The scourge of maritime robbery and hostage-taking is back. Somalia’s natural and economic catastrophes including soaring unemployment for young men have combined to leave youths vulnerable to the call to arms from the region’s resurgent pirates. Ramola Talwar Badam explores how this happened – and what can be done to counter the threats to shipping trade and the families of sailors who could be the next ones to be taken hostage.
Four months after his ship was freed from pirates, a Sri Lankan sailor plans to return to sea next month.
Now, Sunil Bulathsinhala just wants to forget the four days of terror he endured beginning March 13, when gun wielding Somali pirates held eight sailors hostage aboard the Aris 13, a UAE-managed tanker, marking the first successful hijacking after a five-year lull.
“I try to forget how many guns they had, how they held a gun to my head and made me talk to my family to ask for money. They had AK47s, T56, T81 (assault rifles), small rocket-propelled grenades and 9mm pistols,” said Mr Bulathsinhala from his Colombo home.
“I thought I would die. I tried to forget this. My mind is okay now. I am tough. I cannot be scared when I go back to work.”
A group of six pirates pretending to be fishermen first boarded the slow-moving bunker barge that was travelling from Djibouti to Mogadishu. Thirty armed pirates later clambered aboard. Working 12-hour shifts, they stripped the tanker of equipment and food.
“They took our phones, laptops, everything. I had only two tee-shirts and shorts. They took two motorboats, life jackets and the radio. They used big garbage bags to take away water, rice, soup cans, Pepsi and spaghetti.”
Mr Bulathsinhala says he cannot block out the terrifying exchange of gunfire during the March 16 rescue by the Puntland Maritime Police Force and the Bosaso Port Police, also in Puntland, a semi-autonomous state in Somalia.
“My heart pained during the shooting. The bullets were over us, we were in the middle. I still hear the sound. I have never been so afraid.”
Samudra Hettarachchi, Sunil’s wife, said sailors were vulnerable. “If the route is changed and they have to go near Somalia, the crew cannot do anything. They want to earn, so they will obey. But companies should not send them to unsafe places. If something happens to them, what will happen to us? When the ship was hijacked I was only thinking of the end. I was thinking how we will manage the rest of life.”
Being the sole breadwinner with a daughter to support through university, Mr Bulathsinhala, 57, says he has no choice but to return to sea. “I need work. We need the money.”
But he won't go back on just any ship. “A big ship with more speed, barbed wire and at least 4-6 guards on lookout,” he said, detailing the minimum security he wants before signing on.
Still, despite his fears and concerns, he also says he understands why some Somalis turn to piracy. Having lived in Fujairah and working in the Gulf gave him some Arabic abilities. He was thus able to function as a stand-in interpreter initially for the pirates. “I understood some Arabic, so I helped translate until the main interpreter came on board who spoke very good English. They would talk about how their country had too many problems, how 80 per cent of the livestock is dead, how they had no rain for many years. They are poor and so they are thieves.” This narrative of drought, unemployment and lawlessness as a trigger for piracy is one acknowledged by aid groups.
For years, the growth of Somali piracy was relentless. More people were taken hostage at sea in 2010 than in any year since the International Maritime Bureau began keeping records in 1991. Pirates captured 1,016 seafarers and killed eight; 49 ships were hijacked following a total of 219 attacks.
Since 2006, when attacks began to rise sharply, more than 29 crew have been killed. The incidence of piracy peaked in 2011, when 237 ships were attacked.
A combination of patrols by international navies and tighter security measures on merchant vessels gradually beat back attacks. It was after a five-year respite that the Aris 13 was hijacked, followed on March 21 by Al Kausar dhow, loaded with rice and wheat enroute from Dubai to Yemen. Ten Indian sailors were released by Somali forces after 10 days in captivity.
Omer Jama Farah, director and founder of the Taakulo Somali Community, an aid organisation working with marginalised groups, said the problem was worsening. “There has been a cholera outbreak and people are also suffering due to severe drought with most of the livestock dead,” he said.
“We received some rain, but that will not produce any crops. So we need the UAE and international support to help us or more people will turn to violence and the sea.”
