It was just minutes before midnight on January 2, 2022. A cargo ship named Rawabi had left the island of Socotra off the coast of southern Yemen. Bearing a flag of the United Arab Emirates, the ship was on its way to Jazan in Saudi Arabia. As the ship crossed the Red Sea, along the Hodeida province in Yemen, it was hijacked. Eleven crew members on the ship were kidnapped by Houthi rebels, who alleged that the ship was transporting arms and ammunition. Among the 11 crew members were seven Indian citizens who have since been in the custody of the Houthis, their location and condition unknown.
About two hours before the hijack on January 2, Haryana-based Dimple (name changed) had spoken to her husband, a second officer on the ship, on the phone. But it was not until two days later that she found out that her husband was among the 11 seafarers captured by the rebels. “My husband left for sea in September 2021. I spoke to him around 10.30 pm on January 2, but I found out only on January 4, through a common friend, that he had been kidnapped.”
While the Indian government has reached out to her on a couple of occasions, the Dubai-owned company, that owns the cargo ship and employed the 11 seafarers, has been incommunicado.
This is not the first time the Houthi rebels in Yemen have been accused of hijacking a ship. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been fighting in support of Yemen's internationally recognized government against Iran-backed Houthis for nearly seven years. The Saudi-led coalition has accused the Houthis of attacking shipping in the Red Sea, which connects to the Suez Canal and is one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes. And this time, caught between the geopolitical tensions of two foreign countries, are seven Indians, and four others from different countries across the globe.
Now, the Saudi Arabian coalition has said that Rawabi was carrying medical supplies. The coalition’s official version is that the vessel was travelling back to the Saudi city of Jazan after finishing a mission to set up a field hospital on Yemen's southern island of Socotra.
The Houthis, however, have said that it was a "military cargo ship with military equipment." Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said that the vessel had "entered Yemeni waters without authorization" and was carrying out "hostile acts." And so, the ship, the goods, and the eleven people on board were captured.
On January 8, the Houthi rebels allowed Dimple’s husband to make a phone call home. “He said that he is safe but doesn’t know when they will be released. He said there is no torture, and that they are giving them food and treating them as guests, but they are in captivity, they don’t have their phones, documents, etc.,” Dimple tells TNM over the phone. Dimple last heard from her husband on February 9, after a United Nations representative met the kidnapped crew and told them that the process for their release is underway. “There has been no word since then,” Dimple says.
In Vizag, Lakshmi’s son, 26-year-old Veera Venkata Siva Sai Gireesh, who worked as an oiler on the cargo ship, left the Indian shores for the first time, aboard the Rawabi. The ship is owned by a UAE-based company called Khalid Faraj Shipping Limited, headquartered in Dubai. The sailors and crew of this ship were recruited on a contractual basis, as is normally the case, through independent contractors and agents.
“The last time he called from his phone was on January 1. We wished each other a ‘Happy New Year.’ Six days later, on January 7, he called me from someone else’s phone and hurriedly told me they had been detained, and that their belongings and phones had been seized,” Lakshmi tells TNM.
“Since then, he called two more times from other phone numbers. His father is no more. My daughter and I are dealing with this situation alone. We tried very hard to find the contacts of the agents or ship owners, but we haven’t been able to do so,” Lakshmi said.
Manoj Joy, Community Development Manager with Sailors’ Society, a UK-based maritime charity that supports seafarers and their families, has been keeping in touch with the families of the Indian seafarers with updates. He shares that two of them are from Kerala, one from Andhra Pradesh and one from Haryana; the details of the other three Indian seafarers is still not known. He says that the release of the crew, in this case, is not as easy as sending evacuation planes, like India is sending to Ukraine. “Ukraine has a government. A part of Yemen is under the control of Yemen's Houthi rebels. There is no government, it is the non-government militia that is holding the Indians and other nationals. Militia does not keep diplomatic ties. Whom will you speak to? Therefore, we have to work with organisations like the United Nations or countries that are friendly to them,” he says.
“One of the crew members is currently in the custody of rebels, while his wife is in Kyiv, Ukraine, taking refuge in a bomb shelter as Russia continues to invade Ukraine. She was supposed to leave the country on February 26, but the airspace has been closed,” Joy says. When he spoke to her recently, he could hear loud sounds and commotion over the phone. “Her husband in Yemen pleaded with the rebels to let him talk to her, and he told his wife over the phone to forget her studies for now, and leave Ukraine immediately,” Joy shares.
Neither the Union government, the state government, nor the company has reached out to them, Lakshmi says. “Some people from the sailor’s union have been the only ones who have been in touch with us and been assuring us that my son will return home. We are unsure what we can do, whom to seek help from, whom to write to,” Lakshmi adds. “We have no idea which company hired him, we don’t have any numbers to contact people beyond that. We are in a helpless situation,” Lakshmi adds, echoing the sentiments of the other families waiting for their family members to return.
For the past two weeks, seven families in India have been waiting anxiously for their phones to ring. It has been almost two months since the Union Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in India provided any official update about the captured Indians. On January 11, the MEA had issued an official notification.
“We are in touch with the company operating the ship,” the MEA said. “We also understand from the company and other sources that all Indian crew members are safe. Government of India is making all efforts to secure their early release. We urge the Houthis to ensure the safety and well-being of the crew members and release them immediately.”
A day later, India raised the issue of the seized cargo vessel with the United Nations. Speaking at the UN Security Council briefing on Yemen, India's Permanent Representative TS Tirumurti expressed India’s grave concern. “Seven Indian nationals are among the crew members on board the ship and we are deeply concerned about their safety and well-being," Tirumurti said. He urged the Houthis to immediately release the crew members and the vessel, adding that the Houthis also bear the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the crew members till their release.
Yemen, one of the poorest in the Middle East, has been ravaged by a civil war since 2014. It began with Iran-backed Houthi rebels taking control of the capital Sana’a, and then the northern parts of the country. The internationally recognized government was ousted and forced to flee to the south. A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in the civil war and has been fighting the Houthis since 2015. The war has left thousands of people dead, displaced millions of others, and led to severe shortages of food and other essential goods in Yemen. In 2015, in view of the worsening situation, the Indian Embassy in Yemen was shifted to Djibouti. The past few months have seen multiple and some deadly escalation of conflict between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, which is trying to drive the Houthis out of the country.
Now, a representative from the United Nations has met with the captured crew to brief them about their release. But since mid-February, most families have not received an update. And this keeps happening, Joy says, seafarers keep getting exploited as they are unaware of the goods they are transporting. In June 2020, four Indians — Shanmukha from Visakhapatnam and Mahesh from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, and two others, Chandan and Krishna — were arrested in Dakar, Senegal, in a drug trafficking case. The four were working on a cargo ship, and the sailors, as well as their families, insist that they were innocent and unaware of the drugs, and were only waiting to be paid and sent home.
“Before seafarers sail, they should check the credentials of the company they are working for. This capturing of the ship can happen to any company. But a good company would have employed security or armed guards while transiting through pirate or rebel areas. There are standard procedures while transiting risk zones. In many cases, we find that seafarers work with fly-by-night operators or companies that are shady in nature. But in this, you are risking your life, you have to be careful…” he adds.
TNM reached out to the Ministry of External Affairs seeking an update, and whether it will be reaching out to countries in the Gulf that have good ties with Yemen. The response will be added once TNM receives it.
With inputs from Jahnavi Reddy