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PIRATES! Sailor recounts the hijack of Royal Grace

Last updated on: April 2, 2013 13:26 IST

PIRATES! Sailor recounts the hijack of Royal Grace

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Priyanka in New Delhi

After almost 12 months in captivity and the death of an officer, 21 crewmen of merchant navy tanker Royal Grace were set free. Rediff.com's Priyanka spoke to one of the captives, a 24-year-old junior electrical officer.    

On Friday in the second week of March, a gang of Somalian pirates ordered the members of the merchant navy tanker Royal Grace to gather in one of the rooms on the ship for a meeting. The pirates had held the members of the ship hostage for nearly twelve months, and they knew what a meeting meant.

It meant bullying, abuses, sadness and despair. It meant that the owners of the vessel had still not paid the ransom for the release of the sailors. It also meant they were not free to return home.

But, as it turned out, this meeting was different.

The pirates informed the sailors they would be set free. The officers and crew members on board were elated and their happiness knew no bounds.

Rediff.com caught up with the junior electrical officer of Royal Grace, 24-year-old Rakesh Kumar. He spoke about his year-long ordeal. 

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Image: Junior electrical officer Rakesh Kumar
Photographs: Rakesh Kumar
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Why Rakesh joined the merchant navy

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The youngest son of a petrol pump manager, Rakesh hails from Hoshiarpur in Punjab where he attended a local government school and earned a diploma in electrical engineering in 2009.

Towards the end of his graduate studies, a group of merchant navy officers visited his college and introduced him to the occupation. Rakesh was hooked on instantly. It did not perturb him that he would be required to spend a considerable time sailing, away from his friends and family. He believed it was a novel career option and would pay well.

"I was sure I wanted to join the merchant navy. We were seven-eight boys from our college who had applied," says Rakesh.

He completed a six-month course as an electrical training officer in Pondicherry in 2010. Rakesh even persuaded his father to pay the Rs 2,75,000 course fee.

After completing the course he joined a chemical tanker Royal Navy as an engine cadet in May 2011. (The same ship was bought over by a Nigerian owner later and was renamed Royal Grace.)

His first assignment on board as a cadet was tough, and after toiling for eight-and-half months he signed off (de boarded the ship).

He earned about Rs. 80,000 in this period and returned home to his parents. But after having spent only a couple of weeks, he was called back to join Royal Grace. Of all the officers on board, the owner had retained the Chief Engineer of the ship, and he, in turn, wanted Rakesh and another officer, a Bangladeshi national, to help him run Royal Grace.

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Image: Rakesh Kumar with other crewmen on board Royal Grace while being held hostage
Photographs: Rakesh Kumar
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'I never thought it would happen to me'

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Rakesh's superiors on the ship had observed that he took his job seriously. He was back on board the Royal Grace on February 17, 2012.

The ship set course to Nigeria with a total of 22 officers and crew members.

Rakesh had read and heard stories of ships being pirated, but he had already been in the Somalian seas twice. "Itna darr nahi tha (I wasn't that scared). I thought it would never happen to us," says Rakesh.

On March 2, 2012, at about 3.30 pm, as the ship was sailing in the Gulf of Oman, a terrified colleague hollered out to the other crew members.

He saw pirates approaching the ship.

"I didn't believe him at first and went to the deck area to see it myself," says Rakesh.

Royal Grace was in mid-sea when Rakesh saw a group of pirates on a speedboat closing in and firing at the ship. He rushed to the engine room and increased the speed of the ship to about 10 knots, hoping it would help.

"Everybody on the ship was terribly scared," he recalls.

Within about 15 minutes, he says, the captain of the ship informed the crew that the vessel had been taken.

"My heart sank," he says pensively. Initially, some crew members ran towards the engine room to hide but that didn't help. The pirates had boarded the ship and brought it to an uneasy halt in 20 minutes.

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Photographs: Rakesh Kumar
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'He's dying today; it will be your turn tomorrow'

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Rakesh explains how the pirates operated.

Once they hijacked a fishing boat belonging to Iranian fishermen and stationed their speedboats on the boat. The pirates sailed the high seas and hunted for ships. When they spot a ship a few of them would race towards it in a speedboat, while the remaining gang on the fishing boat would join them.

In our case as well, around four-five pirates attacked Royal Grace on a speed boat. The other gang members joined a few minutes later. A total of 12 pirates had taken over the ship.

Their commander, who identified himself as Gani, sparingly spoke English. He said, 'I am the captain of the ship now. Everybody will follow me,' recalls Rakesh. They were armed with AK 47s and pistols.  

