Surviving Somali Piracy: Rescued Ghanaian Seamen Return Home, Seek Help
When people hear the word “pirates” nowadays, they tend to think of software piracy or Hollywood’s melodramatic “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
But modern day piracy, particularly off the Coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, is a thriving and deadly industry, which often has horrifying consequences for seamen taken hostage.
Four Ghanaian seamen, part of a crew of 24 from Ghana, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Sudan and Yemen, were taken hostage by Somali pirates on 29th March 2010 and held for two years and nine months until their rescue by a Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) unit on 23rd December 2012.
Kofi Mensah, Kweku Appiah, Ato Cobbina and Fiifi Adjei – whose names we have changed to protect their identity – shared their experiences with the IOM Ghana staff when they finally returned home.
The MV Iceberg 1, owned by Azal Shipping, was a 1976 Roll-on Roll-off vessel carrying 4,500 tons of liquid natural gas cylinders. It was en route to Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates when it was captured 10 nautical miles from the port of Aden, off the coast of Yemen.
“It was like any other day at sea. On 29th March 2010 I was at work in the engine room when I heard some noises. The Chief Engineer came into the room and asked me to help him. Then Fiifi appeared and signalled that I should stay quiet. I had no idea what was going on, but after an hour or so, we were taken to join the others on deck,” recalls Kofi.
Kofi, 52, who is married with five children, served as the Second Engineer. He had worked on several vessels prior to joining the MV Iceberg 1 in September 2009. But nothing prepared him for what was to come, he says.
The pirates sprayed gunfire over the crew’s heads and said that they were taking the vessel to Somalia. The crew were told to return to their cabins, but when they got there found that all their belongings, including clothing, food, phones and money, had been ransacked.
“I was in the mess room at 7:45am when the pirates came on board and the emergency alarm sounded,” says Fiifi. Fiifi, 33, is single and worked as an Electrical Engineer on the ship.
He had three years of experience aboard cargo vessels prior to joining the MV Iceberg 1 in July 2009. He had heard about pirates and thought they would be large men, but when he joined the rest of the crew on deck, he saw a crowd of “very skinny men” surrounding them with automatic weapons.
Shortly after the hijack, a naval ship approached the MV Iceberg 1. The pirates forced the Captain at gunpoint to tell the vessel to withdraw 20 nautical miles.
Soon Kofi was called to the engine room, where he found the pirates trying to increase the speed of the ship without any idea of how the engines functioned.
“Everything became red hot and we were forced to drop anchor. But monsoon winds broke the anchor and we drifted until 10th September, when we struck a rock close to shore and took on water,” says Kofi.
While the ship was adrift, the crew were subjected to appalling treatment, including days without food or water and continuous beatings.
Kofi was chained up in solitary confinement and says that the pirates threatened to drown him if he refused to relay their demand for a USD 10 million ransom to Azal Shipping. At one point they started shooting all around him.
“I asked them to kill me but they wouldn’t,” he says. He was at his breaking point and close to dying when the pirates dropped him into the sea. A fellow crewman, Ato, jumped in after him and brought him back on board.
Ato, 46, is unmarried with one daughter and was a seaman. He worked aboard vessels for American Seafood in Alaska before joining the MV Iceberg 1 crew.
He says that the pirates made constant demands, at gunpoint, for crewmembers to call their various embassies, UN and NATO officials.
As time went by, the crew gradually lost hope, as they had no way of knowing whether Somali officials and the international community were making any progress in securing their release.
They describe the pirates were described as mostly Somali, but they included a Kenyan and an Eritrean. They consumed large quantities of khat, a stimulant drug, their behaviour was often erratic and they were impossible to reason with.
The crewmen say they were relied on the pirates for food and water and were given small quantities of flour and rice. The water often smelled of petrol or diesel and at times was saline.
Among the threats levelled against the crew was that the pirates would start selling their organs to make money. One of the seamen, a Yemeni, became so traumatized by the constant threats and beating that he became mentally and physically ill and died on 27th October 2010.
Several crewmembers were taken off the ship at various points and held on shore, returning days later. But the Chief Officer was taken ashore on 9th September 2011 by heavily armed pirates and never seen again. His whereabouts are still unknown.
When the crew had almost given up all hope of rescue, they heard gunfire erupt on deck on 10th December 2012 at 5:30am. PMPF helicopters were flying overhead.
The pirates, armed with automatic weapons and RPGs, held out for a full two weeks and two crewmen were seriously injured by gunfire. But on 23rd December the pirates fled the ship. Three were killed and three captured. Nine others escaped.
The PMPF transferred the surviving crewmembers to their base in Garowe to receive immediate medical attention and call their families with the news of their rescue. Fiifi called his brother Eric.
The families of all the hostages had suffered both emotionally and financially and the news of their release was considered a miracle.
The four Ghanaians, together with one Filipino, and two Sudanese were flown by the UN from Puntland to Nairobi, Kenya on 30th December 2012. Onward flights home were provided by their respective governments.
The four Ghanaians overnighted at IOM’s transit centre in Nairobi. IOM also provided airport assistance in Nairobi and Accra, as well as transportation to their home areas in Ghana to be reunited with families.
When asked, what was the first thing he did when returning home, Fiifi responded, “I changed into white clothing and stopped at my church to pray and thank God.” He says the rescue occurred on his birthday and he experienced a “rebirth.”
When he finally arrived home a crowd was waiting from his family and church. Fiifi says his beard was so long that his mother did not recognize him. But once he was home he could set aside his suffering. They continue to celebrate his return.
Recalling their experiences, the men say that seafarers and companies need to be better prepared for pirate attacks and receive proper security training. Better security is needed on deck and more needs to be done to prosecute pirates for their crimes, they say.
They also want to know more about what the UN and NATO are doing to secure the release of other, remaining hostages in Somalia. And they are thankful to the PMPF, which lost one man in the battle to retake the ship.
Now they are contemplating the future and asking for help to pay for medical care, counselling and legal representation, as they continue to suffer from their experiences and remain without jobs to support themselves and their families.