A reduction of shipboard security measures in recent years, coupled with vessels sailing too close to the Somali coast, has resulted in a new spike in pirate attacks. Now, anti-piracy groups are collaborating to prevent modern day pirates from again becoming a deadly force.
Until the UAE-managed tanker, Aris 13, was hijacked on March 13, there had been no successful piracy attempt on merchant ships since the crude oil tanker Smyrni was taken hostage in May 2012. It was this lull in piracy activity that had resulted in reduced security measures.
“We have tracked that owners have become more complacent through ships traveling at slower speeds through the high risk areas and ships are traveling closer to the Somali coast,” said Jon Huggins, director of advocacy group Oceans Beyond Piracy. Typically ships travel at lower speed to save fuel.
“The number of armed guards observed has remained steady for the last few years, but we have seen a decrease in the quality of teams and the number of team members. Industry standards call for four-man teams, but some vessels are using two-man teams.”
Patrols by international navies, the provision of armed guards on merchant ships, the fitting of water cannons and coils of barbed wire to deter pirate boardings, and increasing vessel speed in piracy-prone areas had previously deterred attacks, resulting in a five-year lull.
Nevertheless, pirates retained the capability to attack, and this reemerged earlier this year.
The three hijacking by Somali pirates in March prompted fresh warnings to shipowners to revisit security protocols.
“Pirate networks have access to skiffs, and weapons are increasingly becoming easier and cheaper due to the instability in Yemen. There are also ungoverned areas along the central Somali coast that can be used as potential safe-havens for pirate activities,” Mr Huggins said.
“We have observed that pirate networks remain organized and were involved in other maritime crimes during the lull in piracy. This included human and weapons trafficking. There is also the continued issue of foreign fishing vessels operating close to the Somali coast that fuels resentment in local communities and provides moral justification for supporting piracy.”
This is happening at a time when many owners have stopped using armed guards, said Peter Cook, director of the consultancy, PCA Maritime. “The shipping industry has lowered its guard, and in some cases become complacent,” he said.
“Some are routing within view of the Somali coastline and many have stopped using armed guards to protect their ships. In light of the increased threat level, all ship owners, managers and operators should review their counter-piracy and ship security plans and decide what action to take in view of the new risk level.”
He said dangers could reemerge “from the tip of the Horn of Africa, down to the area of Mogadishu. The coastline of around 660 nautical miles or 1,200km is ungoverned and therefore provides prospective pirates the opportunity to organise themselves without any form of hindrance."
To monitor pirate movement, an initiative called the "Community of Reporting" was launched by the International Maritime Bureau and the OBP.
Information about attacks, hijacking incidents, vessels being fired upon or approaches by pirates will be shared as part of the joint effort.
“Information sharing and cooperation between all stakeholders, private and public, will always be the key to safety and security,” said Cyrus Mody, IMB’s assistant director.
“We hope that it will give a more realistic outlook to the number of incidents in this region.”
In the three March hijackings, a tanker with eight men and two dhows with a total of 30 sailors were hijacked. All the crew were later released.
There have been several attacks in the region around Bab el-Mandeb in the Red sea, in areas off the coast of Oman, near the Yemen shoreline, and in the Gulf of Aden. These involve armed pirates in skiffs approaching and firing upon tankers and container ships, triggering security teams to return fire and the crew to retreat to a "citadel" or secure room for protection.
But in most cases, the raising of an alarm, assistance from nearby warships, increasing speed, taking evasive manoeuvres and the firing warning shots forced pirates to give up the chase, according to the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre.
Years after their fathers were held captive in the longest Somali hijacking that dragged on for four years, the daughters of two of the former hostages say their families have yet to recover from the trauma.
And with three hijackings in March fuelling fears of a resurgence in piracy, Nareman Jawaid, a Dubai resident and daughter of Jawaid Khan, the Pakistani captain of the Malaysia-flagged MV Albedo, urged shipping companies to keep sailors safe. Her father's ship was hijacked in late 2010, and he finally saw freedom again nearly two years later. He was among the lucky ones.
“These men are not soldiers, they are sailors. So why should their families worry about their safety? If people become even a little relaxed thinking that piracy is finished, the pirates will pick this up. We must sustain a high level of vigilance and monitoring. The onus is on shipping companies to ensure the safety of sailors. Something has to be done by maritime organisations so families do not go through the whole ordeal again.”
