Gitonga Marete | DAILY NATION (Kenya)
In the dead of the night on March 4 at about 2.30am, seaman Eugene Onalo and his brother John were asleep in their cabin as usual.
Suddenly, they woke up to a commotion on the deck of the small fishing vessel, mv Sakoba. The Spanish-owned vessel was under attack.
“We always sleep in the same cabin and we almost woke up at the same time. There were shouts on the deck and the officer on duty informed us that we had been hijacked and we all assemble on the deck,” he recalls.
That was the beginning of a four-month ordeal during which there were several negotiations to secure the release of the hostages and the vessel; the 16-member crew underwent torture and harassment in the hands of the sea gangs.
“Despite his 15-year experience as a seaman, my brother was shaken; being my second voyage, I was terrified,” says the 30-year-old who became a seaman a year ago after a seafarers’ training in Tanzania.
The crew arrived in Mombasa in the early hours of Sunday after the release of the vessel on Tuesday. Mr Omari Hamisi, one of the crew hostages said they were mistreated by the pirates.
And, recounting their ordeal at Likoni’s Mbaraki Wharf at about midnight, crew members — 10 of them Kenyans — said the pirates constantly threatened them with death.
“We were always in suspense and worried that they might kill us. They would at times get moody and threaten to shoot one of us,” said Mr Hamisi.
According to the vessel’s chief officer, Mr Heralano Delgado, a ransom of $3 million (Sh234 million) was paid to secure their release.
It was dropped by a helicopter last week before the pirates left the vessel estimated to be worth $700,000 (Sh54.6 million). Initially, the ransom was $7 million.
Spanish ambassador to Kenya Nicolas Martin Cinto, who witnessed the arrival of the vessel, declined to give details of the ransom payment, normally a discreet affair only known to the cartels negotiating the deal.
There was no government official present when the vessel docked, not even police officers. “We have not been briefed on anything by the government,” said a family member.
The vessel was supposed to arrive in Mombasa on Friday but was delayed because of rough sea, according to Mr Delgado.
“Each passing day was horror for us as we were guarded by men who were armed to the teeth. It is by the grace of God that we are here today.”
Mr Delgado said the vessel was also used as a mother ship from where pirates would launch attacks on other vessels by using it as bait to lure other ships into the trap.
Family members of the Kenyans braved the chilly night to welcome their loved ones, and sighed with relief when they finally locked in an embrace with the former hostages.
Joyce Onalo, whose two sons, John and Eugene were among the hostages, said she was happy her sons were back home safely. “We put their fate in God’s hands and we thank Him for bringing them home,” she said as the family prayed next to the vessel.
“It is a big relief to be back home and I am happy that we are back in one piece. I have missed my family a lot,” said Edward Idah, who last spoke to his wife a month before they were hijacked.
“I am going to rest for at least seven months before resuming duty. I cannot say I will not go to sea again because this is how I earn my living,” said Eugene.