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Somali 10: We saw hell for 303 days

*Captain of Nigerian ship tells the story of kidnap by pirates, ordeal and release

For the 10 Nigerians who returned home two weeks ago after 303 days in   the custody of Somali pirates, the agony they went through is unlikely to go  soon.  In this interview, the ship captain, Graham Egbegi, recounts what they went through.

You said you had one-second engineer?
Yes, one-second engineer, he has just gone to Port Harcourt.  He had high blood pressure for eight months. You understand, even at that point, I could not sleep because virtually everybody was under me. Now, my deputy, they called him the Chief Maid, was carrying this guy’s urine because he could no longer walk.

What happened was that we had to place a bucket beside where he was sleeping and anytime he wanted to urinate he would urinate inside that bucket and then the guy would go and throw the urine away the next day. And when the guy complained that his head was about erupting, I had to put rag in water and started mopping him up. It was very terrible. At the time I could not sleep where I was supposed to sleep and that is why you see me like this.

If I fall sick, I could not complain because if I complained, how could I attend to the other people? So, I was dying with my own sickness and it was not easy for me. Somehow, you know, we were able to convince these people one day that ‘look, you cannot allow all of us to die like that. Even if our company has not paid the ransom, exercise patience’.

So they started taking us out, it was an arrangement. I took the pains to go to their village one day.  I said even if I am going to die, let me die. So, they carried me with their guns and speedboat to their village where we  saw a small health centre that was built by the European Union (EU) for them. We had to beg the doctor, begged one or two persons. So they started bringing two, two persons from the vessel for medication. So, that particular guy who had high blood pressure, they gave him drip for two days after which they stopped.

The 10-man crew of MV Yenagoa kidnapped in August 2008 off the Somali Coast on a visit to Foreign Affairs Minister in Abuja.
The 10-man crew of MV Yenagoa kidnapped in August 2008 off the Somali Coast on a visit to Foreign Affairs Minister in Abuja.

And they took you back into the ship?
Yes, that was our home. We had nowhere to go.  We were  in the ship for 303 days. It was a very, very terrible experience. And until the day of our freedom when they told us to go, like I said before, certain things were shrouded in secrecy and I was not privy to certain information, and I will not want to say certain things that happened between the pirates and the outside world, my family, the government and the rest, I am not privy to certain information. But I was only “told you can go”.

When you were first taken hostage, what was their first demand?
Money.

And you told them you didn’t  have money?
I had 5, 000 US dollars on  me. The first thing they did was to collect that money. And (laughs) you know, I had some N7, 000 in my pocket too, they collected it. I told them “this Naira you cannot change it, so, leave this money”, but they said no. Because anything Nigeria is popular outside and they felt that our money in terms of exchange rate was at par with the US dollars,  they felt that they had  hit millions.

So, they seized that one too. What I understood from them was that 33,000 Shillings equal one dollar. So they thought that Naira was big money, they were very happy having it. After that, they started taking other things, sometimes at gun point, sometimes when you were sleeping, sometimes  when you were not around.

After taking what you had on you, they now said you should contact your employers?
No, no,  I contacted my employer the day after our capture, that was the 4th of  August 2008.  On the 5th , they opened up the lines to the employers and the employers were like today, tomorrow, just like that. I contacted the Business Development Manager, one guy that is called Buchi. He said he was going to handle the negotiations at the initial stage. And he was the first person who agreed on $1 million with them.

So, later when the MD came back from Malaysia and said he did not have that kind of money, they said Africans generally are liars. The pirates didn’t believe what the people were saying. But I did try to make them understand that this was one-man business and not a multi-national company.

“If the man is saying that he does not have $1 million, it is true. So, whatever the man can offer you, take it”. So, they now gave an ultimatum that if the man did not pay at so, so time, they were going to execute everybody”. So, when the payment was not made, we started begging them, at first, it was not easy. Everyday, we were kneeling down, begging them, just to spare our lives; I mean these guys were, I don’t know how to describe them. And when that promise was not fulfilled, they decided to extend the deadline.

