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I worked as an engineer on merchant vessels and my ship was held hostage by pirates for 8 months. I still cherish my career at sea.

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Chirag Bahri worked as an engineer on merchant vessels like tankers, bulk carriers, and offshore support vessels from 2003 until 2012.


This as-told-to essay is based on conversations with Chirag Bahri, the International Operations Manager at the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN). He was previously the Regional Director for South Asia for the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme. His words have been edited for length and clarity.

I was 30 years old working as an engineer onboard a chemical tanker, the Marida Marguerite, sailing from India to Belgium. One month into the trip, we learned the ship would be adjusting course and sailing through the Gulf of Aden — a shipping route notorious for Somali pirates.

I had been sailing for eight years at this point. My initial reaction was I didn't want to continue on this vessel. However, I was told that if I stayed on board, I would receive a promotion to a senior ranking, so I took the risk in order to move ahead in my career.

I had just joined the crew and I really needed to be on the ship to earn money. Seafarers are often supporting families back home and sometimes are the sole breadwinners. Because of that, it becomes highly difficult to make a decision to sign off in the middle of a contract. It can take multiple months to find work on another vessel.

Maritime Piracy: What you need to know

We'd also been informed that if we signed off from the vessel early, the money to return home would be redacted from our paycheck. What we didn't know was that there was a clause in the contract that if you refused to sail through a high-risk zone like the Gulf of Aden, the company would pay for your flights home. This was not properly conveyed to us on board — seafarers are not always aware of what is in their contract and companies will exploit this.

When we started heading toward the Gulf of Aden, we tried preparing the ship the best we could. The company denied our requests for armed security guards onboard because this would cost them money. We also didn't have a Citadel (a protected area for crew to shelter during an attack) on the ship.

[Editor's note: Bahri sued his employer for negligence in 2013. The case was dismissed after the US court system determined a lack of jurisdiction. WOMAR and Heidmar, two companies alleged to have a role in managing the Marida Marguerite, did not respond to Insider's request for comment.]

I was in the engine room when I got the call that pirates had boarded the ship.

On May 8, 2010, our worst fears came true. I was in the engine room when I got the call that pirates had boarded the ship. At first I thought it was a joke, but as soon as we neared the bridge door, we heard screaming and shouting. I was in the front of the group when the pirates opened the door — that was the first time I saw a gun pointing directly at me.

We had no idea what pirates even looked like, let alone how to deal with them. We had never been trained on how to cooperate with your fellow colleagues or how to negotiate. We hoped the company would send law enforcement, but we were proven wrong at every point.

After 15 days, an english-speaking negotiator came onboard who introduced himself as an NGO worker. We thought he would help us, but we were again proven wrong — he was one of them. He was working with the pirates, almost like their lawyer. He figured out the cost of the vessel, how much the cargo was worth, and the nationalities of all the crew members. After about 20 days of being in captivity, the pirates sent their first demand of $15 million to the company.

I worked 12 hours a day during 8 months of captivity.

I was still working in the engine room because the generators were running. For the generators to run, you need fuel, which you need to purify and bring to certain temperatures. You have to maintain a lot of machinery in order to ensure that these things work.

If the generators stopped working, we weren't sure how the pirates would react.

The food, water, and fuel were running out and we needed replacements in order for us to survive. The pirates would get excessively worried without lights on because they were scared rival gangs might overpower them in the night.

We had to convey to them that we didn't have enough fuel. They knew they couldn't get it and took out that frustration by beating us. They brutally assaulted senior officials on the ship to try and see if they hid fuel somewhere.

Four of us kept the engines going. We worked 12-hour shifts two at a time for eight months. We were working in a very dangerous environment because we had to cancel all the safeties on the machines, which meant they could explode at any time. There was fuel leaking everywhere. Sometimes, we were working barefoot because the pirates had taken our shoes.

Inside the engine room, it was 55 degrees Celsius (130 degrees Fahrenheit) and we had very little water to drink. Our bodies were covered in boils and rashes from the extreme heat. We were getting very little food.

The pirates were very suspicious of us going up and down in the engine room. They thought we could be contacting the outside world or playing games, so they'd harass us, hit us, spit in our faces, and tell us they were going to kill us.

