“Zardari uncle, my name is also Bakhtawar, the same as your daughter’s. Please bring my father home.”
This appeal comes from a four-year-old child who hopes the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan will hear her plea. Bakhtawar is begging for money to save her father, when she should be in school learning nursery rhymes.
Her father is Ghulam Mujtaba, the first officer of Malaysian merchant vessel Albedo, which has been held hostage by Somali pirates for 18 months. When he departed on the journey that ended in his long captivity, his wife Neelam was pregnant with their son Abdullah. The boy, who is now 15 months old, has only ever seen his father in pictures. He has never known his touch or heard his voice.
Ironically, he may be the lucky one. For the families of captured sailors and for those children old enough to understand what has happened, every minute their fathers spend in captivity is a minute filled with fear and uncertainty.
“Every time I eat my food, I feel guilty because I know my father is being deprived of this food. Every time I sleep on my bed, I think of him because he’s not given this comfort,” says Mishal, whose father, 61-year-old Captain Jawaid Saleem, is also among the captives.
The MV Albedo, bound for Mombasa in Kenya, had set sail from the UAE port of Jebel Ali in November 2010. It was hijacked by Somali pirates on November 26, 2010, 900 nautical miles east of Mogadishu. Its 23-member crew has been held captive ever since in what is now the second-longest hijacking of a vessel in history. Apart from the seven Pakistanis, seven Bangladeshis, six Sri Lankans, two Indians and one Iranian are onboard the hijacked vessel.
The families lost touch once the ship was hijacked and for the first 15 days after the hijacking, there was no news on what had happened to the vessel. The pirates then contacted the owner, telling him that the ship had reached Somalia and demanding 10 million dollars (Rs914 million) in ransom. The owner refused to pay them and communication was cut off for three months.
Seeing that their tactics had failed to have an impact, the pirates contacted Captain Saleem’s wife Shahnaz in Karachi, telling her that they had taken him to a jungle and were holding him at gunpoint. A week later, they called her again, saying they had shot him dead. Three months later, the vessel’s owner contacted her to tell her that the crew was alive but an offer had better be made soon.
Meanwhile, in Mansehra, another mother was struggling to put up a strong facade for her young children. When she heard the news of her husband’s capture, Neelam initially did not have the courage to tell eight-year-old Hira, six-year-old Salwa, and four-year-old Bakhtawar what had happened to their father.
They would often ask about their missing father, wanting to know when he was returning and why they could not talk to him on the phone like they used to.
It was only when Neelam was left with no alternative but to come to Karachi eight months ago that she broke down and told her children the truth: their father’s ship had been hijacked by pirates who were holding him for ransom.
They may not have understood the meaning of the words ‘hijacking’ and ‘ransom’, but what they did know was that their beloved father was in trouble and that their mother was in pain. Sensing their mother’s grief, they broke down and cried with her and now, the only time they smile and giggle is when they talk about their home in Mansehra.
Karachi is a purgatory for them. They live in a small one-room flat, with the stench of an overflowing gutter and the ever-present swarms of mosquitoes a constant reminder of how far they are from home. With the family’s sole breadwinner a captive of the pirates, their mother has had to cut back on expenses and the children no longer go to school. They miss their friends, and most of all they miss their father and the time that they spent with him.
“He would buy me Cocomo cookies,” says Hira, her face suddenly lighting up. “He called me ‘Coco’ and he would buy me Cocomo.”
Salwa pipes up as well. “When the light used to go, he would take us for a ride in the mountains on his bike,” she says. Hira then proudly adds, “My father will teach me how to drive. He promised that he would buy me a car and teach me to drive so that I can take my sisters to university. I love studying and I will be a doctor when I grow up.” Salwa just as proudly adds that she will be a beautician when she grows up.
All the while, the youngest daughter Bakhtawar is silent. When asked what she wants to become, she does not reply out loud but instead whispers in Hira’s ear that she wants to be a police officer. When asked why, she answers, “Because they earn a lot of money.” It is heartbreaking that at the tender age of four, she is already aware of her family’s financial troubles.
Hira then tells me that when her father returns she will play cricket with him. Surprised by this, I ask her if she is good at it. Beaming, she informs me, “I am very good at cricket, whenever I play with my father I beat him, I always win.”
