Sea hostage survivor recounts tale of fire and fear
After being held hostage for 38 days by Somalian sea pirates the six Sri Lankans who were among the captives are happy to be back.
Six Sri Lankans and six Kenyans employed in a shipping company, Motaku Shipping Agency in Kenya were taken hostage in Portland on February 25, when their ship was returning from Somalia to Mombassa in Kenya after delivering food to the drought-stricken Somalia. The ship had been chartered by the World Food Programme (WFP).
Among the abducted Sri Lankans who were released on April 5 were the captain of the ship Priyantha Perera, chief officer Hector Norman Ranasinghe and seamen Athula Pushpa Mahanama, F.T. Fernando, Janakalal Ramanayake and G.P. Samarasinghe.
Mr. Ranasinghe recalling his ordeal at sea said that it was nothing short of a miracle that saved them from a notorious gang of sea pirates.
He said that on February 25, while they were returning to Mombassa in Kenya, 12 sea pirates who came in four small boats boarded their ship brandishing weapons and threatening to shoot them.
“They were garbed in shabby sarongs and vests and armed with modern guns. They boarded our ship and forced us to move the vessel away from Portland and later we anchored the ship in a place called Berger,” he said.
He said two days after they were taken hostage, coastal guards of Portland who were aware that the ship was in the hands of pirates engaged them in a confrontation and the two parties exchanged fire while they were caught in the middle.
The chief officer of the ship said just before the firing started the pirates had threatened to shoot his men if the coast guards fired at the hijacked vessel. “The pirates pointed their weapons at us and threatened to kill us if the guards attacked them and suddenly the coastal guards opened fire. Luckily we managed to take cover by ducking,” he said.
According to Mr. Ranasinghe, in the midst of the firing the pirates forced them to steer the ship away to an area that didn’t come under the purview of the Portland coast guards.
He said the pirates then grabbed their communication equipment and ordered them not to go to certain parts of the vessel.
“They did not physically harass us but the Kenyans were harassed. However they took the captain’s money and some other belongings. They also said we would be allowed to go back but not the Kenyans.
The crew had shared whatever food stocks they had with their captors too. But towards the end of their captivity they were surviving on water and rice.
Mr. Ranasinghe said they hardly slept for fear of being killed by their armed captors. “We tried our best to be friendly with them for our own survival and some of them were quite friendly. We even played cards to remain calm but we could never relax,” he said.
He said sometimes during the night the hijackers would for no reason at all fire into the air, just for fun. During the day they would divide themselves in to two groups and fight each other. He said one day the pirates brought aboard two tribal leaders to settle a dispute among them.
Mr. Ranasinghe said although the pirates ordered them not to use the communication equipment they did so secretly to contact their families back home.
He said on the eve of their release the pirates had told them that they would be released soon as they had managed to get the ransom money they had demanded from the owner of the ship.
He said he wasn’t sure how much money had been paid eventually although he was aware that the pirates had reduced the demand from one million dollars to four lakhs although the ship owner had been trying to settle for 50,000 dollars.
He said on the day of their release the pirates had asked them to steer the ship 200 nautical miles into the sea before sailing to their destination of freedom Mombassa in Kenya to avoid being taken hostage by another group of hijackers preying on the seas of Somalia.