They tied up our legs, hands, and genitals with nylon bands and kicked us. When we screamed in pain, they'd tighten the bands even more.

You can do nothing in that moment — it makes you feel inhuman, with no dignity. On top of that, we were dealing with the stress of how our families were handling the situation. They were always in the back of my mind, I was just hoping my family would survive until I returned home.

Structural issues in Somalia contributed to the rise in piracy.

For the pirates, the ship was like a five-star hotel. They had fresh water, they could shower. One of the pirates used to be an English professor and he told us the entire village was taken over by pirates during the Civil War. He was asked to either help guard our vessel, or die. So he took a gun and came onboard. He seemed good at heart. He never tortured us.

Another pirate taught us some Somali words so we could communicate better. He once helped us when we were being tortured and the gang beat him up badly because of it, but at least he tried.

They used to tell us how there was no food in Somalia, that people had eaten the flesh of each other to survive in times of extreme civil war and famine. They explained the reason the younger pirates were so violent was because they had only seen bloodshed since they were born.

They didn't have employment opportunities, and piracy was viewed as a lucrative job. I'm not trying to defend what they did, but there were structural issues at play.

After months of negotiations, a $5.5 million ransom was paid for our release.

Hostage negotiations with pirates take so long because if the company agrees to pay the ransom right away, the pirates will just ask for an even higher number. The main thing the company has to do is convince the pirates that the company has no more money to pay them.

One day, the pirates said they were going to hand us over to al-Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia, because the company was not releasing any money. We took the ship down to South Somalia and they had us call our families and tell them that the pirates would kill us if the company didn't agree to the negotiated amount in the next 24 hours. The company agreed to increase the ransom slightly. Then we returned and realized it was all just a gimmick.

After about seven months of captivity, we finally heard that the company agreed to pay $5.5 million. The money would be sent in the next 15 days.

On the last day during the money drop, the entire village was on the ship. They even had an accountant onboard calculating everybody's share. They counted the money with a machine and distributed it, and then one by one, the pirates started getting off the ship. The negotiator gave us a phone number and said if any pirates came on board, we should tell them to call this number and they'd leave us alone.

I received medical treatment but no psychological support was provided at first.

The last batch of pirates went off and we were all alone with no fuel left. We had just enough to run the generator for the next two or three hours. We were extremely nervous that another gang would come onboard. We decided if that happened, we would not give up easily — we would rather die than not be able to go home.

The company arranged a bunker boat with fuel and armed security guards. I just thought, we asked the company on the first day to send security guards and they never did. If they had listened to us, maybe this would never have happened.

We sailed for eight days to Salalah, where police came onboard to investigate. After four days there, we went home.

I received medical treatment for my physical injuries — I was not able to move my hand and head for a number of weeks. Initially, there was no psychological support offered. We had trouble sleeping through the night because of night terrors and became easily agitated and short-tempered.

We asked the company to provide psychological treatment and after six months they agreed, but it was too late. There were also some issues recovering my wages from the company. It took some time for me to completely recover.

I still cherish the time I spent working onboard ships.

Upon returning home, I noticed the gap in resources available for piracy survivors. I became passionate about helping seafarers and their families.

There is much less piracy in Somalia now, which is wonderful news. But wherever there is high poverty and socio-economic issues, there's a chance attacks will happen.

I can't prevent pirates from coming on board, but at least I can help seafarers prepare themselves on how to handle these kinds of difficult situations.

Now that piracy attacks have decreased, I'm taking a broader perspective on how to improve the mental health and well-being of seafarers around the world.

It's a stressful job. Imagine a person working around the clock for six months without any breaks. How do you deal with that? You don't get weekends off or opportunities to relax with your friends and family until you are off the ship.

We are trying to teach young seafarers how they can improve their health and well-being and how they can prepare themselves for the different crises that can happen at sea. I'm not just talking about piracy, but also mental health and other personal issues. We teach them coping strategies and offer different resources they can refer to.

I still cherish the time I spent working onboard ships and I would encourage people to look at seafaring as a very positive, rewarding profession. I had a few challenges, but the best part was that I was able to come out of it and be able to contribute to the maritime industry.

Source: Business Insider