The MV Albedo, a cargo ship with 23 men on board on its last sailing, was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden on November 26, 2010, after leaving Dubai’s Jebel Ali port on its way to Kenya.
Ms Jawaid’s father was among the eight Pakistanis who released in August 2012, after their families raised a portion of the US$2.85 million (Dh4m) ransom demanded by the pirates. The pirates refused to free the entire crew.
“The emotional turmoil, the uncertainty, is not something you recover from. We were in limbo. When the pirates lied and said they have shot someone, you grieve. But you don’t know for sure if it has happened. When they (the pirates) say they are alive, then you feel okay. It’s like a sick game they play with the emotions of the family,” she said.
An Indian sailor on the MV Albedo was shot dead, and four Sri Lankan sailors went missing when the vessel eventually sank in July 2013.
The remaining 11 crew escaped under pirate gunfire in June 2014, after suffering years of beating with wooden sticks and metal rods.
The men may have returned, but their lives are gone, said Fathima Farhana, a teacher and daughter of Sri Lankan second engineer Mohammed Bishthamy. "The pirates shot my father in his index finger. He has a shoulder injury because they hit him so hard. He lost his teeth when they hit him with a gun. It was emotional torture because how could we sleep at home? How could we live our lives when they were suffering?”
Throughout the hijacking, Ms Farhana and other relatives received threatening calls from the pirates demanding money.
“The pirates called at midnight or when I was in school. For more than a week when the ship sank, we didn’t know if everyone was okay. One Sri Lankan lady still believes her husband is alive, although we try to explain he was taken by the sea,” she said.
After earning good salaries as seafarers, these men now have to turn to construction and security jobs. Dreams of a comfortable retirement and home ownership have been cut short for many like Mr Bisthamy, 63, who now earn just enough to cover the rent. But the damage to their lives goes beyond finances.
"My father is not like before. He has changed. My mother had a heart attack and is weaker. We cannot get back what is lost inside us,” said Ms Farhana from Colombo.
Ms Jawaid, the Dubai resident, concurred. “It changes everything. You constantly feel on the edge, that something could go wrong. You are always afraid for the safety of loved ones because you have lived in fear, you have experienced it. Sometimes you think you have moved on, and then some little thing will trigger it.”
In most of the cases where hostages were held over a long period, the ship owners simply abandoned the crew and never paid their wages. Without support from the owner, the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme has provided financial help, covered tuition fees and medical costs and visited families of hostage seafarers in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.
“They need someone to talk to, they need support, information and honest updates,” said Chirag Bahri, regional director of International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network.
“It is a torturous ordeal for anyone. The main goal is that seafarers should come home safe. The worst feeling is that they have been abandoned and no one is willing to help.”
Piracy was no longer front-page news in 2014 when Mohammed Bisthamy escaped from Somali pirates after four years in captivity.
The presence of international naval forces and gun-wielding guards on merchant vessels drastically had sharply reduced the number of attacks, with no ships hijacked that year.
But having listened in on his captors' chatter while he was held captive on the MV Albedo, the Sri Lankan engineer warned shortly after his release that piracy would return if littoral nations let down their guard. The pirates would talk, he said, about how ship owners would tire of employing armed guards. They would bide their time.
Years later, his words have proved prescient.
“The pirates have always been waiting to catch ships. They will not stop, they will always continue to try,” said Mr Bisthamy, 63, from his home in Colombo.
Life after captivity has been difficult and the seafarer said the world has sadly forgotten sailors like himself.
“I lost everything when I was a hostage. My wife and children suffered. I did not earn a single cent. People said they would help, but only my family helped.”
The owner of the cargo ship abandoned the ship and crew.
Mr Bisthamy’s plans to retire and own his own home has been unfulfilled, after the bank repossessed his house while he was held hostage. He and his wife now live in rented accommodations near Colombo. He works as a security guard or picks up daily wage jobs to cobble together the Rs25,000 required for rent.
Mr Bisthamy and 11 other crew members were among the longest-held by Somali pirates after the MV Albedo was hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in November 2010, shortly following its departure from Dubai’s Jebel Ali port.
