Center for Peace and Democracy (CPD)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Crew Speak of Terror At the Hands of Hijackers

They were in an upbeat mood when they bade farewell to their families. The vessel was in perfect condition as the cheery captain beckoned his crew to get aboard, ready to set off.

Some of the Kenyans who were held hostage by Somali warlords celebrate on arrival at Mombasa after their release. On June 23, on the calm sea, the ten seamen on MV Semlow left Mombasa port for Bossaso in Somalia.

Even as they entered the Somalia territorial waters, all seemed well, save for some waves brushing the vessel. But the serenity did not last for long. Between Haradheere and El Maan port, the night fell. Suddenly, they were greeted by shouts of "Stop! Stop!" as three speedboats sorrounded their ship.

Within seconds, a burly Somali, armed to the teeth and accompanied by about 20 armed men, struck. Patrick Ogutu narrated the harrowing ordeal of how the Somali militiamen captured their vessel on the fateful June 25 shortly after 7pm, and not on June 27 as it had been reported earlier.
Ogutu says a chill ran down his spine when the gunmen took command of the ship. "Everybody was badly shaken, we could smell death. As they cocked their guns, we shuddered with horror," said the 36-year-old seafarer.

He says the commander whipped out his rifle before confronting him as his colleagues watched, aghast. The "brute", he said, placed the gun on the back of his head before bellowing orders to lead him to the ship captain, Mr S Mahalingham, a Sri Lankan

"I could feel the coldness of the rifle on the back of my head as I led the commander to the captain, if only to save my life," says Ogutu. The commander then took the captain and the ship's chief officer aside, demanding they surrender all the cash they had.

Mahalingham says he led the gun-totting men to the Sh630,000. They then embarked on a looting spree, taking almost anything they could lay their hands on; wrist watches, radios, mobiles and even clothes.

The gunmen said they had hijacked the United Nations World Food Programme chartered ship, with 850 metric tonnes of rice, because they had received information from agents in Nairobi that it was carrying weapons.

The seamen told them the cargo was meant for the 28,000 tsunami victims at Bossaso, Somalia.
But the gunmen mounted a thorough search, and when no weapons were found, they burst with fury.

A seafarer, Mr Juma Pembe, said the worst moment of his life with the ruthless men was when they ordered him to switch on the ship's generator when they knew very well it had no fuel.

When he told them so, they trembled with rage and cocked their machine guns. The warlords aimed their guns at the top of the ship, fired eight loud blasts that shook the vessel and left the crew members more horrified as they dashed into the cabin for cover.

Another seaman, Hassan Sudi, said the trigger-happy hoodlums kept shooting in the air aimlessly:
"We were in terrible fear whenever the warlords cocked their guns and shot anyhow to ward off their rivals roaming nearby on the waters." Some of the weapons included AK 47 assault rifles, anti-aircraft launchers, large purpose machine guns, grenades and bombs, the released crew said.

Ogutu narrated how he suffered from stomach pains for 16 days without medical attention. Despite his incessant pleas, the gunmen could only stare at him, wearing brutal faces, and then walk away.
"The warlords never used to share their meals with us. Instead, they would just give us small pieces of meat, some rice and spaghetti, at least to keep us alive," says Rajab, who can now afford a smile.

Hassan Sudi adds that they were not supposed to walk more than a radius of five metres, and were restricted into the mess, sleeping area and toilet. The gunmen kept vigil in shifts of 15.
The ship chief officer, Mohamed Shee, said the warlords often spoke to them in an unintelligible language. "We could not understand what they were saying, but when we failed to reply, they would shout at us in fits of anger," said Shee, 62.

The captain of the other vessel hijacked early this month, MV Miltzow, William Otieno, said he was terrified when another group of Somali warlords captured them as they discharged food at Merka port. All of the 17 Kenyan seafarers emphasise that Somali waters are no longer safe, adding that the ships must be accorded armed escort if they to venture there.

Source: East African Standard, Oct. 24, 2005

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