What started out as a response to illegal fishing 15 to 20 years ago has escalated particularly over the last five years, into a booming business in Somalia called piracy, and it is costing the international community dearly.
Oceans Beyond Piracy calculates that maritime hijackings cost the world between $7 billion and $12 billion annually. Currently, 400 seafarers are living a nightmare of deprivation, starvation, thirst, squalor, captivity, restraint, isolation from family, and friends, and in some cases torture, says Save Our Seafarers (SOS), a campaign of 30 maritime organizations working to raise awareness about and end Somali piracy.
“The main cause is financial gain. Piracy is seen as a highly profitable industry in a country that has been ravaged by civil war,” says John Walding, spokesperson for SOS.
Nightmare on Sea
Capt. Miro Alibasic from Croatia was en route to Oman aboard his crude-oil tanker Zirku. As they passed through the notorious Gulf of Aden, every sailor’s nightmare since antiquity materialized before his eyes—pirates were attacking his ship from all directions.
Around 50 heavily armed Somalis in small skiffs, dispatched from a mother ship, surrounded the supertanker, attempting to board.
“I was trying to avoid it by zigzagging and using water canons. But once I lost speed, they hooked me. … There was nothing I could do,” recalls Alibasic.
The pirates boarded the ship and ordered Alibasic and his 34-man crew to kneel down. Alibasic refused and asked the pirates to put down their guns and invited them to come on board to talk.
The crew was locked up inside the ship and forced to stay put—some facedown on the floor.
It was only the first of an 87-day ordeal.
“I am not into mathematics. You can calculate how to navigate a supertanker or how to fly to the moon. But once you are in a warzone, what are you going to calculate?” Alibasic said about the chances of survival in such a situation.
Alibasic became the anchor in the storm, not only for his crew but also for the Somali pirates in their quest for a ransom. Alibasic was the contact person, negotiator, spokesperson, crisis manager, captain, and navigator of the ship.
During the first roughly 20 days, the pirates, who spoke stilted English, could hardly communicated with Alibasic about a ransom. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry either.
“In a normal negotiation you have a starting point, but with these guys, no way.”
Alibasic noticed a hierarchy among the pirates. The head pirate, in turn, appeared to get orders from a superior who was not on the ship and probably not even in Somalia. Alibasic spoke with him via mobile phone.
“He knew he had a big bird in his hand and was asking me for a price. I said, ‘Listen, I am not going to tell you a price; you tell me a price, we pay.'”
Alibasic established a surprisingly good relationship with the pirates and their absentee boss. At times, he even read stories and poems to the boss’s family members over the phone.
The boss asked Alibasic if he and his crew were being treated well by the pirates, and threatened to “hang them immediately” if not.
“I said no, they are good people, and I wasn’t faking. Nonetheless, they could kill you instantly if you didn’t know what you were doing. You couldn’t lose focus for a single moment.”
A special negotiation team was set at the headquarters of the shipping company 24/7.
After a month, the negotiation team sent its first ransom offer of a few million dollars.
“The fax arrived and I handed it to him [the leader] and he just looked at it and threw it away, didn’t say a word. For another 20 days, nothing—complete darkness.”
Alibasic managed to get permission for his crew to move around a bit, once or twice, to prevent their muscles from becoming atrophied from sitting still all day. In groups of seven they were allowed to walk on deck under supervision of Somali guards who stood there in the blazing sun with a finger on the trigger.
A couple of times, crew members were allowed to make 3-minute phone calls, under supervision, to their families.
Faced with prolonged uncertainty and the constant threat of death, some of the crew was on the brink of mental and physical collapse.
Alibasic usually attempted to keep it light, joking that the first one to die would end up sandwich filling.
Then suddenly, Alibasic can hardly remember how, a ransom was agreed upon.
“When he [the absentee boss] told me he wanted delivery ASAP, the nightmare of delivery started, a huge nightmare.”