decide on the ransom amount. A representative of the pirates called 'Translator' was their chief negotiator, conducting all negotiations between the pirates and the company which owns the ship. The 'Translator' called the ship company and started negotiations for the ransom; and then it was a long excruciating wait of 332 days till we were free again," recounts Pralav.
Talking about their lives as hostages, Pralav admits they were all very shocked when it happened. Slowly they realised that to get through the ordeal they needed to stick together. Although life was difficult with poor food, limited water, electricity and lack of medical care in the camp of captivity, their Captain encouraged them to remain positive. They divided responsibilities amongst themselves such as fetching water and helping with the cooking. The captives were heavily guarded by armed guards working on twelve hour shifts.
"From day one, they studied the behaviour of individual crew members and tried different strategies to divide the crew - whether by using religion or by promising a cut out of the ransom money, if a particular member could provide them with certain information," says Pralav. "If the negotiations slowed down, the hijackers used tactics like mock executions and crew lock downs in order to push the captain to plead with the ship company to accept their demands," he adds.
While he says they were not beaten everyday nor did they face any direct violence, the mental strain was enormous. Numerous situations called for medical help which was not forthcoming. For example, their captain suffered two strokes while in captivity, while their cook died just four days before the ransom was paid. After a long wait of eleven months, negotiations for the ransom finally came to a close.
"On 8th March 2011, around 50 men came on board and said that we would be going home that day," says Pralav of their day of release. "We assembled on deck and saw a plane come a nd drop the ransom money at sea near the ship and a small boat was sent to get it to the ship. The pirates got the money on board, counted and distributed the money among themselves and just left, leaving us confused. We were left with no fuel or supplies. In fact, the ship was taking in water in one of the hatches. Luckily, a naval warship rescued us and we sailed to Mombasa in Kenya. From there we were sent back to our homes."
In November 2011, Pralav participated in the Global Maritime Security & Anti-Piracy Conference 2011 in India where he presented a paper on his experience. His observations and conversations with the pirates hold a mirror to the social situation in Somalia. "Sometimes we would get friendly with the pirates and when I asked one of them why he was doing all this, his answer was very simple - money, all currency, dollars, pounds, euro, all," shares Pralav. The pirate explained to Pralav that when he worked with the government of Somalia as a soldier, he only got food and khat (a plant that is cultivated and chewed widely in the region for its stimulant effects). But working as a pirate, he got money, food, khat and cigarettes; and he had married three wives. The pirate concluded by saying, "Piracy good mustaqbil." Mustaqbil is a Somali term for future.
It is no wonder then that piracy has increased exponentially off the Horn of Africa. While the period between 2000 and 2007 saw an average 26 acts of reported piracy per year, the number went up to 111 in 2008 and quadrupled to more than 400 in 2009 and 2010, affecting shipping off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and further into the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. In 2009, more than half the global piracy attacks were carried out by Somali pirates; and in 2010 alone, approximately 790 sailors were taken hostage.
Almost all of the Somali piracy is carried out for ransom, and ransom payments to Somali pirates have risen to millions of dollars. According to UNODC reports, in 2011, pirates made some $170 million in ransom money for hijacked vessels and their crews.
To help fight piracy, UNODC is running a Counter-Piracy Programme that provides support to East African countries willing to prosecute piracy, in particular through training programmes for police, prosecutors, judges and prison personnel in Kenya, Seychelles, Mauritius and, where security conditions allow, Somalia.
As a student completing his studies in nautical science, Pralav understands that the problem of piracy cannot be solved overnight. However, he strongly believes that sailors must be adequately trained and equipped to deal with such situations and that the safety of sailors must be addressed more closely. He also believes that piracy should be included in maritime education, so that sailors are more knowledgeable on the matter and are better prepared to deal with such crises.
UNODC Counter-Piracy Programme