If and when most Indians think of pirates, their imagination stretches little past the savvy swagger of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. But those who've encountered pirates out on the open seas, would tell you that the reality is unimaginably horrific.
Several Indian people working on board commercial ships have been held hostage by pirates. According to the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP), over 5,000 seafarers were affected by piracy the world over in 2014. Piracy off Somalian waters has reduced, but is now taking place with increased frequency in West Africa and South East Asian waters.
For those captured, a little bit of hope died every day as the weeks stretched into months and even years. But those who survived the ordeal, have lived to tell tales of torture and pain, which they continue to struggle with long after their return home.
Rohan Ruparelia is gearing up to return to his job as Third Officer on a merchant vessel in July. The Mumbai-based 28-year-old remembers, in minute detail, the whirlwind that hit his life on February 11: He was captured first by pirates, and then by an armed gang and tortured by both, before being released three months ago.
At 8.28pm, around 15 pirates clambered onto the MT Maximus, which was 80 nautical miles off Ivory Coast, and was carrying 6,000 tonnes of cargo.
The vessel had a citadel (panic room) but some of the 18-member crew couldn’t make it before lock down. The pirates used this to their advantage and blackmailed the crew inside the citadel, including Rohan, to come out.
The pirates commandeered the ship and the navies of Togo and Ghana gave chase.
“The pirates were lean, lanky and undernourished guys. Some did not have footwear and most were not even wearing proper clothes. They seemed to come from poor backgrounds. They threatened us, firing bullets at the navy. They beat up the captain every day,” Rohan recollects. This went on until February 19.
The pirates were after the cargo but when attempts to unload it were unsuccessful, they looted the crew of every single material possession – right from money to shoes, bags and clothes.
After a few days, one group of pirates abandoned the ship taking four crew members, including Rohan, along with them. Once in their own vessel, they released two but held on to Rohan and another crew member, Siddique Mangle, a native of Peshawar. “The same day, the navy rescued the main vessel.” Rohan later learned that some of the pirates on their ship were killed in the rescue operation.
About 15 hours later, the pirate vessel ran out of fuel and the group drifted mid-sea for several days. “They frequently beat us up. We survived without food and water for five days,” Rohan recalled.
On February 23, the second phase of their trauma began when they reached a group of islands near Rivers State in Nigeria, which were controlled by an armed gang. There was a gun battle; outnumbered and with limited ammunition, the pirates had to surrender to the gang. Rohan and Siddique hid under the bed and watched all this happen.
Rohan and Siddique now had new tormentors. The armed gang captured all of them, pirates included, and moved them to another island. Rohan and Siddique were separated from the pirates, and the torture continued.
“They (gang members) beat us, made us stand in the rain at night. They kept threatening us. These are, maybe, not the worst ones. The only thing they did not do is rape us.”
The only respite they got from ill-treatment and assault, was a tiny, filthy 6x6 room with a bucket to urinate in. For everything else, they had to wait for dark.
A week later, Rohan was allowed to establish contact with his company and negotiations began. If the kingpin was happy with the talks – which were conveyed to him through the gang’s translator – Rohan and Siddique were spared ill-treatment. If he was displeased with what he heard, he would make them suffer.
Despite all they faced, Rohan and his fellow crewman did not let fear get to them. “From the very next day (after the capture), we started joking around. If we had to die, we’d die. We were not negative in mindset but were ready for the worst.”
With the intervention of the Ministry of External Affairs, an undisclosed amount was agreed on for the men's release. On March 20, the exchange took place mid-sea, with the help of a company which provides assistance in rescuing people. “It could have gone wrong. That was the worry,” he says.
His ordeal had lasted 38 days.
In his fourth and last year in the captivity of Somalian pirates, Sohan Singh’s hope of freedom was fast ebbing away.
In September 2010, the Ludhiana resident had been captured along with seven other members of his crew. The cargo vessel they worked on was en route to Mauritius from Durban via Mombassa (off the Kenyan coast).
The pirates came in two boats. “They were very tall, over 6 ft. Not like us, 5 ft. And they were armed with AK-47s and even a rocket launcher.”
After six months of negotiation with the company which owns the vessel, the pirates agreed to release 15 crew memebers for a sum of $3.5 million. But on the day of exchange, the pirates released only eight of the men. Sohan was not one of them. The cycle of negotiations began again for the rest.
After months at sea, the pirates went ashore to an area in Somalia which they controlled. The hostages were taken into dense forests along the shore, divided into groups of three and four and asked to erect their own tents with the provided material. “We had to build them in a way to avoid being seen from helicopters.”
"They used to hit us, sometimes with slippers, sometimes with a water hose. Ulta latka dete the (they used to hang us upside down). Unlogo ne company ko video bana ke bheja tha torture ka. (They even made a video of the torture and sent it to the company in order to put pressure on them),” Sohan narrates.
But the worst was the mind games. The pirates told the men that they’d be released soon, or spread rumours that the other group had left.
The men were kept constantly under vigil, with strict limitations on movement. For everything, from food to water, they were at the mercy of their captors.
The ordeal has affected him physically and mentally, but what Sohan 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.
Singh was finally released four years and one month later in 2014 and is still trying to pull back his life together. “We will never forget it,” he says.
Read Sohan Singh's harrowing ordeal in detail here: I spent four years in captivity: The harrowing ordeal of an Indian held by Somalian pirates
Delhi-based Chirag Bahri spent seven months in captivity.
When the ship he was working on was crossing the Gulf of Aden on May 8, 2010, half a dozen pirates swarmed in and took 23 crew members – 19 Indians, 2 Bangladeshis and 1 Ukrainian – hostage. A demand for a $15mn ransom was made but it would be a long time before the deal would come through.
“We were confined to a small place, kept at gun point, made to sit on the floor and food was restricted. They were suspicious of us. At one point, they kept the captain and another crew member naked in the meat room where the temperature was a freezing -18 degrees celsius. They looted everything we had and the ship was taken to Somalia,” Chirag recalls. He said the younger men were very violent “since they have been seeing blood since childhood due to civil war”.
The vessel did not have enough water and fuel supply on board, but the pirates thought the crew was lying. “They thought we were hiding oil and they beat us,” says Chirag, who was then working as an engineer in the engine room.
They then started using heat from the auxiliary engine to produce fresh water from sea water. “We were in fact giving fresh water to other hijacked ships, and we took oil from them in exchange.”
Chirag says their captors wanted to punish the crew. “They thought that if they beat us, the companies would pay up’.”
Meanwhile, the living conditions were taking a toll on the sailors. “Everyone lost weight. We got half boiled rice with stones in it. We mixed it with sea water, thinking at least that will make the food salty,” he recalls.
The company settled for a deal in seven months. Over 200 pirates were present during the exchange.
Chirag quit the merchant navy after his release and is currently Regional Director (South Asia) of Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP).
“I left shipping as I wanted to help those families whose kin are still in captivity. There is very little help available for them. The government is doing enough, but the entire process in itself is time consuming,” he says.