The Challenge Of Survival As A Pirate Hostage


‘The merchant seafarer does not go out to sea … properly trained’ for piracy-hostage survival — Report

The Filipino mariner left Iraq bound for the United States, but Somali pirates hijacked his merchant ship in the Arabian Sea. Seven months of torment followed, a report said. Endurance of the pirates’ violence, cruelty, and deprivations would have been difficult enough for a military man who had received “conduct after capture” survival training. This civilian, however, had no such preparation.

“For months, we were exposed to many types of violence during captivity. Pirates were killing each other in front of us,” the merchant mariner recalled. “We were even shown horrible videos made by the pirates. One video shows how the pirates beheaded other members of a rival pirate gang. They would tie up the other pirate like a pig and then behead the pirate [with a knife]. … I could not sleep for several nights. The pirates told us that the same thing will happen to us if the ransom is not paid.”

After his release he returned home to the Philippines. Despite the large decrease in income for his family, he quit his maritime job for medical reasons, the man told a researcher for the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) and the Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) project. His account is in The Human Cost of Somali Piracy, 2011, a report released last month by the OBP and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). So is this account of sadism on a captive ship.

“At 2 a.m., [we] were both woken and pushed to the bridge deck outside the bridge. Our hands were tied together with plastic cable ties and our feet were tied in the same way,” another ex-hostage recalled. “Then we were double-tied with nylon rope which then was used to pull our hands and feet together behind our backs. We were left like this for some time and they tightened the ropes every so often. After a while a pirate went to my colleague and opened his jeans and took a cable tie and wrapped it around his genitals and pulled it tight.

“Then they came to me and did the same thing though they also removed my underwear and wrapped the cable [tie] around my testicles and pulled it tight,” the anonymous seafarer continued. “We were like this for 20 minutes or so both crying out in pain until an older pirate released us, and as we couldn’t walk they carried us back to the cabin. The next day we saw that the pirate who helped us was badly beaten by the younger pirates.”

One in 10 tortured

Somali pirates held 1,206 hostages last year, the Human Cost report said. Twenty-six had been held for more than two years. Hostages remained aboard captured ships, where living conditions often become seriously squalid, or were held at secret locations inland. (Six of the hostages were “tourists and aid workers,” the report said.)

“This number represents 561 people captured in 2011 and 645 people who were taken captive in 2010 and remained in pirate hands for some or all of 2011,” it said. “The fact that 645 people were taken in 2010 and remained hostage in 2011 highlights the large number of attacks in late 2010, an increase in the average length of time to negotiate the ransom, and in some case, stalled negotiations. The victims are citizens of more than 47 countries, the vast majority of which are from Asia—especially the Philippines, China, and India.”

Thirty-five hostages died in 2011. The report listed the causes as pirates’ violence (8 deaths); “disease or malnutrition caused by lack of access to adequate food, water, and medical aid” (8 deaths); or, the outcome of individual escape attempts, coalition-naval rescue attempts, or “being used as human shields by the pirates” (19 deaths). One figure defies tally: the number of local fishermen forced to crew their own dhows after they are hijacked for use as motherships—if the men are not killed outright.

The researchers interviewed crew members from among the 23 hijacked merchant vessels that were released by pirates in 2010-11. Researchers also used data from the European Union Naval Force, US Navy Office of Naval Intelligence, and IMB.

“More than half of the hostages were physically abused in at least one instance… [which] ranged from pushing and slapping to being punched,” the report said. “Approximately 10% of hostages were subjected to extreme abuse resulting in lasting physical and psychological injuries. These incidents included assaulting hostages with … sticks, wires, rifle butt, plastic tie-ups, cigarette butts, and pliers that were used to squeeze fingers and pull out fingernails. Hostages were also forced to stand for extended periods in the burning sun.”

Pirates also “inflict psychological abuse … as they seek to terrorize the hostages, their families, and the ship owners in order to speed up the ransom negotiations,” the report said. This includes “threats of execution or acting out mock executions, attempts to divide the crew along existing lines of division, and repeated claims that the hostages have been abandoned and will never go home.”

Impatience and ignorance

Merchant ships with armed security teams never have been hijacked in the High Risk Area (HRA). However, fewer than half of the hundreds of commercial vessels transiting the HRA each year carry contracted security. And, the coalition naval forces cannot be everywhere.

Ransoms to Somali pirates totaled $135 million in 2011, according to media and industry reports. The pirates want a big payoff for each hijacking—and they do not want to wait long.

“A breakdown or slow progress in [ransom] negotiations” is one reason for physical and psychological abuse of hostages, the Human Cost report said. “Pirates’ basic ignorance in the workings of a ship” is another. On one hijacked vessel, for example, “pirates demanded that the hostages run the diesel generators using crude oil.

“When the hostages refused and tried to explain that it would spoil the generators, they were slapped, kicked, tied up and made to stand in the sun, stripped, and beaten with wooden sticks and iron rods. In this incident, the pirates also squeezed the hostages’ fingers using pliers.”

