Hell and high seas

Oct 14, 2013, 10:06 IST | Kanika Sharma

As the Tom Hanks-starrer, Captain Phillips, readies to hit Indian screens soon, Kanika Sharma speaks to Chirag Bahri, the Indian mariner who survived a grievous ordeal at the hands of Somali pirates and was able to walk out only after spending eight months in captivity

Mumbai-based 32-year-old Chirag Bahri speaks to us as the Regional Director for South Asia, Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP). The conversational tone of Bahri, however, is impeded in its friendly response due to an incident that has scarred him for life. “I was 28 years old then, and had boarded a vessel for OMCI in Vietnam on April 8, 2010. We were carrying Benzene, an extremely hazardous substance that is also cancerous,” informs Bahri. Soon, we realise that the chronology of his narrative doesn’t fit. His angst and mission to fight such crimes against humanity constantly connects his plight to many who are unreported and unknown.

Faysal Ahmed (left) and Tom Hanks, star in Captain Phillips

All at sea
“Most seafarers are abandoned by their owners, and negotiations fall through. The trouble arises when these seafarers — some of whom are not even paid decent wages — are used as human shields by pirates who operate in clans,” a frustrated Bahri shares. He recalls that after stopping at Kandla in West India for picking up the consignment, the ship left for Antwerp, Belgium via the dreaded Gulf of Aden.

The crew comprised 19 Indians, two Bangladeshis and one Ukranian. “On May 8, a skiff with six pirates was spotted; they were on board in 20 minutes.” “Sheer 20 minutes?” we asked, wondering how swiftly such things were orchestrated. “As an Engineer, I was responsible for the Engine Room and efficient functioning of the machinery. At 14:45, after maximum speed maneuvering, we were stopped as two Rock Propel Grenades (RPGs) were thrown at us,” informs Bahri, who internalised the names of weapons, subconsciously. About 90% of commercial trade is done by sea. Some seafarers have been in captivity for the last three years.

He continues, “They fired from their AK47s. When they threatened us with our lives, we co-operated. After reaching the Somali coast, 25 to 30
people came on board.” Resultantly, Bahri and his crew endured eight months of torture. Once, his hands were ties behind his back and he was hung upside down, “I don’t know what to call their degree of torture — it’s beyond words. They make people transfer oil: thick, wax-like in buckets, they make you lie for 24 hours without letting you even shift positions; my hand was half-paralysed due to what they did to me,” relates the mariner.

The homecoming
After eight months of negotiation that decided a $5 million-ransom, Bahri came home but was an island unto himself. Traumatised, he took eight months to be able to function in society. “When I returned, my life was in such a bad shape that I wondered if I should have felt thankful for being alive when I finally, was free,” reveals Bahri, who is now using his life to extend humanitarian support to seafarers under similar situations. 

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