"I never thought that I’d also have such a point in my life. I don’t know why I got such a long punishment."

I spent four years in captivity The harrowing ordeal of an Indian held by Somalian piratesHappy times: Sohan Singh with his wife during Holi
Features Wednesday, June 29, 2016 - 18:16

At 45, Sohan Singh cannot switch careers even if he wanted to. As an engineer with the merchant navy, he could have done well had his life not been brutally ripped apart by pirates, who kept him in captivity for four years. Now, he can neither get a government job because of his age, nor does he have the resources to start his own business. 

Starting his career in the Indian Navy, Sohan moved on to the merchant navy as an engineer on contract. As a Third Engineer, he spent six months on a ship, and the rest of the year with his parents, wife and two children in his hometown Ludhiana. On one of these trips, his life changed forever.  

The attack

On September 28, 2010, the cargo ship MT Asphalt Venture was in the Somali Basin, enroute to Mauritius via Mombassa (Kenya). It had set sail from Durban.

It was night time, and visibility was low. Only two people including the captain were on watch duty, while the other 13 were in their cabins when the attack took place. Basic training to deal with emergencies was simply not enough to ward off an attack by heavily armed pirates.

“The ship wasn’t in good condition. We did not have an interlock system (panic room), and the engine too was not ideal. We could not move fast enough when we were being attacked. We had bad luck,” said Sohan.

The pirates came in two boats – a mother vessel and a smaller boat. “They were very tall men, over 6 ft. Not like us, 5 ft.” As soon as they set foot on the deck, they started firing with AK-47s. They were more than well-prepared; the rocket launcher they carried was proof of that. 

The crew list was read out; the men were rounded up and thrown into a room. They were allowed out in pairs or groups of four to use the toilets.

The pirates demanded $10 million for the release of the 15 men. After six months of negotiation with the company which owns the vessel, they settled upon $3.5 million. 

Sohan Singh with his children (left) and wife

On the day of the exchange in March 2011, the pirates left on only eight crew members behind on the hijacked ship after taking the money. Sohan was among the unlucky seven who were taken to Somalian shores on a boat, to an area under the complete control of pirates. The process of ransom negotiations was to start anew.

Life under constant vigil

Pirate territory, so to speak, was the dense forests along the coast they disembarked on.

Sohan and the others were divided up into two groups – three in one and four in the other – to minimise the possibility of the rescue of all hostages, should there be one. They were given material to erect make-shift tents. “We had to build them so that they couldn’t be spotted from helicopters,” says Sohan. With no electricity, the heat and humidity were unbearable.

Captives were at the mercy of the pirates for everything. “We were under their watch 24x7. They hit us, sometimes with slippers, sometimes with a water hose. Ulta latka dete the (they used to hang us upside down). They even made a video of the torture and sent it to the company in order to put pressure on them. Saans lene ki aazaadi thi. Bas aur koi azaadi nahi thi. (We only had freedom to breathe, nothing else),” says Sohan.

Every 20 days, each of them was given five litres of water for bathing and washing clothes. Wood though, was available in plenty, and water was boiled for drinking.

A photograph of Sohan Singh just after his release

“In the first year, they gave us good food, sometimes pasta and noodles, or else just rice and potato. We got food three times a day but the pirates ate only two meals.” During this time, the pirates had someone check on their health, but it was a luxury that was soon done away with. 

Eventually they started reducing the quantity of food and the quality too deteriorated. The worst was in the last year. “Sometimes we were just given rice, often without salt or water. There were times we ate rice with sugar,” says Sohan. 

Singh says their security guards changed frequently and were never allowed to mix with them. “After all they too were humans and could have taken pity on us.” In a rare exchange with guards, Singh says they learned that there were other hostages in the forest. “A security guard told us that the Koreans always asked for better food like bread and noodles, while we could survive on just rice.” The pirates read about every development regarding the case on the internet. 

“I was scared initially, but the pirates just wanted us to co-operate. They’d even told us they did not have any enmity with us.”

But this said, they played mind games with their hostages. “We did not think much about trying to escape. Bhaag ke jaate kahan. (Where would we go even if we ran away?) It was their territory and we knew they were keeping an eye on us all the time. But at the same time, they never let our hopes die. They always told us that we’d be released soon. Sometimes they’d tell us that we would be gone by the time the water tanker we were using was empty,” he says.

Sohan and the others developed a routine during their captivity. Their day started with a prayer, followed by yoga. “We could not walk much because we weren’t allowed to move around.” Most of the day was spent in doing chores such as cooking and washing the utensils. But going to the toilet or fetching wood for cooking required permission.

When they did not have anything to do, they slept. When even sleep eluded them, they thought of their families.

“We thought about the festivals we missed, the birthdays that we could not be part of. In the four years that we were held hostage, many of us lost several family members. My father-in-law passed away in 2012 and I learned of it in 2014 after my release.”

The nearest area where there was cell phone reception was 45km away. Sohan knows this because once in six months, any of the men who could speak English were driven to the area in Land Cruisers to speak to their families. This was a tactic to indirectly exert pressure on the company and governments.

Kabhi socha bhi nahi tha ke zindagi mein ek aisa bhi mod aayega. Jo itni lambi saza mili, yeh kyun mili nahi pata. (I never thought that I’d also have such a point in my life. I don’t know why I got such a long punishment). In the last year, we thought we’d die without ever seeing our families.”

But in October 2014, Sohan and the others were released on payment of an undisclosed sum.

While the ordeal has taken a physical and mental toll on him, what Singh considers a bigger loss is the harrowing experience his family had to go through. 

“My wife doesn’t laugh as much as she used to. We’ve had our losses, but at least we are together now,” he says. 

Although he still carries around the trauma of those years with him, he feels he doesn’t have much of a choice except to return to the merchant navy for a few more years. “I lost several productive years of my life. I could have done well if this hadn’t happened. I can’t change my career now.”

He has not worked since his release, but is now sorting out his work documents with the help of MPHRP, an organisation that works with seafarers who have been affected by piracy. The one-time compensation that the company paid him on his release has seen the family through until now.

As he prepares to get back to work, Sohan says, “Sometimes, when I’m walking on the streets and I see street dogs, I often think that our lives were worse than these animals (during captivity). We can never forget it.”

Also read: Living in captivity: Untold stories of Indians held hostage by Somali pirates

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