Somali Pirates: As told by Gemma Casas

Pirates posing with the crew of the MV Irene

October 17, 2009

Just like I used to wait for the new Harry Potter book to be released, I've been waiting for Gemma's next episode of the harrowing experience of her brother Joven Casas who was captured by pirates in April 2009. Finally, here it is! From reporter, Gemma Casas of the Marianas Variety:

The Somali pirates attacked the MV Irene swiftly and shortly as it was passing through the Gulf of Aden about an hour or so after the clock hit April 14.

The full 22-Filipino crew of the 35,000-ton bulk carrier hurried to the ship’s bridge and tried to secure all entry points as the chief mate made a distress call.

But it was too late. The agile pirates quickly boarded the ship and surrounded the crew before declaring them under siege.

Armed with the Russian-made assault rifle, AK-47, they gathered the crew and split them into two groups while the captain was placed in solitary confinement; the ship then sailed to the nearby Puntland, an autonomous region in northeastern Somalia.

The crew was locked in two cabins — groups of 10 and 11— and was stripped of all their possessions.

All books, magazines, TV and portable radios were taken. The pirates also took the seamen’s money, Bibles and even their underwear.

The morning after, rules were imposed on the crew, which include my only brother, Joven, or Kuya Bob, to us.

The ordeal

Over the next five months, the Somali pirates ruled the MV Irene.

Faith in God kept the crew going as tensions built up amid their helplessness.

The ship had just made a short stop in Cape Town, South Africa from Jordan before it was attacked.

It was carrying rock phosphate and was heading to India when the siege took place.

More than three dozen heavily armed Somali pirates commandeered the ship during the first few days and their number was gradually reduced to 24 over the weeks that followed.

From Puntland, the ship sailed back to the middle of the Gulf of Aden as the pirates negotiated with the MV Irene’s owner, the Greek-owned Bright Maritime Corp., for the ransom.

My brother was quickly picked on because he doesn’t look like a typical Filipino.

Mestizo-looking because of our foreign roots, the pirates didn’t believe he was from the Philippines despite his brown skin.

They thought he looked more like Greek, whom they loathe for some reasons, and threatened to cut-off his head.

My brother pleaded for his life; the captain also vouched that he’s a Filipino.

“I thought I was going to die. It was a really scary moment,” he told me as he recalled how some pirates tried to assault and shoot him.

It was like a bad dream for all of them—waking up with heavily armed pirates and explosives around and the thought of uncertainty when they would be freed is weakening them further physically and mentally.

They hardly spoke at first with each other as the pirates showed its force.

For instance, a crew member was slapped twice and assaulted with a rifle when he tried to reason with them.

The hostages were only served porridge for meals. One bowl per person a day, or two, if the negotiation with the shipping firm looks promising. Some days there won’t be any meals.

At times, the situation was so grim the crew even forget what day it was as fear of survival overpowers them.

In August, the pirates warned one of them would be killed each week until the shipping firm pays the ransom.

Their fear became greater but faith — that invisible link between man and God — kept their hopes high despite uncertainties.

On Sept. 14, their fifth-month of captivity, the crew was released.

Bright Maritime Corp., paid the pirates the $2 million ransom in cash.

The money was sealed in a yellow-green capsule dropped from a helicopter to the MV Irene.

The pirates counted them before setting the hostages free and open to another possibility of being held hostage by splinter pirate groups.

But by the grace of God, the MV Irene crew safely reached Manila on Sept. 28 from Bahrain via Gulf Air after a two-week stay in Amman, Jordan and Muscat, Oman.

Just like the hostages, Bright Maritime was also a victim in this vicious multimillion international sea piracy business in Somalia that preys on vulnerable foreign vessels.

After the ransom was paid, MV Irene proceeded to Somalia’s capital Mogadishu before heading to Amman, Jordan.

The Royal Dutch Navy warship Evertsen safely escorted the crew upon the order of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands

The Dutch Navy didn’t just make sure that the MV Irene wasn’t held anew by another group of pirates hungry for cash. They also fed them and gave them clothes.

The electrician

The pirates spared my brother’s head but his ordeal didn’t stop there.

Being the rookie among the seamen who, themselves, have been toughened by years of experience and exposure in the high seas, my brother, who is actually an administrative officer in a government agency back home just taking a year’s leave of absence, had difficulty fitting in.

He got the job at the MV Irene because he’s a licensed master electrician and has a degree in engineering.

The MV Irene salary was better than what he’s being paid by the Philippine government, and the thought of starting a new career in the maritime industry was tempting.

But he paid a high price too to prove his worth among his crewmates and the pirates.

For the duration of the five-month siege, my brother devoted his time producing potable water from the ship’s air conditioning unit and keeping their electricity on despite the vessel running short of fuel.

MV Irene’s desalination system could not be used because the ship was stationary and the heating requirement could not be met.

It would also consume much of the vessel’s fuel which could be detrimental.

The ship was anchored about two miles from the shore where the Somali pirates’ villages could be seen.

It would speed away if the pirates saw any warship or a helicopter on sight.

As the ship’s electrician, my brother worked every day to keep the electricity on and that the machines were running.

He worked the first shift from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with another crew, but eventually covered a second shift when the second engineer got sick.

With two armed pirates as escorts, my brother kept himself busy maintaining the ship’s machines and keeping their lights on; this earned him the moniker “The electrician.”

The two whom he identified as Hassan Wassan and Maureen Libans even planned to bring him to their village and have their AM/FM radios and other electronic items fixed.

Scared that he may never come home if he went with them, my brother again pleaded to let him stay on the ship; instead, he suggested they bring their radios on board so he could fix them.

The pirates asking him to go with them to their village so he could have their radios and other appliances fix struck my brother as an odd thing — they were asking millions in ransom yet they don’t have money, obviously, to buy new must-have belongings.

He learned eventually that the pirates were actually cheaply paid for watching over the hostages — perhaps just enough to feed themselves and their families.

Their financiers, believed to be rich Muslims from the Middle East, have actually been getting much of the loot, after the Somali government and the warlords are paid their shares.

“I don’t hate the pirates. I’ve seen how poor their lives are. They couldn’t even buy a new radio. Their land is barren. The people of Somalia also need help,” my brother told me.

to be continued....

See this post for the first episode.