Strife on the ocean waves

Andrew Mourant

Far from the romanticised swashbucklers of Hollywood, modern-day maritime pirates leave victims traumatised – some are even murdered. Those who live to tell the tale are often reluctant to return to sea again

The ordeal of Captain Richard Phillips, captured in waters off East Africa and held hostage by trigger-happy Somali pirates, has been witnessed by cinema goers worldwide. Based on a true story – though inevitably with a film-maker’s artistic licence – it creates a gruelling, claustrophobic world framed by hostages, for whom death beckons at any moment, and desperate, paranoid captors who are out of their depth. 

Through two hours of traumatic touch-and-go, we see Phillips, the dedicated family man and conscientious skipper from Vermont, USA, survive and his kidnappers gunned down by an American rescue squad. Had the outcome been the reverse, this film may not have been made and the insight of popular culture into a lawless world denied to millions. 

Captain Phillips is a film with the ring of truth that echoes a major report published last year: ‘The human cost of maritime piracy, 2012′. Some findings are strikingly dramatised – apprehension; tension; the captors’ fearsome mood swings. Early on we get a taste of the hopeless chaos in coastal Somalia that drives young men, often manipulated by warlords, to wreak havoc at sea. 

Mention modern-day piracy, and Somalia springs first to many minds. Less well known is that pirates are an endemic problem in the South China Sea; as is the situation in West African waters, where violent acts of piracy are rife. With each incident comes tales of human suffering. The report, also focusing for the first time on West Africa, gives the most comprehensive snapshot obtainable – it draws on face-to-face interviews with 13 seafarer victims, three wives, one child; and other responses from 324 seafarers representing 14 nations. 

Among the grim case studies was one about five seafarers and three security personnel who died in 2012 through piracy in Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea region. Nearly 80 hostages remained in captivity when the report was released, though 57 were released in 2012 and 2013. These included the surviving 22 seafarers aboard MV Iceberg I, who witnessed the deaths of two crewmates while enduring 1,000 days in captivity. 

The depiction in Captain Phillips of arbitrary beatings with pirates barely in control of themselves tells only a small part of the story. Reports from 2012 and 2013 showed a notable increase in mistreatment during captivity – almost all captives experienced some physical abuse, some of it extreme. 

Hostages were punched, pushed, slapped and burned by cigarettes. They were left up in the sun for hours, locked in freezers and had fingernails pulled out with pliers. In one case, pirates made impossible demands of their hijacked vessel and crew, causing the engine to burst into flames. While the crew worked to extinguish the fire, the vessel grounded and started flooding. As punishment, a senior crew member had his ears cut off and spent six months in solitary confinement. 

Alongside the bloodiest stories are others of psychological abuse and exploitation – not only of the captives but their families – for instance pirates allowing the sailors to contact home then firing shots into the air while their families were on the line. The insidious problem of ‘secondary victimisation’ takes numerous forms. In India, families have been contacted by Somali pirates asking for money to arrange for their captive loved ones to be treated better on board. Widows have been the magnet for predatory lawyers offering to ‘represent’ them – often unnecessarily – in compensation claims, offering cash advances at punitive interest rates besides siphoning off a big fee. 

Further tales of financial hardship include those of victims not being reimbursed for lost pay and property and having to switch careers to avoid having to return to sea. Some felt betrayed by companies that questioned their claims and failed to compensate them properly. 

The long-term psychological effects of falling prey to pirates have yet to be studied in detail. However, a Seamen’s Church Institute study released in 2012 found that most victims showed some form of “clinically significant disturbance”, such as concerns about returning to work, sleep loss, diminished energy and increased alcohol use. 

And what of the perpetrators? The actions of a tiny minority – only a handful of Somalis get much financial benefit from these crimes – create widespread misery: the deaths of innocent fishermen; others afraid to put to sea for fear of being mistaken for pirates and attacked by warships or armed guards. Some pirates, driven into this activity by gangsters, die at sea for their trouble. 

The perception – and reality – of Somalia being out of control has eroded an already fragile economy. Honest maritime trade, such as livestock export, has become much harder thanks to piracy. It has brought local inflation – pirates have no sense of the value of money – as well as increased drug and alcohol abuse; and more prostitution. Lawless neighbourhoods deter international support and development. 

There is, though, some better news – increased naval protection. Onboard armed guards and better all-round preparation by the shipping industry helped reduce the numbers attacked by Somali pirates by 78 per cent during the reporting period. But off West Africa, where oil-carrying ships are prime targets, piracy is increasing, though under-reporting means that the full extent – and impact – is far from fully understood. What is clear is that pirates attack fishermen so frequently that many now fear going to sea. 

Gulf of Guinea countries have abundant firearms in circulation from their various wars. Vessels hijacked by West African pirates are held, on average, only for four days – pirates are more intent on stealing cargo than a ransom. Often, though, they are violent. Arranging armed-guard protection for oil-carrying ships means having to abide by laws dictating that all armed guards be recruits from local security forces. 

Many piracy victims are driven to find another job, however hard that may be. But not all: as the film credits roll, we learn that Captain Phillips eventually resumed his career at sea. “Fortunately, seafarers are a resilient group,” the report says. Some have reported feeling stronger after the experience – “better prepared for anything similar in the future”. 

One took pride in how he had handled himself during the attack, “one thing I’m proud of about myself”. Another, having survived the fright of his life, spoke of “a significant change in me… I want to relax – I am calm right now”. However grotesque the ordeal, for some, the outcome of piracy has been a quiet, heroic inner strength coming to the fore. 


About the author:

Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist whose specialisms include international business and renewable energy


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