Somalia’s pirates are turning violent in the face of pressure from foreign navies – and proving as successful as ever, reports Colin Freeman
Three months after he swapped them for a $5.4 million ransom, Budiga the Pirate still dances a wicked jig in the dreams of the crew of the Marida Marguerite. On some occasions, sailor Sandeep Dangwal remembers the day Budiga trussed him up on deck and tortured him. On others, he recalls the day Budiga stripped the ship’s captain naked and forced him into the deep freeze, or the time a fellow crewman was left to hang by his wrists from a 40-foot mast.
“Budiga was the nastiest pirate devil ever,” said Mr Dangwal, 26, who spent eight months as a hostage. “I still have bad dreams about that bastard now, and whenever I hear about a new ship being hijacked it upsets me. I hate to think that other people might suffer what I suffered.”
Talking last week from his home outside Delhi, Mr Dangwal is the first sailor to speak out about a sinister new trend in Somalia’s piracy epidemic, in which the modern-day buccaneers are turning to the kind of brutality more associated with their medieval predecessors.
While the pirate victims of yesteryear might fear the cat o’nine tails or walking the plank, today they risk punishments such as being being “cooled” in a ship’s walk-in freezer, “cooked” on a hot metal shipdeck in the midday sun, or forced to phone a distraught relative while a pirate fires a Kalashnikov in close earshot.
Previously known for treating hostages relatively well, the pirate gangs have adopted a new ruthlessness to pressure ship owners into paying ever higher ransoms, which already total hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
Coupled with figures which show that the number of piracy attacks is still increasing, the trend has prompted a new level of alarm through the international maritime world. Leading figures in the British shipping industry have told The Sunday Telegraph that Western naval forces must now take far tougher action to prevent the problem “spiralling out of control”.
At the same time, maritime trade unions have warned that their members may soon refuse to sail through the pirate “high risk” area – which now covers much of the western Indian Ocean. Such a move would paralyse the key global shipping route through the Suez Canal, and also threaten oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.
“It’s not just about the seafarers who are unlucky enough to be hijacked, it is stressful for all sailors who transit through the area, who now face four or five days in fear of their lives,” said Jon Whitlow, of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. “Who would put up with that in any other line of work?”
Uppermost in the unions’ minds is the fate of ships like the Marida Marguerite, a 13,000 tonne chemical container vessel that was taken last May. For the first three months, the 22 crew were treated humanely, but as ransom talks dragged on, the pirates’ patience frayed.
“They took me on deck one day and tied my hands and my legs behind my back for two hours, and also tightened a cable around my genitals,” said Mr Dangwal, an engine technician. “When I screamed, they tightened it more.”
Others suffered even more. The ship’s captain was put naked into the vessel’s freezer with his underwear filled with ice, spending half an hour in temperatures of minus 17C. When the chief engineer got the same treatment, and tried running around to keep warm, the pirates hung him from the freezer’s meathook. The sailor who was suspended by his wrists from the mast, meanwhile, passed out after two hours.
“There was a period when none of us thought we’d come out alive,” said sailor Dipendra Singh Rathore, 22, a devout Hindu, who was so distraught that at one point he gave up praying. “I was not personally beaten much, but hearing what was happening to the others was bad enough.”
According to Major General Buster Howes, the British commander of the European Union Naval Force, there are now “regular manifestations of systematic torture” by pirate gangs. There has even been one incident of “keelhauling”, a 15th century pirate practice in which sailors are thrown over one side of a ship and dragged by a rope under the keel to the other.
“It is barbaric,” said Bill Box, of Intertanko, the international association of independent tanker owners. “If they pull the sailor too quick, he will be ripped apart by the barnacles on the ship’s underside, and if they pull him too slowly, he may drown.”
While still confined to a minority of hijack cases, such brutality runs counter to the pirates’ carefully-cultivated image as African “Robin Hoods”. Until now, they have prided themselves on using only the minimum force necessary, claiming merely to be “taxing” passing vessels in revenge for foreign poaching of their fish stocks.
One theory is that as foreign navies have tried to crack down on the problem, the ex-fishermen who originally dominated the piracy game have been replaced by hardened militiamen, who are also more likely to stand their ground when confronted. Seven hostages have died this year in stand-offs with the 25-odd foreign warships patrolling the region, including four American yachters on the SV Quest in February.
Another evolution in pirate tactics is the use of “mother ships” – hijacked vessels which allow them to range for hundreds of miles, and which serve as floating jails for hostages.
Two weeks ago, the Indian Navy launched an attack on another mother ship, a Mozambican trawler called the Vega 5, arresting some 61 pirates and rescuing 13 hijacked crew members. But up to a dozen others still remain operational, despite the multi-national fleet knowing where they are. European naval commanders insist that attacking them carries too much risk of hostages getting killed, however, such is the threat that the shipping industry says only a “military solution” is now practical.
“The mother ships represent an industrialisation of piracy, and we have to find a way of breaking the cycle,” said Gavin Simmonds, head of international policy at the British Chamber of Shipping.
“The military has got to be more robust, as the consequences of leaving the situation as it is are greater than those of using greater force.”
Hijacking figures appear to back the view that the anti-piracy fleet is having little effect. Last year saw a record 1,016 crew members taken hostage, compared with 867 in 2009 and 815 in 2008, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
“The situation has not improved,” said Captain Pottengal Mukundan, director of the bureau’s piracy reporting centre. “Random demands are higher, and they are keeping ships for longer – some have been held for more than a year.”
Some now go as far as to back a “shoot on sight” policy. Jacob Stolt-Nielsen, a Norwegian shipping magnate, said earlier this year that history proved it to be the only effective way to police areas as large as oceans. “I’m just telling it like it is,” he said. “The way to solve the pirate problem is to sink the pirates and their ships.”
However, any more “robust” approach would involve Western navies reassessing their current rules of engagement, which generally allow lethal force only when they are directly engaged in acts piracy, and which place some emphasis on pirates’ human rights
Not surprisingly, that is a consideration that Mr Dangwal has little time for. Anything that stops Budiga claiming more victims is justified, he says. “These aren’t pirates, they are terrorists. There should be no mercy.”