Salwa tells me when she sees her father she will say, “Papa, I love you.” And with that, her eyes well up with tears. This is how it is with them: the smiles and laughter that memories of their home and father bring to their lips seamlessly transform into tears when they are faced with the bitter reality of their situation.
Being in a strange city and forced to come in front of cameras and talk about their father scares them, but even at such a young age they know that this is something they have to do. In a country where political intrigue, mass murder and mayhem dominate the news, keeping the story of the MV Albedo alive is the only way they can hope to see their father again.
Captain Saleem’s family, who recently took to Karachi’s streets to raise funds for the ransom payment, agrees. “I know that there is so much happening. There has been a plane crash and the constant economic problems. But the people stuck on that ship can be saved. Please help them,” says Mishal.
Onboard the MV Albedo, the crew is enduring a nightmare from which there seems to be no release. For sailor Ahsan Naveed, this was his first voyage, while Captain Saleem hoped to retire after returning home. Now, despite the vast differences in their age and experience, they are united in their ordeal. Kept imprisoned aboard the ship and constantly under guard by heavily armed pirates, the crew are fed only a bowl of watery rice every day and given just enough water to keep them alive. On this starvation diet, crew members have reportedly lost an average of 20 kilos of weight and are now shadows of their former selves. For Fourth Engineer Zulfiqar Ali, a diabetes patient, this may even turn into a life-threatening situation.
All this is consistent with the way Somali pirates generally treat their captives. According to Cyrus Mody, spokesperson for the International Maritime Organisation, the treatment of the captives depends largely on how the ransom negotiations proceed. “It varies from [pirate] group to group, but in general captives are treated very poorly,” says Mody. “Basic amenities are not available and the minimal possible care is provided to them. The pirates’ goal is simply to keep the captives alive, and that’s all.”
In the pirates’ hands, these men are not human beings, but commodities and investments in what is now a global industry.
Somali piracy has come a long way since its beginnings in the early 1990s when a civil war broke out. Perhaps it was simply the natural consequence of anarchy combined with a seafaring culture and a position near one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, but there is also another narrative.
With much of Somalia being ungoverned territory, unscrupulous corporations and groups overfished the coastal areas and others dumped tons of toxic waste off the coast, thus poisoning the marine life. This came to light during the 2004 tsunami, when these barrels washed ashore. With their means of livelihood depleted, fishermen had to venture out further and further, and eventually turned to hijacking. According to Mody, this is only part of the picture. “In the early 2000s, the so-called Somali coastguard started going out and picking up fishing vessels, claiming that they were fishing illegally, and would release them after a ransom payment. It was happening even back then and I suppose they, and others, saw the potential in that. They thought, ‘If we can pick up a fishing vessel and hold it for ransom, why can’t we pick up something bigger and hold it for a bigger ransom?’ It has escalated from there.”
As the rewards of piracy became evident, pirate groups became more and more organised, and now there is reportedly a whole chain of investors, negotiators and facilitators involved. “There are now well-structured gangs who carry out these attacks,” says Mody. “There are the ‘hunters’ who actually attack the ships and then there are those who guard the vessel and crew while the responsibility of feeding the crew may well go to another group. Once the vessel is in the pirate stronghold, a pirate negotiator — who can usually speak English — contacts the ship owners, and from then on it’s a pure business transaction.”
It’s also a negotiation in which fear is the central bargaining tool. Like the crew of the MV Suez, who were successfully released in June 2011, the crew of the Albedo would be put on the phone with their family and told to tell them that they would be killed if the ransom demands were not met.
And the ransom demands were, initially at least, exorbitant. “The pirates demanded Rs10 million at first which we flatly refused to pay,” says Ahmed Chinoy, chief of the Citizens Police Liaison Committee. The CPLC has been deeply involved in aiding the families of the Albedo victims, helping them highlight their plight and negotiating with the pirates — a process that led them to approach some unorthodox channels. “We began to negotiate with Somali tribal leaders through Somali businessmen who are based in Dubai, trying to reduce the ransom,” says Chinoy.
