Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A date with destiny

The crew knew they were entering a dangerous territory infested with pirates; and they were on the watch. They were near Minicoy Island, 300 nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast.
For the last two days and nights, they put out a watch. They regularly scanned the horizon. But it was a calm and quiet sea, hardly giving away the dangers that lark in this difficult terrain.
The crew members wanted to cross the area as fast as possible. It might take another two days.
But hearts sank on the third day, December 5, when a fast approaching skiff 15 nautical miles away was spotted on the radar. It was travelling fast, directly towards MV Jahan Moni.
And through the binoculars they could see the most dreadful sight they would never want to see in their life — the grim faced skinny black figures hunched against the wind; their Kalashnikov rifles held high.
Immediately, the captain gave the order and the fire alarm rang. It sent a chill up the spines of the crew.
There was a quick discussion about what to do now. Somewhere they had heard that if the pirates find a lot of people on board, they get deterred. So everyone rushed to the starboard with iron rods and whatever they could find and brandished their “weapons” at the pirates who kept coming closer and closer.
The captain, Farid Ahmed, thought of another trick. He started coursing the ship on a zigzag path at full speed.
This might have worked as high waves were created and the pirate skiff stopped. MV Jahan Moni moved ahead fast, leaving the pirates behind.
Everybody thought the trick had worked. At least they wanted to believe it.
The captain did not slacken the speed. He wanted to get out of this goddamn territory. He had already sent out distress signal that his ship is under pirate attack.
But all hopes shattered an hour later when the pirate skiff reappeared on the horizon. This time it was coming in a more determined away.
It was now clear that the pirates were not repelled by the waves but by their failed engine. They have restarted it.
As they closed in, suddenly the pirates started shooting with their AK47s. Bullets started hitting the ship. Some were hissing around.
“Everybody get to the bridge. Now. Now. Now,” the captain ordered.
Quickly all ducts and portholes were locked and the crew gathered on the bridge, which is the highest point of the ship.
Their only hope was that an Indian naval ship that was around the area would reach them before the pirates could capture the ship.
But the pirates were now beside their ship. They brought out a long ladder and tried to hook it to the railing of the ship’s deck. But the ladder was too long. It took them a while to adjust the ladder. Within minutes, the six pirates climbed up.
They forced their way through fire channels to the top and started knocking at the bridge door violently.
“Open or we’ll fire!” they screamed.
Inside the room, the crewmen were trembling with fear. One of them opened the door and the pirates gushed in with their guns. They were fuming with rage.
“On the floor! Everybody!” orders flowed.
The crew members obliged. They all crammed on the small space. It was now clear that the ship had been taken over and they had been taken hostage.
A little later, the Indian naval ship arrived.
“Ask the ship to go back or we’ll shoot you all,” the pirate leader ordered.
The captain knew it was too late for the navy to do anything. So he passed the instruction. Slowly the Indian ship disappeared into the vastness of the sea.
It was now only the pirates and the crew. Pirates and despair.
“As if, a black curtain suddenly fell on us. We knew we had started a new life and we did not know what awaited us,” Fakhrul Islam, a greaser, said.
The Somalis produced a crude Global Positioning System (GPS) and showed a point.
“Go there. Straight,” the leader ordered.
Five days later, MV Jahan Moni anchored at a place slightly below Puntland, a heaven for Somali pirates. Around were many other ships, all captured and held hostage.
For the crew members of Jahan Moni, days of uncertainty began.
Immediately after they reached there, a heavy gunfight began.
“We didn’t have any clue at first about what was going on. But we learnt later that other groups of pirates tried to take control of the ship,” said Rukshana Gulzer, a supernumerary and wife of Matiul Mawla, chief engineer of the ship.
The fight continued for the rest of the night.
“Seeing no other groups in the morning, we knew our captors have won the fight,” Rukhsana added.
Around 2:30pm on December 12, the pirates made the first phone call to MV Jahan Moni’s operator, Brave Royal Ship Management (BD) Limited.