In a cruel divide-and-conquer tactic, pirates use abuse—or withhold it—to cause hostages to turn on each other or to extract information useful in ransom negotiations.

“The merchant seafarer does not go out to sea expecting to face such circumstances, and is not properly trained to cope with the events” of captivity by Somali pirates, the report said. “During their long months of captivity, hostages are largely on their own, with no tangible support possible from the [ship] owners, flag state, or family.”

Hostage mariners, especially those who have been abandoned by their employers, face great peril. It is equivalent to that of military prisoners of war (POWs) in an armed conflict, according to an American expert on laws pertaining to human rights, the military, and terrorism.

Painful lessons learned

“A POW is entitled by the law of war to all the protections set out in the Geneva Conventions. He may not be abused in any way and only is required to give name, rank, and serial number,” said Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas. “As a practical matter, democratic states like the US do not fight other democratic states, but rather totalitarian states or enemy combatants that have no regard for the Geneva Conventions. Our POWs are routinely tortured in every war we have engaged in since World War II.

“On the other hand, civilians that are captured by pirates have no protections under the law of war. They are being detained by non-state actors who have a special designation under international law as ‘pirates.’ There is no body of international law that protects them per se. Then, again, even if there were such standards, pirates could not be expected to comply with them. By definition they are outside any rule of law,” said Addicott, a retired Army Judge Advocate General officer.

Military personnel in many nations are trained for the worst case of separation and isolation from friendly forces and possible capture (then abuse, interrogation, and political-indoctrination attempts) by the enemy. This form of training goes by different names, such as conduct after capture (CAC) or the post-Vietnam “survival, evasion, resistance, escape” (SERE). Courses are based on the specific threats, human and environmental, as well resources and possible allies in an area of operation. Training can focus on an enemy’s anticipated behaviors; for realism, even by using trained role-players in a mock POW compound. It gives sailors, aviators, ground troops, and special operators a small edge in the face of a bad predicament.

Addicott, a former senior legal adviser to the Army’s Special Forces, said that until Somali piracy is eradicated—by decisive use of overwhelming military force—merchant mariners transiting the HRA should be trained for hijack and captivity.

“All personnel should receive SERE training and be provided with training courses on what to expect if captured,” he said recently. “All personnel sign waivers where they agree not to sue their employers should they be captured. These strict liability contracts may not hold up in all courts. Employers should provide training to protect themselves from liability and to provide basic survival skills to merchant mariners.”

The ex-JAG officer added, “What is the right thing to do?”

Some survival “lessons” are emerging. The Human Cost report said many hostages “used prayer, meditation, and reading books to pass their time and maintain their sanity.

“If allowed by the pirate guards, the hostages watched videos or played games. In most cases the hostages stayed together and avoided any confrontation with the pirate guards,” the report continued. “On one vessel, all communication was conducted via a designated hostage to reduce the chance of miscommunication. In most cases, the hostages encouraged and gave hope to each other.”

A Croatian ex-mariner who was a hostage in Nigeria recalled what he had to do to survive: “I was following their orders blindly without any resistance.”

Jurica Ruic was an officer on a floating storage and offloading (FSO) vessel carrying 1 million barrels of crude oil when it was raided in 2007 in the Gulf of Guinea by the “Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta” (MEND). The guerrillas, mostly ex-soldiers, not only had automatic weapons and grenade launchers but also a large amount of plastic explosive in their speed boats—and were prepared to use it on the huge tanker. ( posted an interview with Ruic on Nov. 15, 2011: “Piracy Costs More Than Just a Ransom.”)

Crewmen were taken inland and held captive in a military-style camp guarded by MEND and surrounded by dangerous jungle. After his release, Ruic never went back to sea for medical reasons. He now is a lecturer and consultant on maritime security.

Ruic acknowledges the duration of his captivity—33 days—in Nigeria was shorter than that of many mariners held hostage by Somali pirates. Also, there are differences in motivation, behavior, and tactics between MEND, which wages guerrilla warfare against foreign development of Nigeria’s petroleum resources, and the Somali pirates on the other side of the continent. “The first and the most important difference: MEND are militants, they are not sea pirates as Somalis,” he explained. “In most of the cases they have the same goal, which is money. MEND, as they are presenting themselves, are fighting for the benefit of Niger Delta but they are not doing that; they are fighting for their own pockets.”

Other differences are cultural, he added, as Nigeria is both Muslim and Christian while Somalia is Muslim. The common challenges of hostage survival, however, outnumber the differences. One form of abuse to be endured is the mock execution: MEND did it to Ruic and his fellow hostages just as Somali pirates do it to their captives. The Nigerian guerrillas were not above killing some of their own right in front of the hostages, either.

Ruic is collaborating with ESPADA Marine Services, an international security contractor with management offices in San Antonio, Texas, in the development of hostage-survival training for merchant mariners.


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