The tribal leaders argued that the pirates had spent a great deal of money on the upkeep of the hostages and would have to be compensated. Finally, the demand was reduced to $3 million, and then to $2.85 million. “The elders told us that the pirates had borrowed money from investors and if they were not compensated they may kill the captives,” says Chinoy.
Interestingly, the payment is not being referred to as ransom, but compensation. One reason for this is that ransom payments are illegal, according to both Pakistani and international law. For Ansar Burney, who played a leading role in the recovery of the Suez hostages, this is just semantics.
“Whatever you want to call it, it’s still a ransom payment,” he says.
Durdana Wasi, wife of the captain of the MV Suez, recalls the painful 10 months when her husband was in captivity, and says she can understand what the Albedo families must be going through.
“We had no idea what to do, because this had never happened before. Everyone we approached would tell us it was not their problem until finally we met Sindh Governor Ishratul Ebad and Ansar Burney who both helped us a great deal,” says Wasi.
Burney also says that in the case of the Suez, they were largely flying blind. “We didn’t have a lot of information at the time and tried to contact Nato directly. Later on, we learned that it’s the government that should be making these official requests,” he says.
A few common factors can be seen in both the Suez and Albedo cases — the suffering of the families, the difficulties of coordinating between multiple countries and ship owners, and also the difference made by the personal intervention of Governor Ebad.
“The governor is as active on this case as he was in the Suez,” says Chinoy. “He has been urging people to help us and whenever we have needed support of governmental intervention he has been there for us.”
But when it comes to dealing with other countries and the ship owners themselves, things are not so clear-cut. “Indian MP KD Singh had promised to pay half a million rupees to help free the Suez captives,” recalls Wasi. “But then he refused and the pirates began to beat up the crew. They even turned their phones off and we had no way of knowing if they were safe or not.” The attitude of the Suez’s owner was not helpful either, she says. After three months of her husband’s captivity, the owner refused to even answer her phone calls. “When I finally got in touch through email, he told me he couldn’t do anything. He said: ‘If the pirates kill those people then they kill them. I’m not bothered’.”
Even in the case of the Albedo, similar problems have arisen. “We asked the Malaysian government to pay the money, as it was their vessel but thus far they have not pledged anything. They said they will approach their prime minister but there’s been no approval,” says Chinoy.
Then there are the problems that arise from the fact that the crew are from different countries. “Let’s say that people from four or five different countries are on board, and India and Pakistan both give us a go-ahead [to negotiate]. What about the other countries? If something goes wrong then we will get all the blame,” says Burney, who clearly speaks from experience.
The families of the Albedo hostages could only watch in quiet desperation as these power plays and jurisdictional disputes run their course. For them, the central concern was to raise the money.
Up until April 1 2012, the bank accounts set up for fundraising had less than half a million rupees. Slowly, money started trickling in by ten, twenty, fifty, five hundred and often thousand rupee notes.
The bulk of the funds came from friends of the hostages’ families but philanthropists also chipped in and Pakistan’s own guardian angel, Abdul Sattar Edhi, pledged Rs2.5 million and sat outside the Quaid’s mazaar to collect funds. Even then, by the end of the first deadline (April 20), less than 10 million of the total Rs 260 million had been collected.
By the end of the second and final deadline (May 15), the coffers had swelled. After the last protest held at submarine chowk, smaller splinter groups — such as volunteers from the Taraqi-e-Pakistan — had started collecting funds on the streets.
But on the eve of May 14, the campaign was still short of the target by a whopping 130 million rupees. Appealing to the public on the nine pm bulletins, Mishal said that ever since Bakhtawar’s
first appeal, Mujtaba’s young daughters ask her every day whether Zardari uncle has responded.
He did. Prominent businessman Malik Riaz agreed to provide the remaining amount, and a little before midnight on May 14, the president also directed Interior Minister Rehman Malik to use all available resources to secure the hostages’ release.
Now, the money to free all the hostages, irrespective of their nationality, has been raised but the last step has to be taken by the Malaysian ship owner who is in the process of arranging payment and logistics. After 18 months of agony, the prospect of having come so far and still having to wait for their loved ones is hopefully the final test these families will have to face.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 27th, 2012.
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