When the MD came and said,”  look, we don’t have that kind money”,  how much did he say he will part with?
Well, according to him, he had $200,000 and the people said they were not going to take that. The people now told him that since Buchi  had said that he could make arrangement to pay $1 million, “how come you are now singing a different song? So, if you are now saying that you don’t have the $1 million to pay, then it means that we are going to make the money $2 million”.

So, they compounded the problem again. It took a long time before they resumed negotiation until the MD and them finally settled for $600,000. It was almost after seven months or thereabouts. And during that time, the suffering was too much and we thought we were all going to die. The miracle is that nobody died, but we are not the same up till now.

When the MD agreed to pay $600,000, why did he not pay it?
He made a lot of promises, he told them that to carry $600,000 from Nigeria, he would charter a plane to fly the money straight to Jubudi and from there he would make arrangement to fly the money and drop the money for them, then they would free the boat or, as the time his plane took off, they should take a boat to a particular position and give him the position and, as soon as he got there, he would drop the money. And then, after a long period again, when the suffering became too much, they now said they only had $300,000. They now came down from $600,000 to $300, 000. But, before then, two men came to visit us from the city they called Bosaso. And those two men said they were sent by the company. And when I asked this admin. manager, Torrence, he said yes that our company sent them.

 Captain Graham  Egbegi (2nd right) introducing his crew members to the Foreign Minister, Ojo Maduekwe.
Captain Graham Egbegi (2nd right) introducing his crew members to the Foreign Minister, Ojo Maduekwe.

Where they Nigerians?
No, they were Somalis. So, that day, our MD asked me, the phone was on speaker. He said he wanted to speak to the entire crew members to know if everybody was alive. So, I called everybody, which was on the 5th of March, 2009.  Everybody was on the bridge together with the pirates and those two people they sent in. When the people started discussing with him, he said what they could afford was $300,000.

But the people they sent told him that “you said you have $600,000″, that they should come and see the ship to know if that is the ship itself, that they really wanted to hear my voice and that of the crew to know that those were their people. And they had heard everything, “how come he was now saying that it was $300,000″. So, the man now discussed with the other pirates and they said okay, “even if that is the case, we will take the $300,000″.  So, they agreed that they were going to take the $300,000. And in the course of the discussion, I don’t know what happened, this Torrence just flared up and told the pirates that he was tired of discussing with them. He repeated it not once, not twice.

And you were hearing his voice
He was on speaker, everybody was hearing. All of us were there. So everybody went down on his  knees and we were begging the Somali pirates. It was then the pirates said, “you see, your employer does not even care about your lives”.  I think that was the turning point when God started his miracle.

Altogether, how many of you were on board?
We were ten.

And you had ladies among you?
No, we were all men. It is not a passenger  vessel, it is a supply vessel. It is specifically designed for offshore operations in the oil industry. It is not a cargo vessel, it is not fishing vessel, it is not a tanker. This one is called supply vessel.

When you got to that turning point, how did the events unfold?
Well, when that particular statement was made and when the people looked at us and finally when they saw the people crying and the state of health of the Nigerians and all the rest, they just shook their heads, carried their guns and left. The people too that they sent were disappointed in Torrence. They said they should send their account details to Nigeria so that they could pay the money, the $300, 000 to the pirates so that we could be freed. So, the next day again we were discussing on phone and he said we were the ones delaying the whole process from our end.

From your own end?
Yes, because the account details had not been sent. I told them that where we were was far from Bosaso and the people had already gone to Bosaso and that it was on their getting there that they would send the details.  After all you are the one that have been talking to them, not me. So, later the people confirmed that they had sent all the details.

Those emissaries?
Those two emissaries that came from Bosaso, and the engineer, at that point, said they would need some fuel if the boat would have to sail from Somalia to Djibouti, and then come to Nigeria. We didn’t have the strength to come to Nigeria. So they needed about 20,000 dollars for fueling, food and some other things.

