Captain Spent 3 Months as Hostage of Pirates

Capt. Miro Alibasic from Croatia was en route to Oman aboard his crude-oil tanker Zirku. As they passed through the notorious Gulf of Aden, every sailor’s nightmare since antiquity materialized before his eyes-pirates were attacking his ship from all directions. Around 50 heavily armed Somalis in small skiffs, dispatched from a mother ship, surrounded the supertanker, attempting to board.

“I was trying to avoid it by zigzagging and using water canons. But once I lost speed, they hooked me. … There was nothing I could do,” recalls Alibasic.

The pirates boarded the ship and ordered Alibasic and his 34-man crew to kneel down. Alibasic refused and asked the pirates to put down their guns and invited them to come on board to talk.

The crew was locked up inside the ship and forced to stay put-some facedown on the floor.

It was only the first of an 87-day ordeal.

“I am not into mathematics. You can calculate how to navigate a supertanker or how to fly to the moon. But once you are in a warzone, what are you going to calculate?” Alibasic said about the chances of survival in such a situation.

Negotiating Life

Alibasic became the anchor in the storm, not only for his crew but also for the Somali pirates in their quest for a ransom. Alibasic was the contact person, negotiator, spokesperson, crisis manager, captain, and navigator of the ship. During the first roughly 20 days, the pirates, who spoke stilted English, could hardly communicated with Alibasic about a ransom. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry either.

“In a normal negotiation you have a starting point, but with these guys, no way.”

Alibasic noticed a hierarchy among the pirates. The head pirate, in turn, appeared to get orders from a superior who was not on the ship and probably not even in Somalia. Alibasic spoke with him via mobile phone.

“He knew he had a big bird in his hand and was asking me for a price. I said, ‘Listen, I am not going to tell you a price; you tell me a price, we pay.'”

Alibasic established a surprisingly good relationship with the pirates and their absentee boss. At times, he even read stories and poems to the boss’s family members over the phone. The boss asked Alibasic if he and his crew were being treated well by the pirates, and threatened to “hang them immediately” if not.

“I said no, they are good people, and I wasn’t faking. Nonetheless, they could kill you instantly if you didn’t know what you were doing. You couldn’t lose focus for a single moment.”

A special negotiation team was set at the headquarters of the shipping company 24/7. After a month, the negotiation team sent its first ransom offer of a few million dollars.

“The fax arrived and I handed it to him [the leader] and he just looked at it and threw it away, didn’t say a word. For another 20 days, nothing-complete darkness.”

Alibasic managed to get permission for his crew to move around a bit, once or twice, to prevent their muscles from becoming atrophied from sitting still all day. In groups of seven they were allowed to walk on deck under supervision of Somali guards who stood there in the blazing sun with a finger on the trigger. A couple of times, crew members were allowed to make 3-minute phone calls, under supervision, to their families. Faced with prolonged uncertainty and the constant threat of death, some of the crew was on the brink of mental and physical collapse. Alibasic usually attempted to keep it light, joking that the first one to die would end up sandwich filling. Then suddenly, Alibasic can hardly remember how, a ransom was agreed upon.

“When he [the absentee boss] told me he wanted delivery ASAP, the nightmare of delivery started, a huge nightmare.”

Cash on Deck

Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden are intercepted by naval officers. Improved security has had some impact on reducing piracy. This year alone, to March 19, there were 87 attacks by pirates, but only nine were successful, according to Save our Seafarers. (Courtesy of Save Our Seafarers)

After the price was settled it took another month before the actual delivery. The pirates insisted on having “cash on deck.”

The negotiation team managed to scrape together the ransom. Alibasic didn’t disclose the exact amount but said it ran in the “tens of millions of dollars.” A plane or helicopter had to be arranged to deliver the money to the ship, now located somewhere in the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile food supplies were running low.

On delivery day, the money was dropped from a small Russian plane. There were perhaps 150 pirates now on board the ship.

“They were afraid of other groups. They were also afraid of each other,” said Alibasic.

With the money lying on the deck in bags, the head pirate gave Alibasic a knife and ordered him to count it. When he was finished, the pirate boss offered a million or so to Alibasic for himself and his crew. The captain kindly declined. The pirates got into a heated argument about how to divide the haul. Some received $1,000, others $10,000. They even consulted Alibasic as to whether this or that person deserved more money.

“Every one of them wanted to make a little money for their family,” Alibasic said.

Then the pirates left the ship in groups from different locations, to avoid fighting among themselves. Until the last moment, Alibasic and his crew were left in a state of uncertainty.

“Basically you respect the enemy and that is how I managed.”

“The foremost advice I can give people is to stay as cool and calm as much as possible. Don’t point your finger toward friend nor foe,” says Alibasic.

“Don’t point your finger toward friend nor foe.”

Life Thereafter

Alibasic and his crew safely arrived in Salalah, Oman. Once a ship is hijacked, most cases end up with a ransom payment, except in the few fortunate cases where the ship is rescued soon after the hijack, says SOS’s Walding. Of the very few pirates that ever get caught, 80 percent are released to attack again.

Capt. Alibasic continues to sail and has passed through the Gulf of Aden three times since his ordeal, but now has guards aboard his ship. For many former hostages, however, life is never the same.

“On release, many captives are skeletal, damaged, traumatized, and broken in mind and spirit. Although younger seafarers often have a chance to recover and resume their lives, older hostages rarely return to sea. They and their families pay for the misfortune of being captured with a lifetime of hardship, poverty, illness, and depression,” according to SOS.

The SOS campaign was launched in 2011, representing global seafarers’ organizations, shipping companies, and shipping industry associations. Their aim is to defeat the scourge of Somali piracy, to prevent seafarers from being tortured and murdered, and to urge governments to take stronger measures to tackle the problem

Source: The Epoch Times

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