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Waiting for a Word, and a Voice

A photo of the crew of MV Albedo taken earlier this year. They have now been in captivity for more than two and a half years. Credit: IPS

COLOMBO, Aug 2 2013 (IPS) - A listing ship taking in water and facing up to the treacherous Indian Ocean monsoon is hardly cause for optimism.

But that was precisely what Sriyani Perera felt when her husband Chandrasiri Perera informed her late June that the ship he was working in, the MV Albedo, would not survive the monsoon.

“Have hope, he told me. Maybe this is the break we have been looking for,” Perera told IPS, narrating her husband’s last phone call from the coast of Somalia.

The seaman with over 30 years of experience predicted the ship was likely to sink; in fact he wanted it to sink. The Albedo has been held by armed Somali pirates since Nov. 12, 2010.

A crew of 15, including six Sri Lankans, was kept in the rusting hulk as the monsoon rains and heavy seas battered it in the last weeks of June.

The ship finally sank on the night of Jul. 6. Since then families in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Iran have been on a long-distance endeavour to confirm whether the crew survived and whether they would finally be released.

Some, at least, are known to have survived the ordeal. But the answer to the second question is still in the negative.

Although the crew was in the sinking vessel as it was going under, the pirates had made attempts to move the men to another pirated vessel, the Naham 3, anchored close by, according to the Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security (SRMS) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Five days after the ship went under, the EU Naval Force for Somalia (EU NAVFOR) said its surveillance crafts had spotted two beached lifeboats from the Albedo about 26 km north of the ship’s last known location.

Giving the desperate families some hope, EU NAVAFOR released pictures of the stranded crafts on the beach.

It took almost two weeks since the sinking for SRMS head John Steed to make contact with the crew. On Jul. 18 he was able to speak with 11 seamen who had been transferred ashore from the Naham. The four missing, who are presumed to have made it out in the lifeboats, are all from Sri Lanka. And there has been no news from them.

“Those on shore are safe; now we need to get them released,” Steed said.

So far none of the families in Sri Lanka have made direct contact with the crew.

Families of crew members spread across Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Iran and Maldives tell IPS that bits and pieces of unconfirmed information are worse than no information at all.

Farhana Bisthamy, whose father is one of the hostages, got a call from someone claiming to be the leader of the pirates. She had received calls earlier from that number, so she listened despite being sceptical.

“He told me not to worry, that my father was safe,” said Bisthamy, a Sri Lankan residing in Maldives. “But I told him till I speak to one of the crew I will not believe him.”

It is this that will assure the families – hearing the voice of one of the crew members.

Jayan Panduka, whose brother Nalindre Wakwella is a hostage, was also trying to gain information. He was told by U.N. and other diplomats in Nairobi not to take anything the pirates conveyed to them at face value. But as the ship had been taking in water for some time, Panduka was told that there were probably measures in place to abandon ship.

“It is the way the pirates operate – they will keep everyone in suspense for long as they need to,” Panduka said.

The long wait that began in November 2010 for the crew and their families continues.

There have been occasions when their collective spirits rose. The most recent was about a year back, when efforts were underway to release the crew after paying part of the ransom, originally set at two million dollars.

Families of seven Pakistanis were able to make a payment of around a million dollars and get them released. Those freed included the ship’s captain Jawaid Khan. The Sri Lankans launched their own campaign, but it fell through due to the lack of support from the Foreign Ministry and others in government.

“We have never had any kind of government support to get the hostages released,” Panduka said. The Sri Lankans have also tried to enlist the help of a private negotiator – but that too failed.

Lacking any sort of international political and military clout, Perera says, countries like Sri Lanka can hardly negotiate with marauding pirates from a position of strength.

“I understand our weakness, our Foreign Ministry did not know of the incident till we started calling them,” she said. The Pereras first learnt of the hijacking from a television news broadcast.

After a silence of about three months, the victims began to contact the families over the phone. Both Wakwella and Perera used to call home every three months. The families even got a picture about three months back of the dishevelled, traumatised crew standing on the deck.

The last time he called, Perera told his family that things were so bad the crew was eating putrid rice mixed with sugar. “He said the ship was like hell,” his wife said.

The released Pakistanis came back with horror stories of trigger-happy pirates ever willing to shoot, and constantly high on narcotics. In one incident, the Pakistani captain Khan said he was tied with ropes and lowered to the ocean below while pirates fired automatic weapons.

Waiting in limbo is now normal for Perera. She has hardly stepped out of her house in the few last weeks, waiting for a call from her husband.

“All I want is to hear his voice, then I will be ok. I have lived the last two and a half years pinning hope on each phone call.”

She waits anxiously for one more call.

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