PictureMaimed Yemeni seaman Mohamad Abdulla Ali - click for TheNational story
I know everyone's heard about the rescue, just before Christmas, of the 22 surviving sailors on MV Iceberg 1. Those men had been held by Somali pirates since March of 2010 - a total of 33 miserable months! 

The men were finally freed by the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), a UAE-financed force meant to combat piracy on the ground in Puntland. It's said that the owner of the Iceberg's cargo (and not the shipowner, Azal Shipping of Dubai) paid $1.5 million to the Puntland government for the operation. 

Azal had abandoned the ship and crew early on, either because the company lacked the funds to ransom the crew, or because they were unwilling to pay the price. I read that in one ransom negotiation, the pirates asked for $3.5 million and Azal countered by offering $300,000. Either Azal were not seriously negotiating - playing fast and loose with innocent men's lives - or else, Azal is a very poorly-financed or poorly-run shipping company! Azal also stopped the men's pay after their capture, adding to the stress and suffering of their families. Any prudent seaman should think twice before accepting employment with Azal Shipping in future - or any other company with a similar record. 

(I hope pretty soon to be able to suggest a mechanism by which companies like this can be exposed and tracked, so that seamen seeking employment can see which companies have taken care of their men and which ones haven't - but more on that in a later post.)

If you've been following the MV Iceberg 1 case, either in the news or on the MV Iceberg 1 Mariners Action Group website, you know that the captives have suffered absolutely horrific treatment over the last 33 months. They've been subjected to extremely close confinement with no fresh air, exercise, even little sunlight; and they've been routinely deprived of food and clean water. In addition they've been subjected to regular beatings, torture, psychological abuse and death threats - even maimings, such as Yemeni seaman Mohamad Abdulla Ali having his ears sliced. It was all too much for Yemeni 3rd officer Wagdi Akram, who in despair committed suicide over two years ago. But all the survivors carry scars, on their bodies and on their souls. 

How would you or I react to such treatment? We never really know until we're forced to face it. As a young patrol boat crewman, I remember our POW training before being sent to Vietnam back in the 1960s. I was a foolish, fit young 19-year-old at the time, and thought nothing could beat me! But our short week of survival and POW camp training quickly humbled me. And we were primarily outside and active, even in the mock POW camp. We also knew it was only an exercise, and we knew the time limit. 

The men of MV Iceberg 1 have been exposed to far more debilitating treatment, for a far longer time - and the same goes for all the men in pirate captivity. Daily, indeterminate misery, with no end in sight - sometimes beginning to believe, as several of the Iceberg captives stated, that no one is ever going to come for you, or that your suffering can end only in death - that experience would sap the strongest spirit. 

Stories of pirate captivity often relate how shipboard discipline breaks down, each man for himself; some men even going over to the pirate side, out of self-interest or due to the "Stockholm syndrome". Until we're tested ourselves, we don't know who we might become, or what we might do, under those conditions.

But some men pass the test! There was at least one such man on the MV Iceberg 1: First Officer Dheeraj Kumar Tiwari. Mr. Tiwari seems never to have forgotten his responsibility to his men as a senior officer, second-in-command of the ship. According to the men who were rescued last month, Mr. Tiwari repeatedly placed himself in harm's way to protest the mistreatment of others in the crew, drawing upon himself many beatings as a result. He also acted as spokesman for the crew, as testified by recorded phone calls and video interviews such as the one above. 

At 27 - still a young man - he showed the kind of courage, steadiness, and care for his men that every Master should display. I've no doubt that, if he yet survives, he will become one. 

"If" he survives? Yes - sadly, Mr. Tiwari was not rescued with the others, and his whereabouts and condition are unknown. This hero disappeared from the ship in September, 2011, after a severe beating. Members of the crew who inquired about him were told by the pirates that they did not know where he had gone - an unlikely story. 

Some of the crew thought that the pirates may have been hiding the fact that Mr. Tiwari had been murdered, but at this point no one knows. He could still be held ashore - perhaps he was taken off the ship because he persisted in standing up to the pirates. But, since the last group of pirates who were holding the ship eluded capture and can't be questioned, we may not learn the truth for some time. The Puntland government has pledged to find them, but that may be difficult.

Dheeraj Tiwari's family, led by his father Purushottam Tiwari, are appealing for news of their son. Admittedly, it's unlikely that any of us will be able to help the family directly. But if anyone reading this comes across any news, or hears anything that could be of any help to this brave man or his anxious family, please relay it immediately to the MV Iceberg 1 Mariners Action Group Facebook page - I know that members of the Tiwari family are monitoring the Facebook page, and I'll ensure that they hear about it. 

Dheeraj Kumar Tiwari courageously stood up for others - let's do anything we possibly can for him!
4/12/2013 02:57:00 pm

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