April 21, 2011

Tip of the Iceberg

The MV Iceberg 1 was taken by pirates on March 29 2010 with 24 crew, one of whom died last November of ‘malnutrition and distress.’ Another had to be ‘tied down’ because he had lost his mind and had threatened to kill himself. The owners, Azal shipping, broke off negotiations for ransom months ago. The crew- including 6 Indians- has been held for more than a year. They ran out of food, medicines and water last year, and are now surviving with no power, on bare rations the pirates give them once a day- and are drinking sewage water. Some are obviously physically and mentally sick. Sometime last year the crew were forced to sail- probably after beatings and torture- the renamed ‘Iceberg’ as a mother ship while the pirates looked for other prey. The pirates are said to have threatened the crew then that they would ‘kill them and sell their body parts’. Some in the industry said later, from the safety of their conference rooms, that this statement was a hoax and a pressurising tactic.

I normally do not watch Indian news channels; my sadomasochistic tendencies do not include watching shrill and vacuous news anchors substituting sound-bytes and sensationalism for news or analysis. But I did watch most of the CNN-IBN circus on the ‘Iceberg’ last week. The channel had managed to get recent video footage from aboard the Iceberg from a Somali who was there; the ship’s crew- minus the one already dead- looked shell shocked and beyond despair as they pleaded for their lives on camera.

Amidst the other self-absorbed ‘experts’ paraded on CNN-IBN was the gutsy Sampa Arya, the wife of one an Indian sailor held hostage in Somalia, and who has been at the forefront of trying to get the Indian government to do something about the indefensible state of affairs. She was scathing in an attack on the Directorate General of Shipping and the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, all of whom- she said- were making her run from pillar to post while doing nothing, and showing no interest in trying to bring tortured Indians home.

I must declare that the purpose of this piece is not to restate the Indian- or the international community’s- impotence in the face of piracy; that statement is a given and will not look any prettier on repetition. The purpose of the piece is different, and is brought about by the fact that I wondered, as I watched CNN-IBN, also hearing Ms Arya say that piracy was a more than ten year old problem, what my sense of the shipping industry would be if I were not a seafarer, but an ordinary guy: Joe Public with little knowledge about the marine world. What impression would I have of shipping? Not just with the Iceberg story, but in general, based on what I had seen on the news in the last year or three.

Etched into my mind would be the Deep Water Horizon disaster- to a layman, the oil and shipping industries are lumped together- where I was told that a mix of less than safe practices and corruption within the administration in the US were the main reasons why an environmental catastrophe occurred and was covered up.

I would have seen reports of ships, accidents, sinkings and oil spills- including in Mumbai and at least Black Rose off Paradip, if not some others.

I would remember TV reports on the Hebei Spirit incident, and perhaps the faces of the two officers as they came home after jail.

I would remember that Seema Goel, the ‘Stolt Valor’ Captain’s wife, had looked as distressed as Sampa Arya does today when her own husband’s ship was hijacked. I would remember that she ran around Delhi’s babudom trying to get somebody to do something too. I would wonder, was that last year? Two years ago? So nothing has changed?

I- Joe Public- would not be aware of the depth and width of piracy today, or that it had reached Indian shores- the broader corporate mainstream media has done a good job of leaving that alarming news buried- but I would be well aware that Somali piracy has been a huge threat to mariners and ships for a long time. Hijacking of ships seems to be an everyday affair, I would rightly conclude from watching the news. Crews remain hostage for months and are sometimes being tortured. Or killed.

I would have watched reports of the Indian Navy’s ‘successes’ against mother ships and pirates. If I were a thinking man, I would wonder what happened to the hostage crews of those ships when the navies attacked them. How many seamen were killed and by whom in these ‘successes’, I might ask myself?

I would have watched, repeatedly on camera over the weeks, distraught families of seafarer’s taken hostage crying for help. I would wonder why our government did not do anything to help, and how ship owners could just walk away.

“Because we are from a third world country no one cares,” a seafarer hostage told CNN-IBN. I would have noted that, too.

I would have watched, on earlier shows, the Minister of External Affairs wringing his hands- the sole defence of the impotent- claiming that the government was ‘doing everything’ to get the Indians released. I might even wonder what that ‘everything’ was. Considering that Ms Arya had told me that this was more than a ten year old problem, I may even start to think that the Government of India, like God, had been moving in slow, strange and mysterious ways for a long time here, and would continue to do so while more Indians were taken, tortured or even killed.

Shipping is a dangerous, unscrupulous and dirty industry, I would conclude. Like those uneducated labourers who go to oppressive Middle Eastern countries and are treated worse than cattle, seamen do not seem to have any human rights or protection. The Indian Government walks away if there is a problem. The middlemen who call themselves management companies do nothing. Piracy, environmental disasters and innocent workers arrested after accidents seem to be common at sea. Companies abandon seamen. Hostage seamen are being tortured, dying or threatening suicide. Seamen are drinking sewage for water and being given some morsels once a day for food. No medicines. No lights. No hope.

Joe Public doesn’t consciously think about all this, mind. This is just the impression that is reinforced over time. Same as other stories on television.

But then, a year or so later, Joe runs into an old pal who has been sailing for many years. This pal tells him, over a beer or two, that Joe should consider a career at sea for Joe’s now teenage son. The money is good, and the sea makes a man out of a boy, the mariner pal says.

Joe puts down his beer and looks his friend dead in the eye. “A good career option for my son, you say? You must be out of your mind”.

Postscript: another piece of news has just hit CNN-IBN as I write this - Somali pirates have just released the 'Asphalt Venture' after extorting a 3.6 million dollar ransom but retained all its Indian crew as hostages in Somalia; the pirates say that they have collectively decided that these Indians will only be released after India sets free more than a 100 pirates that it’s navy has apprehended off the Indian coast.

Oh boy, those news channels are sure as hell going to milk this one.


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