Modern Piracy: Joven's story told through the voice of his sister, Gemma

The Casas family posed for a photo before Joven (Bob) Casas left to work on the MV Irene. From left to right: Joven (Bobby), Venus, Gemma & Dave with parents in front.

October 8, 2009

Being captured by pirates sounds like a story torn from the pages of a J. M. Barrie book or taken from a clip in Pirates of the Caribbean, but for too many seafarers off of the coast of Somalia, it is a harsh reality. Piracy has been revived in the Gulf of Aden where almost 20,000 ships travel through each year. Desperate former fishermen and corrupt government officials are getting rich from these acts of terrorism. A CNN video where a pirate leader boldy talks about his vocation suggests that the unstable Somalian governments gets a cut of the ransom:

The story of the Somalian pirates was brought into focus for many of us through the pen of Marianas Variety, reporter Gemma Casas who passionately wrote about the capture of her only brother Joven (Bob ) Casas. He and 21 other Filipino crew members of the MV Irene were captured by Somalian pirates in April 2009. It was Gemma's writing, activism and appeals to government officials that led to their ultimate freedom in September.

Gemma's pleas inspired some of us to take action to try to help free the crew of the MV Irene. A facebook page, Liberate the Pirate Hostages was set up. Former DOI Deputy Secretary of Insular Affairs, David Cohen set up an online petition which gathered signatures from around the world. Students in the Orlando Service Learning Academy adopted the issue and solicited petition signers. They decided to make 1,000 paper cranes for Joven and the crew after learning the Japanese belief that a wish can come true if 1,000 cranes are made. They reached their goal two days before the news of their release was made public. Coincidentally, the petition reached the goal of 1,000 signatures around the same time.

International papers picked up Gemma's stories that inspired people in high places, including royalty. Thankfully, this story has a happy ending, but we should not stop appealing for the other hostages held captive by these terrorist pirates. The Liberate the Pirate Hostages page is still up. Hours ago pirates made a huge mistake in attempting to overtake what they thought was a commercial ship. It turned out to be a French warship and the pirates were captured reducing the number of Somalian pirates terrorizing the seas by five. We need to appeal to the international community to take action to make our seas safe.

I asked permission from Gemma to reprint her story about the capture and release of her brother and the crew of the M.V. Irene. From Gemma Casas:

Somali pirates, armed with AK-47 and other weapons, pose with the 22 Filipino crewmen aboard the bulk carrier ship MV Irene, which was seized on April 14, 2009.

It was Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009 — 7:30 in the morning on Saipan; 5:30 a.m. in Manila and 12:30 a.m. in Somalia — when my cell phone, which doubles as my alarm clock, rang.

Somali pirates, armed with AK-47 and other weapons, pose with the 22 Filipino crewmen aboard the bulk carrier ship MV Irene, which was seized on April 14, 2009.

I was about to mute it and go back to sleep because my body tells me it’s not yet time to wake up but I decided to take the call just the same.

Indeed it was a call and had I not taken it I would missed the news that I and my family have long been waiting for five months — my only brother Joven, or Kuya Bob, the eldest among us five children, was finally freed by the Somali pirates.

The call came from Washington, D.C. The bearer of the good news was Northern Marianas Congressman Gregorio Sablan who passed the information he got from the U.S. military.

The Greek-owned ship MV Irene where my brother works as an electrician was finally released on Sept. 14
Joven “Bob” Casas with his son Job and wife Yolly. Contributed photos

[Sept. 15 on Saipan] after the shipping firm Bright Maritime Corp. paid the Somali pirates $2 million in cash.

I was still half-awake but overjoyed so I decided to check the internet and my email.

Thymaya Payne, Andrẻ Lascaris and Rich Alindogan, the producers and associate producer of the theatrical documentary film, The Stolen Seas, which is an in-depth look about the problem with sea piracy in Somalia and its possible link to international terrorism and due to be released soon on HBO and PBS, also emailed me about the crew’s release.

Payne and Lascaris are based in Los Angeles and had been to Somalia, the Philippines, London, the Middle East, other parts of the U.S. and Europe, and even as far as Saipan to do research and interview people, including myself, for the project.

The documentary was inspired by a French journalist’s analysis on the growing problem with sea piracy in Somalia.

Free Bob

Joven “Bob” Casas with his son Job and wife Yolly
Excited, I shared the news of MV Irene’s release with David Cohen when I replied to his email.

David, the former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S Interior Department who is now with a major international private law firm, was the one who organized the online petition urging the Philippine government and international entities, to help free my brother and the MV Irene crew.

He immediately posted a BBC MV Irene article on his Facebook beating me in breaking the news. I couldn’t have done it anyways because I lost our power and internet connection after I emailed him.

