From an early age, the glamour of the merchant navy charmed Aman Sharma. So, when he joined the trade he was fully aware of the hard slog ahead. But no amount of ambition had prepared Aman for the ordeal that awaited him when he embarked on his maiden voyage.
In November 2010, Aman was sailing on the ML Albedo along with a 23-member crew, when the vessel was hijacked near the Gulf of Eden by Somali pirates. Aman was barely 19 then. After several diplomatic efforts, the Indian government managed to secure his release in June, with the help of United Nations mediators, after almost four years in captivity.
His resilience had Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari felicitating him on the fourth International Day of the Seafarer on June 25.
“As months passed, I thought I would never see my family again,” said Aman, a resident of Kangra in Himachal Pradesh. Aman underwent the horrifying experience of having to watch his fellow Indian sailor Raju Prasad being shot dead by the pirates. That’s when he realised that he had to play along with the pirates to keep alive his chances of survival.
“They did not seem too happy with India. After I saw Raju die, I had to do something. I tried winning their trust by volunteering to do chores for them like washing clothes and cooking food,” recounts Aman.
To further the trust, he shared his memory card with the pirates and showed them Hindi films, learnt the Somali language, chatted with them for hours and willingly recited Koranic verses (as the pirates intended to convert him into Islam). On many occasions, he also participated in their drug binges. The pirates were eventually won over by his poise.
“I didn’t mind if I turned into a drug addict. I told my fellow sailors we cannot recover the lost time. We should do whatever it takes to stay alive,” said Aman. But it was not all smooth. Initially, the pirates tormented him with physical torture. His head was once struck with the butt of a rifle and when he fell on his chest his hands were tied behind his back.
When he lost consciousness, the pirates whipped him with a belt. His nails were also pulled out on another occasion.
Backed by his grit, Aman also received little help from unlikely sources. Aman credits his safety in the crucial last 10 months to one of the “investors” - people who provide food, diesel and other amenities to sustain the hijacked vessel. “She was a Somali woman. Her son’s face resembled mine, so she protected me,” Aman told The Hindu .
Now, looking to re-launch his life and career, Aman has some practical advice for youth interested in the field. “You must avoid brokers or agents. Always go through the authorised government agency,” Aman warns.