Iceberg 1 crew, three years on

23 December 2015 will mark the third anniversary of the freeing of the hostages of the Iceberg 1. Originally captured in early 2010 by Somali pirates, the seafarers on board endured almost three years of abuse as their captors tried to extort a ransom of USD 10 million from the owners. An anti-piracy force from the Puntland region besieged the ship, and finally the pirates surrendered after two weeks and three of their number, and one of the Puntland force, had been killed. The ship is shown in the banner at the time of the release of the hostages, having run aground over a year before.

The ship had a crew of 24 when captured including Yemeni, Indian, Ghanaian, Sudanese, Pakistani and one from the Philippines. By the time of their release, the original 24 strong crew were down to 22. They had been regularly tortured and beaten. The ships chief officer, Dhiraj Tiwari, had been badly beaten by pirates and disappeared the following day, his whereabouts are still unknown. Another member of the crew had killed himself during captivity.

MPHRP provided, and channelled from others, assistance towards the families of the seafarers while they were hostages, and to the seafarers when they were released. Although there were no wages for the crew, donors combined to provide financial assistance for a number of the seafarers to help with their rehabilitation. After three years since their ordeal, we contacted the seafarers from India, Sudan, Philippines and Ghana this month to see how they are managing.

Gerald Gonzales, from the Philippines, is now back on board a bulk carrier trading in the Philippine archipelago. He has been working for about a year as 2nd Engineer. His salary is not as large as it was on international trades, but is sufficient for his family, and he can visit them twice a month when the ship docks in his home port. He lives with his wife, who is a full time mother to their one year old son, together with his mother-in-law, who assists his wife at home. He says that spending time with his family helped him recover from past experiences. He has been willing to share his experiences with other piracy survivors in the Philippines and said: “May the support continue for piracy victims, most especially to those who cannot go back on board because of their experiences.”

Of the five Indian seafarers who returned home, four have gone back to work at sea, and one is working in a bank. There is general appreciation for the support of the government of India and the help of MPHRP and others in providing psychological and financial support at a time of crisis for them and their families. Having returned home empty-handed after three years away, they feel positive about their future. One seafarer said that the money received in donations is the biggest asset for him against difficult times, as their earnings are enough to live on but don’t provide for any additional savings. Education of children and support of medical expenses for older family members were given as examples of areas where the funds received will help.

The seafarers in Ghana remain shocked and distressed by the experience that they went through and have found it difficult to reintegrate into their society. With help from local churches, MPHRP and others they have benefitted from practical support for living expenses, rent arrears and children’s education. In looking for future employment, they have been assisted in renewing certificates and finding work at sea again. Only one of them remains unemployed at the moment, and he is looking for a ship.

The two seafarers from Sudan are still not back at sea. One has suffered problems with his eyesight related to his treatment as a hostage, the other has had to sell his house and move to a village, where he is surviving by doing irregular work. He was married but is now separated from his wife and children and wants to go back to sea once he has renewed his certificates. Although his own health was affected by the time in captivity, he said that the emotional side of his recovery was the most difficult.

For some of these men, the release from years of abuse and captivity was seen as a new life. One of the Indian seafarers mentioned that the experience had made him a more mature person, more committed to his family, and that he feels ‘reborn’. However, there remains, with him and with other survivors, the terrible injustice of their years of captivity, lost time, lost opportunity and lost money. The family of Dheeraj Tiwari still face the agonising disappearance of their son, and still do not know what has happened to him – for them there is no peace of mind. The Puntland force soldier who died during the siege of the ship is another person who should be remembered. Also, still waiting for their loved ones are the families of those held captive on the Naham 3, 26 remaining seafarers (plus three who have died in captivity) who have been held in Somalia since March 2012, along with 17 Iranian seafarers from the Siraj, captured nine months ago.

For details of the Iceberg 1 release: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/somalia/9770677/Longest-Somali-pirate-ordeal-ends-for-Iceberg-1-crew.html


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