Pirates on seized freighter shared with hostages

A Kenyan police officer stands guard among crew members of the Greek vessel Centauri, which was hijacked by Somalia pirates off the Somali coast and released last week.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For more than two months, Somali pirates and their hostages aboard a Greek cargo ship played cards, caught fish under the blazing sun and swapped tales of home. By the time all 25 hostages were released unharmed last week, the pirates even made one of the captives a startling offer: Would he like to join them?

"Of course I said no. I was praying every day to be free," said crewman Edmundo Capatar, 32, the day after the ship docked in the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

"But I learned a little Somali. I talked a little to some of them. One said his whole family died in the war, that is why he became a pirate," Capatar said.

The Greek-owned Centauri and its Filipino crew was one of 40 ships seized this year by Somali pirates. More than 300 sailors remain hostage, including the crews of a Saudi supertanker holding more than $100 million of crude oil and a Ukrainian vessel loaded with tanks and small arms.

The raiders prey on a vital shipping route for world trade and oil and gas, netting more than $30 million in ransoms along Africa's longest and most lawless coast. The crumbling Somali government, which is losing a civil war against an Islamic insurgency, has no forces to punish the pirates.

An international naval coalition patrols the 2.5 million square miles of dangerous waters, but they have a limited mandate. Most pirate attacks are over in minutes, before warships can intervene.

On the night of Sept. 17, a watchman aboard the Centauri noticed the stars shining off the wake of the pirates' small vessel and sounded the alarm. The Centauri sped up and began to swerve, trying to throw off the attackers. The alarm sent the frightened crew tumbling from their beds.

The Centauri was moving too slowly, weighed down by its cargo of salt. Within five minutes of the first sighting, two boatloads of pirates armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades had swarmed aboard on makeshift ladders.

'Just don't try to be heroes'
John Lazarou, the ship's Greek manager, was in Bangladesh that night and remembers being awakened by a panicked phone call from two crew members. Lazarou said the helpless sensation he felt was worse than all the disasters at sea he had ever lived through — including shipwrecks and engine fires.

"They said, 'We're under attack and hiding in the engine room,'" he recalled. "I said, 'Just don't try to be heroes.'"

The pirates fired warning shots — one punctured the Centauri's steel hull — then burst onto the ship's bridge, waving their rifles.

"They were shouting, 'Captain, is not problem, just money,'" recalled Capt. Renato Tanada, his face twisting wryly.

"And when they found out we were Filipino, they said, 'Filipino and Somali — friends!'" added crew member Alvin Genonangan with a laugh. "When they were shooting, we ducked down behind the walls. ... Then, when they came in, we just stood there with our hands in the air and the captain tried to talk calmly to them."

The pirates did not let the crew telephone their families but treated them well, the sailors said, arranging deliveries of live goats to the ship for food, sharing their meals with the hostages, and encouraging them to work, fish and bake bread as a way of keeping busy. The pirates provided the flour, a luxury in impoverished Somalia, where nearly half the population is dependent on aid.

A game of cards
Most of the pirates were young, averaging around 25, Tanada said. They guarded the ship in shifts, with never fewer than 14 armed men on board, to be rotated every four or five days. The pirates slept on mats on the bridge and the deck, and the crew was not allowed above deck after dark.

But as the hostages got to know their guards, the crew discovered that the Somalis played a card game similar to a Filipino game. They established the rules with hand signals. Genonangan said he beat the pirates sometimes — but not too often.

'We have neighbors'
In the meantime, the crew saw first one, then another captured vessel drop anchor in the blue waters alongside them.

"At first I thought, 'Wow, we have neighbors,'" Tanada said. Then the warships and helicopters arrived.

One of their new neighbors was the Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina. Tanada discovered it was full of arms when he listened to the Ukrainian crew talk to coalition forces on the VHF radio twice a day.

Both the pirates and their hostages on the Centauri got spooked by the extra surveillance. Tanada worried the foreign navies might try to intervene, risking the lives of the captives. Although he could not understand them, he believes the pirates shared his concerns. Shortly after the Faina and its entourage of monitors arrived, the other two ships were moved away.

Experts say the pirates on the ships are generally foot soldiers who are paid a fixed amount. The negotiations are done by middlemen who have access to satellite phones and are fluent in English.

If the ship is held for a long time, the middlemen may put together a group of investors who raise cash for supplies and other costs that will be recouped — with interest — once the ransom is paid.

In rare instances, Somali clan elders will intervene to free a ship without ransom if it is bringing goods to the Somali people.

Tanada said he was not involved in negotiations and was allowed to speak on the phone only once — to establish the identity of those claiming his capture. He did not know which pirate bargained for the freedom of him and his crew.

'We're going home'
Small milestones rolled by with the passing waves: a crew member turned 40. On the other side of the world, a daughter graduated from school.

But last week, on a day much like any other, the pirates took Tanada aside. They said he would be allowed to leave in three days. There was no word on ransom.

"So I just told the crew, 'We're going home,'" he said.

On Nov. 27, the engines groaned to life. A ribbon of white foam uncurled in the sea behind them. And the Centauri pointed its bow toward Mombasa, leaving the other two captive ships behind.

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