by Olivia Konotey-Ahulu
Rohan Ruparelia still has flashbacks from his kidnapping three years ago—and every time he hears news about pirate attacks, he fears for the victims. For the last few months, the merchant seaman from Mumbai has been studying at East Coast College in Lowestoft, England, in hope of reaching the rank of chief officer when he returns to sea next year. Life is quiet in the small North Sea town—the way Ruparelia likes it. That’s also the reason he loves being out at sea. “I don’t like crowds or too many people around or too much chaos,” he says. “It’s about solitude. I enjoy that.” But the word from the high seas hasn’t been calming.
There have been two large-scale acts of piracy in the waters off West Africa this month alone. On Dec. 3, 19 people were taken hostage when hijackers attacked the oil tanker Nave Constellation as it was anchored off the coast of Nigeria. In the first nine months of 2019, more than 100 ships around the world were assaulted by pirates, with most of the hostage-taking occurring in the broad Gulf of Guinea—shared by Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Cameroon. According to the International Maritime Bureau, about 86% of the incidents worldwide took place there. The hijacking of the Nave Constellation is just one of the latest attacks, says Max Williams, chief operation officer of security firm Africa Risk Compliance Ltd. “There’s been a spate in the last 40 days of quite significant maritime security incidents in the area.”
Ruparelia knows about piracy in the area firsthand. In a single hijacking in the Gulf of Guinea, he was held prisoner by two sets of kidnappers. When the negotiations with his ship’s owners didn’t go the captors’ way, he was beaten. He wasn’t allowed to sleep. He was told to stand up and stay still as bullets were fired around his feet. Once, he was stripped naked and made to stand outside in the rain for hours. “People have this fear; they live in the fear of death. But continuously being told: ‘I will kill you, I will kill you, I will kill you, I will kill you’…. I was like, ‘you better kill me, or I will kill you’.”
“Piracy is a business,” says John Steed of the Hostage Support Partnership. “And the investors are still putting money in the business.” He adds, “As piracy is reduced in East Africa, piracy in West Africa and Southeast Asia has increased.” It feeds off the enormous amount of global ship traffic, with 11 billion tons shipped internationally in 2018. Says James Gosling, a consultant for Holman Fenwick Willan’s London office who was awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen for his work on releasing hostages: “If you ask the average person in this country where their fridge comes from they would just say the supermarket. They don’t realize we import 90% of our stuff.”
Violent attacks targeting crew rather than the ship or its cargo are on the rise. Munro Anderson, a partner at maritime security firm Dryad Global, says pirates in West Africa have decided that “actually it’s more worthwhile to conduct high-risk operations where you target a vessel, you kidnap the crew, and you get a high payoff.’’ Anderson says that Dryad has seen negotiation payments ranging from around $18,000 to half a million dollars. Piracy in West Africa—and defending against it—cost an estimated $818.1 million in 2017, with contracted maritime security the biggest expense, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a program commissioned by One Earth Future.
The time hostages are held as prisoners varies drastically across the world. Maritime security firm Ambrey expects the Nave Constellation seafarers to remain hostages for around 28 days. In Somalia, victims have been held for more than four years, says Chirag Bahri, a regional director for the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network. Three Iranian men, captured in 2015 from the FV Siraj, are still prisoners there, he says. Steed, who worked to free hostages from the FV Siraj, says, “because these are Iranians, nobody really cares.” His organization did recently manage to free one Iranian FV Siraj crew member. The reason: His health was rapidly deteriorating and was losing value as a hostage for ransom.
Ruparelia’s experience was a mixture of efficiency, comedy, and terror. When the attack started, he was standing on the navigation bridge at the top of the Panamanian-flagged Maximus, learning how to navigate with the third officer. The crew had been trading diesel in the region, and the ship was drifting in waters off of Ivory Coast that were marked safe at the time by maritime organizations. The hijackers were “very, very organized,” he recalls. “They knew what they were doing.”