After years of being beaten by the pirates, the men broke the window of a cramped room in which they were held and ran barefoot to safety in Galmudug, a semi-autonomous region in central Somalia in June 2014.
Today, attempts are being made by governments and welfare organisations to implement a financial liability clause in seafarers' contracts to cover their wages if the ship they serve on is hijacked. But this has met with resistance from shipowners.
“We try to help get (former) hostages in to good companies so they will never face this trauma again,” said Chirag Bahri, regional director of International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network.
“How fast they recover also depends on how much they struggle to get their wages. It takes a toll when they have to run from door-to-door.”
In Mr Bisthamy’s case, his family persuaded both he and his son to give up the sea.
"We could not go through the torture of another hijacking,” said Fathima Farhana, Mr Bisthamy’s daughter.
“Who remembers abandoned sailors?”
Mr Bisthamy shies away from media attention, while being single-minded in his goal of continuing to work.
“I don’t want to talk again and again about what happened. I was an engineer once, now I do any job. Only Allah can help us now. I can still work, give me a job.”
Aid groups warn that more Somali youth will turn to violence and join pirate gangs if jobs and skills training are not made available. Pirate networks prey on youth and families reeling under the effect of drought, unemployment and poverty, said aid workers, who call for the international community to step in with help.
“For so many years piracy had reduced. Now, it seems to be coming again. We are seeing youth again going to sea to abduct ships. The crisis is reappearing,” said Omer Farah, director of the Taakulo Somali Community, a non-government organisation that distributes food and provides education and health assistance.
“The No. 1 problem is lawlessness and people are suffering because of drought. When many young people don’t have income sources, but they know how to work with the gun, it could make them turn to piracy if we don’t tackle the problem.”
The group also conducts awareness campaigns against drug addiction, and warns youth against succumbing to the lure of piracy.
“There must be job opportunities for the youth, they need training so their attention can be diverted to other sectors, they learn to work on their own and support their family,” Mr Farah said.
“We tell young men that pirates kill innocent people and take the property of others. We talk about how piracy is a crime against humanity.”
A cholera epidemic has worsened the situation brought about by drought, alleviated only to a small degree by humanitarian aid sent by the United Nations and countries across the world. There have been 738 deaths and 45,400 cases of cholera since the start of the year, according to the World Health Organisation.
The number of people needing assistance, according to the UN, increased from five million in September 2015 to more than 6.2 million in February 2017 -- more than half of the country’s population. About 363,000 acutely malnourished children need nutrition support, including life-saving treatment for more than 71,000 severely malnourished children. Without access primary health-care services, 1.9 million people may die of preventable diseases.
The UAE has sent food aid, water, medical supplies, tents, bedding and clothing. It also supports development projects and UAE doctors provide medical care through mobile hospitals. Both private and government organisations have raised millions of dirhams to provide basic necessities to fight hunger.
And despite an attack in Mogadishu on a team from the Emirates Red Crescent Authority in April, the UAE continues to conduct development work. No one was injured in April bombing.
While Somalia has been grateful for the humanitarian aid it has received, long-term training and employment linked to the fishery sector and job creation along the coast was sorely needed, said Mohammed Ahmed, executive director of the Somaliland Counter Piracy Coordination Office.
“Our waters contain large stocks of fish. We need commercial partnerships with industrial leaders and investors to create jobs for the youth in order not to be attracted to illegal activities. If immediate international assistance is not available, pirates may overcome Somaliland government resistance. As long as Somali youth have access to arms and no means to earn a living, the threat of piracy is real.”
Illegal fishing remains a concern with local communities, which complain about international trawlers straying into Somali waters.
“Somali fishermen, whether in a perceived or real (threat), believe fishing fleets in Somali waters are illegal and unregulated,” Mr Ahmed said.
Following the recent attacks on dhows, Peter Cook, director of the consultancy PCA Maritime, said small boats must be cautious. “Smaller vessels should avoid going too close to Somali waters and staying out of the Exclusive Economic Zone of Somalia, or 200 nautical miles from the shoreline, as Somalia looks upon this area as their exclusive fishing area and may look upon other fishing vessels in this area as imposters and therefore prone to attack.”