Because we had no food to eat, we were only eating  rice. And a couple of days later, Torrence said that the company could afford the $20,000 that we should wait for them and we have waited till perhaps maybe when the kingdom of God comes.  Up till now, we haven’t seen that. Let me draw you back again: Sometime in November 2008, some fuel was sent on board and after we had taken the fuel …

Sent by the pirates?
No, no, by the company.  Some money was sent to buy fuel on board because they gave the impression that they wanted to pay the money at that time when it was $600,000.  The negotiator  for the pirates then told our  MD  that “if you know you don’t have the ransom, there is no need buying the fuel  because, at the end of the day, the pirates would use the whole  fuel as  they like enjoyment so much. They will use everything and the people cannot stop them from running the generators”. He said he was ready to pay and when they brought the fuel, he never brought any money.  Our  MD stopped talking to us in  December 2008.

From the second week of December, the MD stopped talking to us.  So, for six months, he did not talk to us until we were released.  Meanwhile,  he had promised our families  that we would be home before Christmas. So all expectations were dashed and that was the situation until May or June.  From  that point, it was only Terence that was speaking to  us because he sold us a dummy that the MD was ill and could not talk to us.  So we too believed that the man was ill.

The last time the MD spoke with you,  what did he say?
The last time he spoke with me, which was the second week of December, he said  he was ready to pay the money.

The $300,000?
No, the $600,000.  The $300,000 came sometime this year.  After his promise, I was begging him that, “look, for the sake of those who are very sick, I don’t want anybody to die here, try and let us get out of this place.”  He said that he had the money already, that the money was with him and that how to deliver the money was his problem.

And I told him “but the people have told you how you would deliver the money.  How else do you want this money to be delivered?”  He said ok, either he would come with a flight or he would come with a fast craft but we would come to a certain position.  So I told him I was ready to come.  Even if they were not ready to release the ship, I was ready to go with them to wherever they would bring the money.

The MD told me “no, you don’t have to  risk your life” and I said, “look, my life   is only 99 per cent.  The only thing keeping me alive is the only 1 per cent.  So forget about my life.”  He said you must realise that you have loved ones back home and then he began to speak in rhetoric and so many funny things like that. After that he switched off his phone.

Then Terrence told us one day that he was sending an agent and that the agent was coming through Mali.  That agent is still coming from Mali up till  today.  We have not seen him.

When the MD spoke with you,  what did he tell you just before you were released?
Just before we were released, I spoke with him and he said “don’t worry. We are doing everything possible and that very soon, you  will come home.” That was his last word.

Now, with what has happened, what will be the next line of action?
We need to get back home first. It is too early for us to  say anything. We need to get back home, see our families and put our houses in order first, because, like you know, every family is totally dislocated. But the next line of action, like I have said,  is when we get back home; we need to sit down before we decide.

How long have you been in the employment of the company?
I was employed on the 9th of June, 2008. And today is 27th of June 2009. I was employed just two days or rather a day before I went for this disastrous journey. I was given my employment letter on the 9th June and I left Nigeria on the 10th and ever since I have not set my eyes on my family till this very moment that I am talking to you.
Since you came back, obviously you have been in contact with your family.
Of course, I was even talking to my wife this morning.

Were your salaries being paid to your wife?
Never, never, even when we were there, we were begging most of our friends to give our families money. So, I  am sure that by the time I get home, I will be  indebted. And I have to pay. This guy’s wife (pointing at one of the crew members),  where is Timothy? I learnt Timothy’s wife was even molested; she was manhandled at the company’s premises. She was beaten up. Sometimes, when the other women called,  they will just warn them outright on the phone that they should never, never call the line. That has been the situation all along.

When  you were under the captivity of these hostages, were you able to see how they treated other captains from other ships?
Our’s was the only vessel there. I was in a secluded place. There is a particular town they called Hale, that is the headquarters of the pirates,  that is what we were made to understand. That is where you have the bulk of the vessels. We were not there. We were in a secluded place. So I really could not see how those other people were treated. I was in a village called Abo.

A miracle happened on the 5th of June, 2009. What was that miracle?
You see, I woke up like any other morning, frustrated, devastated, but I always believed that God would rescue me one day. So I came down to the deck, the walking space. A few days before then, I saw the pirates carrying their heavy weapons out of the ship. And we were just generally discussing that, “look, God is in control.”