They took about 500 litres of diesel from the ship and passed it on to the crew of the fishing boat, who were being held at gunpoint.

Royal Grace was then ordered to sail towards Somalia.

"The pirates did not bind our hands and were holding us all in one room at gunpoint. They said we would be free to go in 20-25 days," recalls Rakesh.

"But somehow I knew it was going to take longer," he added.

After sailing for six days, the crew was asked to drop anchor about two nautical miles from land.

Rakesh has a very hazy recollection of what transpired in the next one month.

A man named Mustafa negotiated with the owners of the vessel. Rakesh says the crew was unaware of who was negotiating for them. He heard the pirates had first demanded a ransom of 25 million US dollars, which the owners rejected. It pushed them all into further despair.

The food on the ship kept them alive for the first few weeks. The ship was well lit as its fuel reservoirs were full. 

All of them were hurled inside the captain's cabin. Rakesh and four others slept on the floor.

But as the food and fuel reserves were emptied, the pirates started to become impatient.

Members of the ship, the captain and the third engineer were tortured. The pirates would make them stand on the deck and fire at them, so that the bullet misses them by a few centimeters. The engineer was also beaten.

The second engineer, a 60-year-old Nigerian, suffered a massive heart attack in the first month. The pirates refused to help and he died. The pirates shouted at them and said, "He is dying today, it will be your turn tomorrow," recalls Rakesh.

"I was shocked to see what was happening," Rakesh says about the officer's death. "It was the saddest moment for us all. We wished he shouldn't have died," says Rakesh.

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Photographs: Rakesh Kumar
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'My mother won't let me go back to this job'

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The officers and crew decided to keep the body of the officer hoping to hand it over to his family when they would be set free. They preserved it a deep freezer for an entire month.

Rakesh says their days were spent in constant terror. The pirates, who called themselves Jamal group, kept a stern and watchful eye on the crew. The ransom amount had dwindled but they were still far from freedom.

A second negotiator was appointed by the Jamal group after 50 days of negotiating fell through. Star a.k.a Hiddik for the first time assured the officers and crew that they would be able to speak with their families back home.

Rakesh spoke to his older brother Rajesh after two months. His brother knew about the hijack. His mother, however, was not told until he was released. Even the mohalla walas at his Model Town residence in Hoshiarpur held the news from his mother.

After two months in captivity, Rakesh broke down when he spoke to his father and brother for 5-7 minutes.

Sometime in August 2012, Star called for a meeting and said that the owner had agreed to pay an amount of 2 million US dollars. They waited eagerly for it but the deal fell through.

Negotiations failed repeatedly and he still does not know how much ransom was paid.

In the meantime, the conditions of the sailors on board deteriorated. They lived on food supplied by the pirates. They were given fixed rations of rice, pasta, noodles, potatoes and onions, once a month. The ship suffered blackouts, as there was no fuel to run the lights or amenities on board.

They lost their appetite and most of them had become depressed. Maintaining hygiene had become a grave issue.

The only silver lining, says Rakesh, was a discovery about three months into captivity.

The crew found a local SIM card lying around. The crew was at first apprehensive about using it. They kept an eye on the pirates for many days, observing if they were looking for it.

It was only after they were assured that the pirates was not aware of the SIM, the members of Royal Grace started sending missed calls to their family members back home. Their families would call back, and the members would talk to them for a few precious moments.

But their troubles persisted. They were not aware of how the negotiations were proceeding, or whether they would be freed or killed.

They would often make plans to overpower the pirates, but there were just too many around. An escape seemed impossible. The pirates would check each corner of the ship, stripping the crew of all their possessions.

"They would threaten us and say they would kill us," says Rakesh. "Most of them were illiterate. They said they had been to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Iraq. Many had served jail terms in these countries."

Another hijacked ship, Symrni, was also anchored close to them. It was a bigger ship and Rakesh had observed nearly 150 pirates of the same Jamal gang on Symrni. Both the ships were released by the pirates in March this year.

On a clear Friday morning, the pirates had their last run at looting the ship. As Rakesh recalls, "After the pirates left the ship, we kept sailing and never looked back."

"We saw a European navy vessel after a while and we couldn't stop crying. We were finally free."

An undisclosed ransom was paid and the sailors on board Royal Grace, 17 Indians, two Nigerians, one Pakistani, and one Bangladeshi were set free.

Back home, Rakesh's mother didn't initially understand why his father and brother cried when they heard about his release. "She wouldn't let me take this job again," he says.


Image: A Kenyan artist paints an anti-pirate graffiti on a wooden board at the sprawling Kibera slums in Kenya's capital Nairobi
Photographs: Vivek Prakash/Reuters
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