The shadow of death in the Arabian Sea [Archives:2008/1169/Reportage]

July 3 2008

By: Sa'eed Al-Batati
[email protected]
For the Yemen Times

(This report was originally published in Arabic in Abwab Magazine, May-June issue.)

One of the worst experiences in 54-year-old Salem Bahasen's life occurred just two months ago when he spent a few days as a captive of Somali pirates.

It happened while the fisherman was with a group trolling the Arabian Sea for tuna. Bahasen works for Borum Seafood, one of the largest fish exporters in Yemen. As they sailed, they spotted two boats approaching.

“We thought they were fishermen we'd seen the day before from the Yemeni Fish Company,” Bahasen recounted at the firm's .He is headquarters in Shiher, located in Hadramout governorate.

Once they neared Bahasen's boat, he and his crew realized that they were Somali pirates and “We realized there were a lot of problems in store for us,” he said.

Somali pirates are notorious in this area. Instead of fishing for themselves, they seize other boats and steal the fish of other fishers. The unfortunate fishermen tried to evade the Somali vessels, but the pirates were faster, so Bahasen and his crew sent out a call for help via radio. Another fishing boat received the call and informed Bahasen's supervisors in Sheher about the incident.

However, help didn't arrive soon enough, and on Tuesday, April 1, a new drama had begun. The heavily armed pirates fired into the air and then boarded Bahasen's boat. According to the abducted fishermen, they were captured just 50 miles from the Yemeni coast.

Bahasen's crew consisted of 28 fishermen from various coastal areas in Hadramout, while the pirates numbered nine, all armed. Seven came aboard while the other two remained in their two boats.

Through their broken English, the Yemeni fishermen managed to speak with the pirates and because Bahasen was the captain, they ordered him to sail to the Somali coast.

“I told them we were just fishermen and that they could talk to our firm and make their demands. We didn't know what their demands were, although they once mentioned offhandedly that they wanted $300,000 in ransom,” Bahasen recalled, adding, “We didn't put up any resistance because we were unarmed and feared for our lives.”

They sailed for more than 20 hours until they saw the Somali coast, which according to Bahasen, was about 15 miles from their boat at the time.

“As we approached Somalia, they asked me to stop. They then took one of our [smaller] boats accompanying our primary boat. A man named Khalifa left in the smaller boat, but returned back two days later with another seven armed men,” Bahasen said.

While in Somali waters, other boats full of men approached the seized vessel, but most were forced back by gunfire. Bringing back some food from Somalia, the pirates directed their cohort, who then was sailing the seized fishing boat, to head for the Indian Ocean. “As soon as we saw the food, we abandoned hope of any release,” Bahasen said.

As they sailed the Indian Ocean, the Somali pirates spied a French yacht and decided to raid it. As Bahasen recalled, “Seven pirates left our boat and attacked and captured the French yacht. One pirate then returned from the seized yacht and took the rest of the pirates with him, along with their food and other things.”

Thinking the pirates had deserted them because they suspected the French yachters would fetch a higher ransom, the Yemeni fishermen breathed a sigh of relief at their departure. “We couldn't believe it! They left without telling us why they had captured us or why they left us,” Bahasen said.

During the four-day drama, Borum Seafood lost six small boats, each worth approximately YR 1 million ($5,000), and 50 tanks of gasoline.

Back on land, the company was very concerned for the fishermen's lives. Sahel Awadh, who works in the firm's fishing department, said his department learned about the incident from another fishing boat that had received the distress call from Bahasen's.

“On our boat is a handheld device affixed by the Ministry [of Fishery Wealth] and connected to a satellite to identify our location and ensure that we don't go beyond Yemeni waters,” Awadh explained, adding, “We pay $3,000 seasonally to a French company for this service.”

As soon as it learned about the kidnapping, Borum Seafood contacted the Ministry of Fishery Wealth to ask them to identify the kidnapped fishing vessel's location. However, according to company staff, the ministry replied that its satellite wasn't working, but it would be repaired the next day.

So, “We called the French company in Paris and they sent their reply within hours, by which we learned of the boat's location,” Awadh recalled.

Although the horrific memories are still fresh their minds, the Yemeni fishermen say they had no other option but to return to sea and continue fishing.

Tragic stories

In a similar incident, a group of 34 Yemeni fishermen from Hadramout completed their laborious day of fishing and went to sleep on their boat. However, they awoke at midnight to find their boat had been seized by a group of heavily armed pirates. Despite being in Yemeni waters, the fishermen were accused of fishing illegally in Somali waters.

The pirates took them to Somalia and brought them before a tribal leader, who demanded they pay $8,000 for their release. After lengthy discussion and numerous pleas, the Somalis agreed to accept $2,000 up front, with the rest to be paid to someone they knew in Mukalla. This individual then would forward the money to the pirates. The Somali pirates took hostage a Yemeni citizen working in Somalia. The hostage called his friends in Mukalla to pay the remaining $6,000 to the pirates' contact there.

Several sources claim that numerous fishermen have been killed in incidents such as these, while others went insane due to their capture and mistreatment. Since the beginning of this year, approximately 15 instances of piracy have been registered in Hadramout alone.

Call to protect Yemeni waters

Omer Al-Habishi, deputy general manager of Borum Seafood Company, says this piracy problem has terrified local fishermen, many of whom have refused to sail into deep waters to search for fish living there, such as tuna.

He suggests, “One way to protect our waters is to enhance the protection afforded by the [Yemeni] Coast Guard because this protects them not only from pirates, but also from illegal fishing.” Well-known marine biologist and dean of Hadramout University's Faculty of Environmental and Marine Science, Mohammed Al-Mashjiri, notes that Yemen has a right to protect its commercial fishing areas, which extend outward up to 50 miles from the Yemeni coast. However, he says the Yemeni Coast Guard can't do this job properly using its old and very basic boats.”The Coast Guard must be bolstered by modern technology because our Coast Guard vessels can't cope with these increasing incidents of piracy; therefore, our coast guards should work in conjunction with coalition forces in the Indian Ocean,” he asserts.