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How Mumbai sailor's voyage turned into a tragic nightmare

Captain Sunil James speaks about his five-month long ordeal in a prison in Togo

What started out as a commercial voyage turned out to be a Herculean struggle for survival for Captain Sunil James; in a five-month-long ordeal, the sailor faced brutal assault from pirates, suffered hellish privations in a Togolese prison, and grieved for the loss of his infant, alone on foreign shores; the stoic James, who was finally released on December 19, shared the moving story of his struggles with Vinod Kumar Menon; Illustrations by Amit Bandre

The departure


Captain Sunil took command of M T Ocean Centurion on April 23 and continued to be in charge of it till July 30. Between July 13 and 15, the vessel was loading cargo (Motor Spirit) and performing ship-to-ship operations at Lome.


Nearing midnight on July 15, James obtained permission of the Togo Navy to proceed to Nigeria, and started heaving up anchor. After negotiating the heavy sea traffic around the port for 40 minutes, the vessel started moving at full speed in the wee hours of July 16.


At 1 am, controls of the ship were handed over from James to the second officer. James had been carrying out operations for three whole days.


James headed to his cabin for some sleep. At 2.30 am, he was woken up by the 2nd officer, who informed him that the vessel had to slow down due to some problems with the engine. The 3rd engineer called the chief engineer regarding the engine problem. The chief engineer came to the control room and stopped the main engine. After 15 minutes, the vessel proceeded to Port Harcourt in Nigeria.

Pirates attack MT Ocean Centurion


At 5 am, James woke up to a rude shock, realising that pirates bearing rifles and machetes were in his bedroom. The pirates had covered their faces, and only their eyes were visible. They cut James’ right hand, broke his nose and assaulted him. They covered his eyes with masking tape, tied his hands and legs with cable ties, and brought him to his cabin’s dayroom. They took the master key and safe key from near his bed.


The pirates dragged the master to the chief engineer’s cabin, where some of the officers were present. The pirates proceeded to tie up all the officers and covered their eyes with masking tape. All the officers were taken down to the officers’ smoke room.


James was singled out and taken to the cargo control room. He had lost a lot of blood and was shivering. He was bleeding profusely. Someone put a bandage on James’ hands and gave him a T-shirt, as he had only been wearing pants. The pirates continued to loot the ship, divesting it of items like jewellery, laptops, watches, cash. They emptied the ship’s safe and even took one of the lifeboats with them.


Later, James was taken to the smoke room, where the pirates threatened to shoot everyone if they did not cooperate. James was asked to tell everyone that they must cooperate with the pirates. He was then taken to the engine office, his eyes still covered all the time. Before disembarking, the pirates warned the crew not to emerge from the vessel for at least two hours, threatening to shoot them on sight if they disobeyed their instructions.


Two seamen, who had been tied up and left on the main deck, managed to free themselves. They then released James from the engine office. They went to the officers’ smoke room and released the rest of the crew.


The crew learnt that the ransacked vessel was anchored 10.5 nautical miles east of Lome. On the bridge, James and his crew found that the pirates had cut all communication equipment. All antennae had been cut, including those of satellite phones and navigational equipment. Only a single VHF radio was found to be working. James was bleeding profusely at this time. The morale of the crew had been shattered. James summoned up all his strength and spoke to the crew about the urgency of reaching the nearest port. They could spot a lot of small boats around them, and had no idea whom they belonged to. James asked the crew to start the engine and heave up anchor before the vessel was boarded by any of the passengers of the smaller boats.


James called the Togo Navy for assistance and dropped anchor at Lome, as per the their instructions. The company superintendent boarded the vessel immediately - he was in Lome on some work. Togolese navy officers came and saw that James’ hand was bleeding heavily and told him to accompany them for medical assistance. The superintendent was left in charge of the vessel. James was taken for treatment to a hospital on the shore, along with the chief officer who had also sustained injuries. Both were asked to give their statements. It was very difficult to communicate with the officers as all of them spoke French and only broken English.

In custody


After recording his statement on July 30, the officers told James that since he was the master of the vessel, he would be detained till the investigations were over. “We were not even told where we were being taken, and were just pushed into a jail.” The ordeal in jail was a terrifying one, and James was kept in a 100 sq ft room with 80 other inmates. “There was no space to even stretch your legs. Life was hellish. We were made to sit 12 hours straight on our haunches.”


James recalled, “Every day we used to eat one piece of bread in the morning and one in the evening; we were given nothing else. At times that bread would be taken away by the other prisoners. If you protested, it would lead to fights. Locals were in the majority, so we kept quiet.” Third engineer Andi Vijayan and chief officer Peechuli Chandran Ashok were also detained.


There was no proper medical treatment. James told this reporter, “We had fever for 2 weeks and didn’t have any medicines. There were no toilet facilities from 6 pm to 6 am. Other times, we even had to pay to use the toilet, even if we had to urinate.” Every day we used to wonder when our ordeal would be over and prayed to God to end our misery.


“After 47 days, we were shifted to a better place, but again there were restrictions on phone calls, visitors. We were only allowed to communicate with our families once in 4 days. Every time we were taken to the judiciary, we were told that we would be let off shortly.”

The long journey home


When Vivaan passed away at 2 am on December 2 in India, an officer woke James up and told him that he had been getting continuous phone calls from James’ family, and that a problem must have arisen.


“When I spoke to my wife, she told me that my son Vivaan was taking his last breaths. There was nothing I could do, as a father. I just prayed to God to keep my son safe, but alas, he had other plans,” said James. Back home, news of the tragic turn of events made headlines, leading to widespread protests against the apathy shown by diplomatic authorities and ministers in securing James’ release so he could be present for Vivaan’s last rites.


An anxious wait followed. As Vivaan’s body lay in the morgue, his family members ran from pillar to post, speaking to the press and diplomats. On December 10, James’ wife Aditi and her sister Avni met the Prime Minister in his Parliament House office, with the assistance of Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam.


On Dec 18, 17 days days after Vivaan’s death, James and Vijayan were released after the Togolese President’s office spoke to relevant authorities. James reached Mumbai on Dec 20 and his son’s last rites were conducted two days later.

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