You would think that to be a victim of piracy you would have to be captured by a pirate. After all, there are plenty of seafarers who have suffered and continue to suffer that fate. The experiences of Zaude and Jornito, two Filipino seafarers, suggest that things are not as simple as that.
The ripple effect of piracy in the Indian Ocean reached the harbours of the Gulf when the ship that Zaude and Jornito were destined to join arrived at a UAE port. The vessel was an ex-coastguard cutter whose new owners wanted to jump on the anti-piracy bandwagon where serious money could be made in the maritime security business. A contractor was employed to make extensive and expensive alterations to the vessel, turning it into a kind of ‘good guys’ mother-ship, boasting even an operating theatre in which piracy victims could be treated as a result of being rescued by the fast patrol boats lowered from its decks.
However, by the time the configuring work was nearing completion in late 2011 the security climate in its intended sphere of operations looked very different. What seemed like a good business idea in 2009/10 at the height of the piracy crisis off Somalia now looked much less promising as anti-piracy measures taken by ship owners (armed guards, razor wire etc) and governments (convoys, naval escorts etc) led to dramatic falls in the piracy threat. What had been a market full of rich pickings for maritime security firms now looked like an over-fished pond, with ‘security opportunities’ very few and far between.
The opportunistic owners of the vessel responded to these changed circumstances by refusing to pay the contractor for his work. They also quietly dissociated themselves from the vessel itself, having made sure that the secrecy of their own identities was preserved behind ownership documentation which referred to a front man – a man whose business interests centred almost exclusively on the Wild West world of supplying to Somalia anything that a business in a failed state might conceivably need.
In 2012 Zaude and Jornito arrived on board the problem that the anti-piracy vessel had become, replacing as a skeleton crew the full crew who had just signed off. Their responsibilities amounted to little more than watch keeping while the various interested parties argued over what was to become of the failed business venture. As promises of salary and even food and water came to nothing they realised that they had been abandoned as an irritating inconvenience by the front man who was more interested in pursuing his other business ventures.
It was during one of his visits to the port in question that Fr John Van Deerlin of Mission to Seafarers UAE came across Zaude and Jornito and learned of their plight. So began a long story of regular visits (often with food and water), numerous phone calls, and occasional meetings with the ‘owner’, the agent and the contractor by MtS chaplains in their efforts to broker a solution to what seemed to be an intractable problem created by greed, indifference and buck-passing.
After two and a half years of supporting Zaude and Jornito in their ordeal, and pressuring, persuading and even pleading with the principle players a solution started to take tentative form. Could we get everyone to agree that replacement watchmen recruited from Mumbai would replace Zaude and Jornito so allowing them to leave for home? With help from contacts in the shipping world in Dubai and Mumbai two such men were found and agreements were reached to employ (and pay!) them.
Last minute administrative hitches notwithstanding I met Zaude and Jornito at Dubai airport with their tickets in my pocket. It seemed very strange seeing them in a setting other than the depressing emptiness of the ship that had been their prison for more than two and a half years. After several embraces and some excited posing for photographs I watched them disappear through immigration on their way to the departure gate. Still fearful that some final unexpected hitch might yet happen I made them promise to text me when they were on the plane. An hour later my phone ‘pinged’. I opened the message. ‘Sir, we are on the plane right now! Thank you so much sir. We are soooooo happy right now! AT LAST!’
The postscript to this story is that Zaude and Jornito are owed a total of nearly $80,000 in unpaid salary. The only prospect of them getting any of this is if the vessel is sold in order to settle the many debts. Mission to Seafarers UAE has undertaken to represent Zaude and Jornito in the on-going challenge of recovering their money, as we pray that a buyer of this peculiar and troublesome ship might be found. And because they have been out of action for so long their seafarer qualifications have expired and they will have to re train from scratch, at considerable cost. They never went anywhere near Somalia, but they certainly suffered and continue to suffer because of piracy.