Were you speaking  English with them or which language?
We spoke English. They weren’t speaking  fluent English but we could understand. They were carrying those heavy weapons out of the ship and two rifles and a couple of rifles were left. And, after a few days, they removed one of the rifles  again and we were left with just one rifle and one pirate.

So that particular pirate called me and  said.  ‘Captain,  you go, you go Nigeria’.  That was the way he put it.  And I said “how can I go to Nigeria?  You are not the one to free me.  You have bosses, unless your bosses say I should go, that is when I can go, you are just a field worker.”  He said “no don’t worry”.

Later,  he called the engineer and said “go and work on your engine and see how your engine can start.”  Initially we thought it was a joke.  So when he became serious and hostile, kind of, the engineer now went in and started the engine.  And in the process, he was speaking to somebody on phone.

They were speaking their Somali language and later he called me to the front and he gave me the phone to speak to one of the sponsors.  The guy just said, `Captain, leave, go now, now, now’.  That was how he put it.

It was in the process that I came alive and I told everyone, ‘Gentlemen, we have got a chance’.  In the process,  the guy told us to pick up our anchor and we did.  But before then I went and saw the phone numbers of the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Rescue Centre Malaysia, so I wrote the number and put in my pocket.

I thought it was a joke but when I picked up our anchor, the guy said we should drop one of our inflatable speed boats for him;  so he gave me his gun, I held his gun and then he went into the boat, I gave him his gun myself and he said “go”.

As soon as we started, I just called the people and told them that we had  just been released and that we would need some security cover/back –up so that other groups would not hijack us  again on the way.  I gave them my position, my heading, my speed and where I was going to.

After some 10 minutes again,  I called them.  They said they had already given the information out and immediately I called the Nigerian Ambassador to Kenya, Dr. Wigwe,  who had been in constant touch with me throughout this ordeal.  We had been relating all our situation to him and that man is a very nice man any time,  any day.

After that,  I called my MD and told him that we had been freed and we were heading to Mukalla because the fuel could only take us to Mukalla, after which I called the Malaysian line again who gave me another hotline in the U K.  I called the U K line which gave me the phone number of a particular ship The Seven Province.  They said they had already informed them and had assigned them to come and assist us.

I called that ship which said they would rendezvous with me sometime in the morning.  So we were just going.  In the night,  we  decided to switch off all the lights in the ship.  Funny enough,  I saw something in the radar that was moving very close to us and I told my crew that “look,  I am seeing a target that is moving towards us again.  I don’t know if  it is a very fast moving vessel or  the pirates again”. So everybody should keep eyes open and watch.

So,  while everybody was watching, we    saw a very small white boat just   moving this way and that way, not on a straight line, then, all of a sudden, I saw a very gigantic vessel behind me with all the lights on. It was later I came to realise it was the French vessel.

The presidential task force that met us there also contacted the French which happened to be true because the vessel was a French Naval Vessel.  They met us and gave us cover until The Seven Province came.  So when The Seven Province came, I complained to them about the health of the crew , especially that guy who had high blood pressure.

What did they do when they came?
Before then,  they dispatched a security team because so many stories had been heard about this Yenagoa Ocean, so they really wanted to ascertain the content.  When I came in, one of the local tabloids said I was carrying luxurious cars and all that.  They checked everywhere and were satisfied.  They  now sent their medical team to us.  They gave us food and water. They asked if I could take command of the vessel and I said yes.  It is my responsibility.  After that,  they escorted us to Yemen.

What was the role of the Federal Government in all of these?
Like I said before, so many things were done in secrecy.  I was calling the Nigerian High Commissioner in Kenya.  I believe he must have been communicating those things to the officials of the Federal Government but whatever they did I don’t know.

What are your expectations as you return home?
Normally,  after this kind of terrible ordeal, when you come back home, you would need to be given all your salaries or whatever entitlements that are due  you.  But,  up till this morning, we have not seen our employer.  He was not even at the airport to welcome us. We are not government employees. Whatever government does for us is some kind of magnanimity on their own part.

We are appealing to the government as citizens of this country that they should not allow us to die like that because we don’t even know when the company will pay us.   If you go to court , you know the situation in our courts.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.