They descended on the ship and gunshots ripped through the air. He and the third officer ran to warn the other sailors to head for the “citadel,” a safe place at the heart of the ship which, once locked, would keep anyone out. Thirteen men managed to get inside, but five were captured by the pirates, who then forced the others in the citadel to surrender. Within seven days the pirates had repainted the tanker’s name and given false information to the Togo Navy, whose waters the ship had traveled to in the meantime.
Things began to fall apart when the ship passed into Nigerian jurisdiction. That country sent a warship to shadow the tanker. At that point, some of the hijackers decided to take Ruparelia and one of his Pakistani crewmates off the ship and attempt to get back to shore in a skiff. As Rohan watched his ship sail away from him, he laughed. He was floating somewhere in the Gulf of Guinea between Ghana and Nigeria, crammed into a small row boat between nine other men, eight of whom were pirates. None of them knew how to get to shore, or even in which direction the shore was. “I was actually laughing at the turn of events,” Ruparelia says.
The Nigerian Navy boarded the Maximus and freed the captured crew after an exchange of gunfire with the pirates stayed on the ship. Meanwhile, Ruparelia, his colleague, and the other pirates were at sea for five days without food or water before landing on the coast of Nigeria. Foraging through trash for food, the hostages and hostage-takers asked for shelter at the first house they came to. One of the owners, suspecting foul play, left and came back with what Ruparelia describes as the local mafia. Very quickly, all 10 men were prisoners. “I mean the ones who kidnapped us got kidnapped; it was funny,” he says.
As it turned out, the original pirates were impossible to ransom for money and Ruparelia and his colleague found themselves the sole captives, falling into the secondary market for pirate hostages. They were taken to the house of “John,” the leader of the group that had wrested them from their first captors. Next to John’s house was a room with no windows where the sailors would be imprisoned. Then, the hostage negotiations began.
Negotiations with pirates are “all very much the same,” says Gosling. “They ask for a ridiculous price and depending on your assets you have to start lower and eventually you agree somewhere in the middle—and unfortunately you have to bargain, even though people’s lives are at stake. Otherwise it never ends.”
Every day, Ruparelia was let out of the room to speak on the phone to his operations manager, employed by the shipowner, to attempt to negotiate a ransom. The rest of his time was spent in darkness. Each day, the men were given a bowl of rice to share. Each day, too, they experienced yelled threats or bullets flying at their feet. Then, abruptly, the phone calls stopped. For days the men heard nothing. John had gone into town, and in the meantime the violence against the prisoners increased. “For those four days we were at the mercy of his men, and they did not care how they hit us.”
John returned one morning and took the two prisoners into his house. He asked them if they would like a chocolate drink. Ruparelia became very afraid. Then, John asked him what he would like for breakfast. “He actually made me an omelet. He did. Then he told me that ‘today is a good day. I am going to be paid, and you are going to be freed.’”
The relief was immense. But the trauma has not faded. In the three years since, Ruparelia says, “every single day I remember a bit of it, there is something that flashes in front of me.” Around 26% of former hostages show symptoms consistent with PTSD, says Conor Seyle, Director of Research for One Earth Future, who co-authored a report on the long term impact of piracy on seafarers. “Everything from the attack itself to the hostage experience if they’re captured can trigger long-lasting psychological impact in seafarers, and also in their families.” Bahri of the seafarers network survived an eight-month kidnapping himself. “Every minute, every second, is kind of a torture,” he says of his 2010 ordeal. “You’re just surviving.”
“People are resilient, though,” says Seyle, “and that’s certainly true for seafarers.” Ruparelia underwent one session of counseling but he and his adviser both agree he is fit to return to sea. His Pakistani crewmate was also judged to be all right and has since gone back to work on a ship. Ruparelia chooses to stay positive. “Maybe someone else would not have survived,” he says. “Maybe it happened to me because I could survive it. Maybe. Let’s take it that way.” —With William Clowes