They came from near and far, seeking the National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS) office at Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, on Tuesday.
They were the next-of-kin of the 20-member crew, seven cadets and five marshals, all but one Sri Lankan, onboard the vessel, Lanka Mahapola, stuck in the Sudan Port since November 5.
Many of them had travelled from places such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala, Badulla, Ratnapura and Bandarawela.
Officials present at Lauries Road, to receive some 40 relatives of those on board the vessel, were, NUSS President, Palitha Athukorale, International Transport workers Federation (ITF) Inspector, Ranjan Perera and Capt. W. Mahanage of Triple ‘S’ Shipping.
|Standoff: A relative takes on officials (above) and (below) relatives of the stranded crew break down on hearing the voice of the captain of Mahapola. Pix by Mangala Weerasekera
The meeting was charged with arguments and counter-arguments, with anxious relatives seeking details of the current position of the ship and crew, following reports that those onboard were in distress with food, water, fuel and other basic items reaching rock bottom. To confirm the suspicions of the relatives, Captain of the distressed vessel C.P. Medagedera came live on speakerphone from the vessel in Sudan, pleading with the ITF and the NUSS to get in touch with the nearest Lankan mission in the region to replenish their depleted supply of food, water and medicine onboard.
On hearing the Captain’s plea for help, those present broke down in tears, and anxious moments followed, as the relatives demanded from the company’s representative that immediate action be taken to grant relief to the crew with no more excuses.
The Captain went on to say that he was losing control over the restless crew, and despite assurances from the shipping company, nothing was happening. “At present, we are down to just one bag of rice and half-a-dozen tomatoes,” he said on the phone.
He further added that they had lost confidence in the shipping company. “If and when we depart from Sudan, it has been decided that the crew will sign off at the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah. That too, after we’re are paid our full dues of four-months salary. We will not settle for a penny less,” Capt. Medagedera declared.
Triple ‘S’ Shipping representative, Capt. W. Mahanage assured the group that every possible step would be taken to bring about immediate relief to the crew without delay. He blamed the delays on bungling by the agent in Sudan and appealed for patience from those present.
The ordeal for the men onboard the Lanka Mahapola, which is the country’s last remaining cargo boat, began on November 5. The vessel was refused entry into the port since the shipping company was in the red regarding port dues, such as bunkering, tug and other charges.
Triple ‘S’ Shipping however, maintained a different position. According to Capt. Mahanage, the initial delay in entering the Sudan port was largely due to the Hadji holidays in that country. “Thereafter, one thing led to another, and the consequent delay and hardships forced on the crew and others onboard is regrettable,” he told the Sunday Times.
He further added that the handling agent in Sudan was the culprit to the bungling at that end. “It is owing to the inefficiency of this agent that led to all the misunderstandings, delays and the final crisis,” Capt. Mahanage added.
He also said that, although there were certain shortcomings onboard, certain sections of the crew were blowing the issue out of proportion. “The other day, Capt. Medagedera spoke only of rice, tomatoes and onions, but failed to mention the other rations that were provided, such as eggs, butter and buns. Obviously, such utterances could lead to anxiety among the relatives who were listening on to the telephone conversation,” Capt. Mahanage elaborated.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, it was decided to endorse a written agreement by all stakeholders- ITF, NUSS, Triple ‘S’ Shipping and the crew, that those intending to sign off at Jeddah, will be paid their respective dues in full.
NUSS President Palitha Athukorale said that the ship was finally allowed to enter port in the early hours of Wednesday, and that unloading of cargo had commenced, which would take three more days.
He added that, medical personnel had also boarded the vessel to look into the welfare of the crew, especially the chief engineer who had been complaining of chest paints, during the 18-day anchorage.
“However, the matter could be finally put to rest only once the vessel arrives at Jeddah, where the crew is expected to receive their full dues and then allowed to sign off and return home,” Mr. Athukorale said.
“We are presently looking into various leads received by us, and the matter will be brought to the notice of the relevant authorities at the earliest,” the officials said.
Propellers within propellers on Lanka Mahapola
Officials of Triple ‘S’ Shipping Company secretly concede that certain persons with different agendas were stoking the issue on the Lanka Mahapola.“We have reason to believe that there are others interested in taking charge of the vessel, and are inciting the crew to provoke a crisis.
The vessel, currently owned by the Ceylon Shipping Corporation (CSC), is presently positioned in lucrative maritime waters, and many individuals would like to have their hands on it.
One year on, 6 Lankans still Somali pirates’ hostages
It is exactly a year since the Malaysian-flagged MV Albido, along with a 27-member crew was grabbed by Somali Pirates while sailing through the Arabian Gulf.
Among the crew are six Sri Lankans, and the last time they made contact with their families was in April.
On Tuesday, the wives of two Lankan crew members turned up at the NUSS office in Colombo and pleaded for assistance, to keep their home fires burning, as their meager finances had dried up.
Wife of the 3rd Officer on the vessel, Sriyani Perera told the Sunday Times that life was difficult back home, since her husband was unable to send any remittances, as he was held hostage by the Somali pirates.
The local shipping agent doled out Rs 25,000 several months ago, and that was it. “Understandably, there is very little this agent could do from here. The fate of the vessel and crew is in the hands of the ship’s owner who is based in Malaysia,” Ms. Perera said.
Her anxiety and concerns were also shared by Thiya Silva, wife of the 2nd Officer of the MV Albido.
M.K.M. Imran of GRJ Shipping said that the pirates had made an undisclosed ransom for the safe release of the crew and vessel, which, according to the ship’s owner in Malaysia, was exorbitant, and the company did not have that kind of money
“There is very little I can do from this end. At the end of the day, the matter will have to be settled by the company in Malaysia,” Mr. Imran explained.