In 2019, five Indian seafarers were kidnapped from their vessel in the Gulf of Guinea by Nigerian pirates and held hostage for more than two months. After their release from captivity, ISWAN provided support for the crew and their families through our Regional Programme. Two of the seafarers, Sudeep and Ankit, told us about their harrowing ordeal.
At the time of the pirate attack, the vessel was waiting at outer anchorage for permission to enter into inner anchorage. Sudeep described how he was relaxing in his cabin after lunch when he heard the thundering sound of gunshots and the pirates stepped into his cabin in broad daylight. In just 15 minutes, the pirates had boarded the ship and kidnapped the crew – five Indian seafarers and two Nigerian seafarers including the captain.
The crew were blindfolded and taken on a five- to six-hour journey by boat to a remote location in a swampy jungle in Nigeria. The two Nigerian captives were kept in a hut and given three meals a day, mineral water, wine, cigarettes and mosquito nets. The Indian crew members, however, were made to live in deplorable conditions on a wooden platform away from the hut.
‘We lived in around dead bodies, inside the jungle with sometimes, no roof on top of us,’ said Ankit. The pirates showed the seafarers human skeletons in the area and threatened that the consequences would be the same if the captives tried to flee. It was humid and rainy so the Indian crew members would get completely drenched out in the open air. There were mosquitoes, sun flies and other insects as well as snakes, so it was difficult to lie on the floor and sleep. Sudeep was shirtless when he was captured and he spent the entire duration of his captivity in the same condition. He was covered in insect bites and could not sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time.
The Indian crew members had to drink muddy rainwater to survive and were only given one bowl of noodles to share each day, which amounted to scarcely one or two spoonfuls per person. They had lost a significant amount of weight by the end of their 70-day ordeal – Sudeep reported that he had lost 20kg in body weight and was suffering from multiple infections. The pirates would also take drugs and were very violent. ‘We were beaten, slapped and mentally tortured during the full incident,’ Ankit said. The pirates were equipped with sophisticated weapons like grenade launchers, AK-56 rifles and machine guns – the captives were completely at their mercy.
In the face of their terrible situation, the seafarers tried to remain calm and positive. They prayed and remembered happy times with loved ones, and tried to reassure themselves that they would be rescued.
In the meantime, the pirates were trying to negotiate a ransom with the ship owner. When the owner refused to pay, the pirates spoke directly to the seafarers’ families, who put pressure on the Ministry of External Affairs in India. The Indian Embassy in Nigeria brought the ship owner back into negotiations, and after a lengthy process, a deal was agreed and all the captives were rescued by boat.
ISWAN’s Regional Director in South Asia, Chirag Bahri, counselled the seafarers’ family members on how to best take care of their loved ones when they returned home. Chirag explained that the seafarers may feel fatigued and stressed, and may become short-tempered or not get proper sleep for a few days, but they needed to be provided with an environment where they could recover from their trauma as easily as possible. ISWAN’s Regional Programme offered to organise physical and mental health interventions to help seafarers’ recovery, and offered support to help them refocus and restart their careers as they moved on from their horrific ordeal.
The families thanked ISWAN for the guidance and offer of valuable support. The seafarers were not paid any salary by their manning agent or provided with psychological assessment after their return. When Sudeep was asked if he would give any suggestions based on his experience, he said that private security guards should be present on all vessels transiting through piracy-affected areas. He also emphasised how important it is for the Indian Government to keep family members updated on what action is being taken to release their loved ones.
ISWAN’s Regional Programme stands by the crew and their families and thanks all the agencies who worked towards their safe repatriation. We strongly advise seafarers to join shipping only through registered manning agents, and to be vigilant while transiting through areas at high risk of piracy. Any suspected incidents should be reported to the relevant authority in the area who may be able to assist.
If you or a family member have been affected by piracy and need help or support, you can contact SeafarerHelp at any time – all our contact details can be found at seafarerhelp.org. We will refer you to a member of our Regional Team if there is someone in your region who can help. Find out more about our work on piracy here.
Support our work for seafarers' welfare by donating today