“They just called us to say that they have taken MV Jahan in their control, and hung up,” Meherul Karim, general manager of Brave Royal, told The Daily Star.
The chief engineer and his wife were allowed to describe the situation to Mohammed Shahjahan, managing director of SR Shipping, owner of the ship.
The same day they again contacted Chittagong at 7:00pm.
Later in the night, the pirates told the crew members that they could release them in exchange of $9 million. They also let some crew members to talk with their relatives.
Meherul Karim later stepped in to start negotiation with the pirates for the release of the hijacked ship.
A whole week of despair and terror had passed. The pirates would keep watchful guards on the crew. They would not even let the crew go out together to perform any emergency duty.
The water purifier had broken down one day. It needed three men to fix. But they would not let more than two to go.
The pirates would also chew a kind of leaves to get intoxicated. One morning, the gang leader, Abdur Rashid, barged into the bridge. He was intoxicated, and was laughing like a mad man.
Suddenly, he raised his AK47, fixed a new magazine and cocked the gun. Then he aimed its muzzle at the hostages. His finger was on the trigger.
The crew were terrified. It was clear that this man wanted to kill them just out of turn. Death was staring at them.
Just at that moment, another pirate appeared. He quickly took in the scene and pushed the barrel of the gun up in a zippy. Then he snatched away the AK47 from Rashid and took him away.
From then on, a strict rule was imposed on the pirates that they cannot drink or chew the leaves.
The pirates acted in a very professional manner. Anyone breaking their rule would be punished severely. The rule breaker would be tied to a pole, beaten up and left in the sun.
One of the crew also faced this punishment when he climbed down to the deck from the bridge without the pirates’ permission. His legs and hands were tied, and he was beaten up.
Most of the pirates had multiple wounds on their bodies. Some of them had their limbs missing. This all showed they had violent pasts.
Yet there seemed to prevail a strange kind of discipline among them. They had very high respect for the only female hostage of the ship, the wife of the chief engineer.
And they never touched any of their possessions, even ornaments. They had taken away their mobiles only.
A precarious condition arose when the ship’s water tanks went empty after about 15 days of capture.
First, the crew tried to ration it but still there was no water, and the chance of getting it was thin.
So the crew got an innovative idea. They put the vent pipe of the air coolers into small drums and collected the water that was condensed out.
Fuel was also running low and this posed another problem. So they shut down one generator and with it the freezer. But this caused the food to go off, which had to be thrown in the sea.
A severe food rationing began. They were served Ruti and sugar in breakfast and dinner.
Often luck was better for lunch as the pirates brought in lambs and asked the crew to slaughter them.
The chief cook, Moshiur Rahman, had to cook curry. After the pirates had their meals, the leftover meat was served to the crew.
Herded in the tiny Bridge Room, the 26 hostages had to use the lone washroom.
When one needed to use the washroom, they had to raise their hands and request the pirates.
“Sometimes, they would force the male hostages to pee in bottles,” said Mainuddin, the second engineer.
Farzana Akhter heard from her husband Abu Naser Abdullah Mazumder, the chief officer, on the fourth day.
“I can’t express how I was feeling over the previous few days. He called me and asked me not to worry,” she said yesterday.
“I didn’t think they would leave us alive,” Kibria Ahmed, a young greaser whose wife, Sharmin Akhter, was weeping continuously sitting beside him at the VIP lounge of the Shah Amanat International Airport in Chittagong yesterday.
To Mainuddin, it was a new life. “We had heard that they by that time killed a number of people. What was special about us!”
Entering the VIP lounge, Mohammad Idris, a deck fitter, burst into tears seeing his two daughters.
Farzana, the eldest daughter aged 10, was holding him tightly.
“Can you imagine I’m talking with my kids for the first time since the hijack?” he wiped the teardrops rolling down his cheeks.
On meeting their relatives in Chittagong, the crew members said they had forgotten all those haunting moments. Their endurance laughed after all the miseries.

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