Dipendra Rathmore | The Guardian, 2011.06.11
In April last year, I was training to become a naval officer on a chemical carrier owned by a company based in Mumbai. There were 22 of us aboard the boat – a mix of professional sailors and engineers from India; at 21, I was the youngest member of the crew.
The ship was heading from India to Norway, a journey that was meant to take 25 days. On the fourth day, late in the afternoon, I was on watch when one of the other lookouts yelled that he could see a boat approaching. We were sailing 120 miles south of Oman, a remote area of water, and from the size and appearance of the vessel, we suspected it was pirates.
I immediately radioed an Indian navy ship for help – but it was too late. Minutes later, six pirates boarded and, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles, opened fire on us. It was utterly terrifying and chaotic. We had no choice but to surrender.
We were herded into the navigational control room on deck and made to lie on the floor. In broken English, the pirates told us they were going to ask for a ransom of £15m from the company we worked for. Everyone was incredibly frightened. We lay in silence until the early hours of the next morning, when a further six pirates joined our ship and informed us we were going to sail to Somalia.
Conditions on the ship were unspeakable. We were confined to a tiny corner of the control room. The windows were sealed shut and it was airless and suffocating. The hygiene was appalling – we were allowed to use the toilet, but that soon degenerated into a stinking mess. Nearly all of us became sick. We were fed, but only enough to keep us alive – basic meals of potatoes and onions. Once every couple of weeks, we were allowed on deck to stretch our legs.
The pirates took it in turns to keep their guns trained on us – there was never a chance of escape. Nor was there any opportunity to develop a friendship with them. They kept us in a state of terror – we were beaten constantly with metal poles. I managed to avoid the worst violence, but I saw my crewmates being thrashed with sticks and having electric probes attached to their genitals, and one man was suspended by ropes from the ship’s mast for several hours. Even when I could not see the torturing, I could hear the screams. I can still hear the screams to this day. I don’t know why I wasn’t hurt more – maybe they thought I was too young and unimportant. Some of the older crew members were argumentative, but I made sure never to antagonise the pirates.
Each morning I woke up on the hard metal floor wondering if that day I might die. But I managed to remain quite calm. I became fatalistic about my future – all I could do was wait.
Every few days one of us would be made to call the company and plead for our lives. They would tell us there was nothing they could do – they wanted to force our captors into lowering the ransom. For the first four months, we were allowed one call a month to our families, so they would also put pressure on the company. Those phone calls were so difficult – we were cut off after just a few words. It was heartbreaking.
After many months and no payment, the pirates put our captain into a different part of the boat, so we would think he’d been killed. They wanted us to beg even harder. We started to lose hope of ever being rescued. Then, after 238 days, we were told the company had finally paid a ransom of £5m and a German ship had been sent to collect us. The pirates fled on another boat. The joy as the German crew led us, blinking, into the sunshine was overwhelming. I didn’t cry – by then I was numb – but others were sobbing.
Once I was on the other boat, it felt like being reborn. The first meal, the first shower, the first set of clean clothes all felt extraordinary. Six days later I was reunited with my family. I looked awful, I was so thin; they just stood and cried.
Having controlled my temper on the ship, I became very angry once I got home. But I wasn’t offered any therapy. I just had to move on.
It has not put me off a life on ships, though – I am currently studying for further qualifications and will go back to sea straight after. I won’t let the pirates change my career. They have hurt me enough already.