The tragic, compelling story of the atrocities suffered by the hostage crew of the Iceberg 1 begs to be told anyway, but the reason I do this now is because another bunch of five Indian crew of another ship have just been released, after more than a month in captivity on the other side of Africa- off the Niger delta- where pirate attacks are steadily but unsurprisingly spiking; they have almost tripled in the last year. There is no doubt in my mind that the violence will increase too, just as it did off Somalia, while everybody sat twiddling their thumbs. As they do today; crews will pay, with blood once again, for the callousness of the pygmies who run the industry.
The Iceberg story is not a pretty story; seafarer stories these days rarely are. Where does one begin? With 75 year old Yemeni Captain Abdul Razak, who was hung upside down for almost a whole day and flogged? Or with his Chief Engineer and compatriot, Ali Mohammed Khan, whose ears were sawed off while he cried in pain for mercy? Should one start with the tale of the courageous Indian Chief Officer Dipak Tiwari, who was tortured and beaten because he repeatedly- heroically- stood up for his crew, and who disappeared more than a year ago? Or should one start with the tale of the Yemeni 3rd officer Wagdi Akram, who went insane and killed himself over two years ago, after the pirates told the hostages that their kidneys, livers, hearts and other organs would be removed and sold?
Does one need to really chronicle the daily saga of pain and humiliation, for 33 months, of concentrated psychological and physical torture of the entire crew, of starvation diets and filthy water, or of regular beatings with electrical cable and wooden planks after being hung upside down? Of losing teeth during these beatings? Of being thrown overboard or being left in the sun the whole day? Of being shot at, over their heads? Of the debilitation of one meal a day of rice and dirty water? Does one even express surprise at the destroyed health of the crew? Or shock that each and every member of the 24 crew was subject to repeated and barbaric torture?
Does one even try to get the industry to understand the despair of hostages, who were told daily by their captors that they would die in Somalia because nobody was going to come for them? Does one have to dig up even more horrific stories in a desperate attempt to wake up the pygmies and spur them into taking action to ensure we don’t have a sequel to the story in West Africa tomorrow, somewhere else the day after?
Where, on the hierarchy of pygmies in this sordid tale, do we put Yemeni shipowner Yazir Mohammad of Dubai based Azal Shipping, who abandoned the crew as soon as the Iceberg was taken, not even paying them their salaries after they were taken hostage? Three and a half million dollars. That’s what the pirates asked for at one stage. Negotiable, of course. Azal offered $100,000- some reports say $300,000. And then broke off negotiations.
Where, on this same hierarchy, do we put governments, the IMO, the industry and its bodies and unions, who knew ransom was the only way and chose to do nothing? Where do we put Panama, the Flag State? Where do we put the Indian government on this list, who a reporter from a local news channel says has told the released Iceberg crew to shut up about their ordeal and the hijack?
Do we even mention the fact that, as the trial begins in Mumbai of 120 Somali pirates captured by the Indian navy, pirates have offered to swap their comrades for 46 Indian crewmen still held hostage in Somalia?
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to concentrate on the one giant in this story of pygmies. Missing Chief Officer Dhiraj Tiwari- all of 27 years old- who repeatedly placed himself in harm's way in an attempt to protect the crew, protesting to the pirates against the abuse of his shipmates. For this he was singled out time and again, beaten and tortured. His courage in the face of overwhelming brutality was last seen in September 2011, when he disappeared after a particularly severe beating. Pirates told the other crew that they did not know where he had gone; some of the crew thought that had been murdered, but nobody knows for sure.
I pray Dhiraj is alive; I pray for divine fortitude for his family.
I am told that an agnostic’s prayers are especially powerful, but I do not know. Whatever, they will surely be more powerful, I trust, than the sounds of song and dance from the pygmies.