Friends who were oblivious of the untold story called me up and joyfully announced the information quoting the news he posted.

Nonetheless, I am grateful for his thought and initiative, along with friends Elsa Cheung, and human rights activist and educator Wendy Doromal.

With the help of Elsa, they set up the Liberate Pirate Hostages page on Facebook dedicated to the hostages and other victims of Somali pirates.

Wendy joined the team and spread the word about the cause in her blogs, eventually generating more interest in the plight of the MV Irene hostages.

We’ve managed to gather exactly 1,000 signatures about a month after the site and the online petition were set-up.

People from all over the world, virtually unknown to me, sign up the petition for humanitarian reasons.

The statements I’ve made about the MV Irene crew’s plight were also used by the Philippine and international media — very grateful for that — putting pressure on authorities to help the crew gain their freedom.

Mounting pressure

With the pressure building up, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo vowed to help the MV Irene crew and to work with the African Union to protect Filipino seafarers and the international shipping firms from becoming victims over and over again by the Somali pirates.

Two-thirds of merchant marines around the world are from the Philippines yet are not given much importance even in times of crisis unless the pressure is there.

With the MV Irene hostage crisis put on the spotlight, the international community, including the U.S., have once again taken a closer look at Somalia’s problems with political unrest, social injustice, poverty, violence, sea piracy and its link with the international terrorist group Al Qaeda.

Fierce encounters were made and the famine that is bringing pain to millions of Somalis caught between the crossfire of their country’s bellicose diatribe about political and social unrest further compounded by sea piracy and terrorism problems get the attention it deserves.

Queen Beatrix helps

MV Irene and its crew of 22 were finally released exactly five months after they were held captive off the Gulf of Aden near Somalia and about a month after our campaign to free them was launched.

But that historic and joyous moment for the crew could have been dampened by another threat of hostage had it not been for the assistance of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and the Royal Dutch Navy.

I and the MV Irene crew are personally indebted to Her Majesty, who ordered HNLMS Evertsen F-805, a Dutch warship, to escort MV Irene until it safely reached Amman, Jordan.

After the ransom was made, the Royal Dutch Navy warship immediately sent eight armed sailors on MV Irene to safely sail to Jordan.

Without them, the crew could have been held hostage again by another group of Somali pirates which is just waiting for an opportunity to attack newly-released hostages.

Money and greed are always their motivation.

No ideology. No mercy. Sea piracy is a multimillion business in war-torn Somalia. Both pirates and their financiers, some of whom are reportedly rich Arabs, always prey on the weak to get what they want.

My brother said fear immediately overpowered them when the pirates finally set them free because another group could take them in and their ordeal could go on and on until they are reduced to oblivion.

But the Dutch Navy made sure they safely returned home.

They fed the MV Irene crew, gave them clothes, and allowed them to use their bathrooms to bathe themselves. They’ve never had a full bath during their entire ordeal.

The pirates also took all their belongings, including their clothes and underwear. All that was left were ones they were wearing and another set of clothing as replacements.

The Dutch Navy told the crew Queen Beatrix ordered to assist them because she was moved by an article I wrote about the MV Irene’s plight.

My brother, who had no idea he’s been the face of the Liberate Pirate Hostages web site dedicated to free the MV Irene and other pirate hostages and the online petition, was stunned.

I was also in disbelief and clueless how Her Majesty came to know about the article and the Liberate Pirate Hostages web site.

We are, nonetheless, humbled by Her Majesty’s assistance and concern for the safety of the crew who suffered five months of physical and emotional torture from the hands of the Somali pirates.

The ordeal

Food and water were scarce all throughout their ordeal.

It was literally the survival of the fittest and no one wanted to end up in the treacherous water off Somalia as meals for the sharks.

My brother, who studied electrical engineering, is actually employed as an administrative officer in one of the agencies of the Philippine government.

He just took a leave of absence for a year to try the maritime industry in preparation for a career change. His experience with the MV Irene brought him to nine countries in about eight months and a lifelong adventure he would never forget.

A bit of a snob and a mestizo-looking stocky man, I knew he would not fit in cozily among the seamen who were toughened by their years of exposure in the high seas.

(To be continued)
Other posts on the crew and hostage situation of the MV Irene:


Anonymous said...

What a story! This should be made into a movie!

the teacher said...

Congrats Gemma, your effort had great influence.

Anonymous said...

Since it may be the last time we get to see that family photo posted here, I finally have to ask: Where did Dad get that wild hair?

Anonymous said...

I love that hair!

Anonymous said...

If this is made into a movie, who will play Dad? And who will play Dave? I have a feeling this family's story could have been made into a pretty interesting movie even if Bob wasn't kidnapped by pirates! Throw in the pirates and you're got a blockbuster for sure.