In a poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the sea as “the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.”
In a fortunate escape from the perils of the sea, eight seafarers returned home safely here on Thursday morning, ending the three-month-long wait of the anxious families.
Twenty-four Indians and two Burmese crew members were sailing on the m.v. Al Khaliq when it was hijacked by Somali pirates on October 22, 2009, near the Seychelles islands. The ship was released on February 9 after payment of ransom.
“This is my birthday gift,” beamed Lokesha Subbe Gowda’s 10-year-old son Nitesh, whose birthday falls on February 27. His younger brother Dhanush, 6, although too young to understand what his father had faced, had refused to celebrate his birthday in December. “He would ask, when is papa coming home?” Mr. Gowda’s brother Suresh told The Hindu.
“We expected the worst. We went through hell. We would keep tracking the Internet for information,” said Asha Sharma, aunt of Captain Riteshkumar Ashok Sudan. She recalled how the cook on the ship would call her regularly to keep her posted of the situation. “The cook would call to reassure us. He would say, didi [sister] we have enough ration. He is Muslim and so were the pirates. He seemed to have formed a bond with them because of that.”
Balwinder Singh’s parents will perhaps learn of their son’s hijack only on this day. “We never told our parents. Only me and my wife knew that [Balwinder’s] ship had been hijacked,” said Balwinder’s brother Baljeet.
Despite the ordeal, Mr. Sudan managed to keep his sense of humour intact. Asked what he would do on reaching home, Mr. Sudan quipped, “I will have a bath.” To preserve the limited resources, the crew decided not to bathe regularly. “It was a collective decision. We had limited [resources] and rations. We did not know how long it would last us. We were very strong together,” he said.
Masking the horror of the episode with stoic composure, he said: “It was only emotional trauma. We were kept in isolation. I was on the bridge. Other members of the crew were kept separately and the engineers in some other place. They did not inflict much bodily harm, they just wanted money and so they told us. Initially, I was [beaten]; they did that to build up pressure and to instil fear in us. They had AK-47s, RPGs, chains and bullets. They did terrorise us, which is only expected if they have demands.”
Mr. Gowda declared, “Seafarers forget everything when they get off the ship.”
S.C. Sehgal, managing director of SNP Shipping Services which manages Al Khaliq, said, “The long wait was very painful. We did not know what was going on.” He did not disclose the ransom amount.
Speaking against the rising incidents of piracy, particularly in the notorious Gulf of Aden, Abdulgani Y. Serang, general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI) told the media, “There is hardly any government support internationally. All over the world, seafarers have become mere statistics. More than 200 crew members of different nationalities are still being held hostage by Somali pirates. Was the governments’ response the same when a plane was hijacked? The NUSI will organise a meeting at the international level. We will announce a date. If the situation does not improve, the labour supplying unions will decide not to trade in pirate-infested areas.”