Somali Pirates: The hostage situation comes to an end

The MV Irene was captured by Somali pirates in April 2009

October 28, 2009

Marianas Variety reporter, Gemma Casas, continues the surreal story of her brother, Joven (Bob) Casas and the 22 member crew of the MV Irene. It was captured in the Gulf of Aden in April 2009 and released in September 2009:

The Somali pirates were wide awake even at night. Khat or what they call Qaat-Qaat kept them alert 24 hours a day to keep the hostages of the MV Irene at bay.

Khat is a flowering plant native to tropical East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It contains cathione, an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria.
In 1980, the World Health Organization classified Khat as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence.

The pirates had an abundant supply of Khat from Kenya. They chewed its fresh leaves, smoked the dried ones or mixed it with hot drinks. If prayers and faith in God kept the MV Irene crew going, the pirates had Khat. My brother Joven, an electrician at the ship who doesn’t smoke or drink, said the pirates had unusual agility, presence of mind and physical strength and attributed it to Khat.

“They were always awake even at night. They told us it’s because of Qaat-Qaat,” he said. Khat remained on the pirates’ diet even when fasting during the Holy Muslim month of Ramadan. This bolstered fear among the crew as its abuse could alter the pirates’ behavior and make them even more violent.

My brother, who had earlier been threatened by the pirates that they would cut his head off, learned to use his observation more keenly and to be wary of nonverbal cues that the pirates practiced to protect himself against any physical harm. Sign language and codes are an important part of the pirates’ operations because their enemies — international law enforcers who are armed with sophisticated weapons and equipment — could attack at any given time.

Just like any organization, the pirates who held the MV Irene hostage also operated in hierarchy. Foot soldiers have burned marks on their chest while commanders have theirs hidden in their bodies. This reminds me of cows marked for their quality before being sold to markets, and the old slave trade practice in Africa that led to the mass migration of thousands of Africans to the Americas and Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

During their five months of captivity, the MV Irene crew survived with a bowl of porridge each at least once a day and water from their ship’s air conditioning unit. Some days, the pirates allowed them to fish but only to confiscate their catch later for themselves.

The pirates’ whose village is within reach from where the MV Irene was docked would sometimes bring goats to the ship.
They feasted on the animal’s meat while the crew content themselves with its feet, mixed with their porridge.

With limited water available on the ship, hygiene was an issue among the crew. There’s no full bath over the entire period that they were held hostage.

The crew kept themselves preoccupied doing their usual tasks on the ship under the constant watch of the pirates. With hardly anything to eat and having undergone extreme threats of violence following their captivity, the crew’s physical appearance quickly changed. Most of them started to look emaciated and were hardly recognized by their families when they returned home on Sept. 28 to the Philippines. My mother, who also returned home to our country that same month from Canada, said my brother’s hair had grown such that he looked like someone from the 1970s — the Afro look — when she saw him for the first time after the hostage-crisis. As the only son in the family, my brother is deeply attached to my mother.

My sister-in-law also did not recognize my brother because he lost so much weight and had grown beard. Their reunion quickly turned into a tearful but a happy gathering. Each one is grateful for the second chance to see each other again after a long absence.

Life goes on for the 22 crew members of the MV Irene after the hostage. Each one is trying to heal the scars and the trauma of their sad experience aboard the ship with the pirates.

New terror stronghold
The pirates, meanwhile, have resumed active pursuit of new foreign ships to be captured for ransom with the monsoon season over.

Life is cheap in Somalia. The country’s life expectancy rate from birth is only 36 years for males and 38 for women. If one doesn’t die early from guns, he does from diseases or famine.

The Pirates pose with the hostages of the MV Irene in this photo

The pirates see the growing sea piracy business in Somalia as a lifeline to feed themselves and their families. They are modern-day slaves to cheap wages. As my brother had pointed out, the pirates took all their belongings and even wanted to take him to their village to fix their radios, giving impression they didn’t have the money to buy new ones.

Some fishermen reportedly introduced Somalia to international sea piracy fueled by an ideology. It later became a lucrative source of livelihood for them and business for some wealthy Muslims who financed their operations until the ransom is paid.
Unofficial estimates put at about $150 million the ransom paid to the pirates last year. Payment is made in cash leaving no paper trail to link big time Muslim financiers supporting the pirates’ operations. Portions of the ransom are believed to have been or being used to finance terror activities worldwide.

Somalia remains one of the poorest countries in the world with an annual gross domestic product of $600 per capita as of 2008. Zimbabwe is the lowest with an annual GDP of $200 per capita. Somalia’s growing problem with lawlessness and poverty is alarming. The country is being transformed into a stronghold of terrorists.

The hostage drama in Somalia has left me more unanswered questions.
The International Maritime Bureau, a nonprofit organization helping fight sea piracy, reported the number of ships attacked globally this year by the pirates doubled. Pirates boarded a total of 78 foreign vessels worldwide as of August this year. 75 of them were fired upon and 31 were hijacked with some 561 crew taken hostage. 19 were injured, seven kidnapped, six killed and at least eight still missing.

Most of the vessels were attacked while crossing the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. The pirates are heavily armed with guns and knives and sophisticated telecommunication gadgets like satellite phones In January, Somali pirates hijacked Sirius Star, a giant Saudi oil tanker. A $20 million ransom was reportedly paid for its release — the pirates’ single biggest loot so far.

Somalia and most African nations’ lands maybe barren but they have untapped natural gas reserves and possibly oil which the world needs. So far, 17 African countries are producing and exporting oil worldwide with Nigeria leading the list. Oil is a contentious issue in the poverty-stricken continent where hundreds of thousands die every year because of famine and chaos despite their land’s rich natural resources.

And their story goes on.

Joven sent a message to those who signed the petition and campaigned for the release of the hostages. You can read it on the Liberate Pirate Hostages website:

See also these posts:
Somali Pirates as told by Gemma Casas
Modern Piracy: Joven's Story as told through the voice of his sister, Gemma
President Arroyo seeks help to release Filipino hostages