Escape Or Die: How Sailors Escaped The Clutches Of Pirates In Somalia
This story was published by www.newyorker.com
BY JAMES VERINI
Aman Kumar, a seaman on the M.V. Albedo, was asleep when an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “Pirates are approaching.” The Albedo was in the Indian Ocean, a thousand miles from the eastern coast of Africa. Kumar rushed up a narrow stairwell to the bridge, where most of the ship’s twenty-three-man crew had already gathered. His bunkmate, Rajoo Rajbhar, pointed to port. They could make out a distant silhouette on top of the waves: an open-bow skiff.
The Albedo’s captain, Jawaid Khan, had stored prewritten distress messages in his e-mail drafts folder. He entered the ship’s coördinates and sent messages to the European Union Naval Force, a regional maritime-security office, and a piracy-reporting center. Then he directed the steersman to maneuver the ship in a zigzag pattern. He called the engine room and ordered full steam, but the Albedo, a cargo ship on its way from the United Arab Emirates to Kenya, was old and sluggish.
It was the morning of November 26, 2010. The Albedo was west of the Maldives, closer to India than to Somalia, but Somali pirates were known to range broadly. So far that year, they had attacked more than two hundred ships, many of them in the central Indian Ocean. Before sailing, the crew had ringed the deck with barbed wire and affixed an electric wire to the gunwale, hoping to prevent anyone from boarding the ship uninvited.
Kumar and Rajbhar plugged in the electric wire. By then, the skiff was just a few hundred yards away. On board were four men wearing T-shirts and sarongs and carrying Kalashnikov-style rifles. Some commercial crews had deterred hijackings by spraying assailants with fire hoses, among other tactics, but Captain Khan had never received antipiracy training. The sailors watched helplessly as the skiff pulled alongside the ship.
The Albedo was weighed down with cargo, leaving its main deck close to the water. The pirates retrieved a long ladder with hooks on one end, hung it over the deck wall, and climbed it easily, without any shocks from the electric wire. (It may have malfunctioned, or the assailants may have been lucky and missed it.) The first pirate to reach the barbed wire pulled back for a moment, then charged through it, the metal cutting into his flesh. “I did not imagine people like these living in this world,” Kumar said.
The captain ordered everyone off the bridge, and Shahriar Aliabadi, the bosun, led the crewmen to the engine room. They heard gunfire and shattering glass above them. After a few minutes, a heavily accented voice came over the loudspeaker. “Come on bridge, Captain,” it said, in English. “Come on bridge with crew, otherwise we kill.”
Soon, they heard Khan’s voice ordering them to the bridge. They went upstairs. One pirate yelled and jabbed at them with the butt of his rifle, and the crewmen fell to their knees. Then another pirate silenced him and took over. Like the others, he wore a sarong and a T-shirt, but his clothes were cleaner, his hair more kempt. He introduced himself as Ali Jabin. “We want only company money,” he said. “If company pay money, no problem.” He ordered the seamen to collect everything valuable from their cabins—cell phones, cash, cameras—and pile it on the bridge. “Crew problem, Somalia problem,” he said. “Crew no problem, Somalia no problem.”
Jabin showed Khan a set of coördinates and told him to head in that direction. After a few hours, the ship came upon a fishing trawler. Khan was instructed to stop, and eight more Somali pirates, carrying heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, boarded the ship. From there, Khan continued toward Somalia.
Six days later, the Albedo came in sight of the Somali coast. Jabin told Khan to head toward the shore. Khan objected—with no charts of the area, he could not avoid shoals or reefs that might ground the ship.
“Do you want to live or do you want to die?” Jabin said, and Khan complied.
The Albedo anchored three miles from shore, and Jabin told the crew that they would wait there until the shipping company paid a ransom. He assured them that it wouldn’t take long. “No problem,” he said. “Soon you go home.”
As an ordinary seaman, Aman Kumar—tall and a bit pudgy, with watchful, dolorous eyes—was the lowest-ranking crewman on board. He was also the youngest, at eighteen. Until the previous year, when he left his home in rural India to enroll in a maritime academy in Kolkata, he had never seen a body of water larger than the lake near his family’s farm. After graduation, a shipping agent told him that he could earn two hundred and fifty dollars a month on the Albedo. Kumar assumed this was a lie—he had never seen so much money. His trip to Dubai, where the Albedo was docked, was his first on an airplane. “I was afraid for everything,” he said later.
Rajoo Rajbhar had attended the same maritime academy before joining Kumar on the Albedo. They were the only Indian members of the crew, and they bonded quickly. They bunked together four stories above the deck, in a superstructure in the stern of the ship. They played cards, watched Bollywood movies, and helped each other with menial chores. The Albedo’s captain was from Karachi, and like most cargo ships it had a crew from several countries: in addition to the two Indians, there were six Pakistanis, seven Bangladeshis, six Sri Lankans, and one Iranian, Aliabadi, a relative of the ship’s owner. At twenty-six, Aliabadi had a widow’s peak and a stern countenance. Although he had little experience at sea, the owner had appointed him bosun, the highest-ranking non-officer on board.
Captain Jawaid Khan had worked on ships for four decades, giving up a home life to provide his family a home. He was away during the birth of his older daughter, Nareman, and had missed much of her childhood. By now, she had earned a university degree and had moved to Dubai to work as a consultant. When the Albedo was preparing to embark, Khan’s wife, Shahnaz, was visiting Nareman in Dubai, and they went to the dock to see him off. He admitted to them that he was worried about the Albedo’s course; he had requested armed guards, but the shipping company had refused. Shahnaz and Nareman asked him to stay behind. “I can’t just get off the ship,” he told them. “If I do, the whole crew will say that they’re not sailing.”
The Albedo was supposed to leave with twenty-four men. The day before it put out, an Egyptian electrician quit. He’d had a dream in which some unseen force plucked the Albedo from the water and flung it onto a desert shore. The electrician, certain that something terrible would befall the ship, left without collecting his pay.
On the day of the hijacking, Nareman tried to reach Khan on the ship’s satellite phone. When she couldn’t get through, she called a shipping agent who knew the ship’s owner. The agent told her that the ship had been attacked. Shahnaz, who was still with Nareman in Dubai, saw her daughter, cell phone against her ear, sink to her knees.
After the Albedo anchored near Somalia, most of the hijackers left the ship. They were replaced by about a dozen armed guards, two cooks, and a large man with a hoarse voice, who introduced himself as the new boss. Jabin, who had stayed on board, would be his head guard. The crewmen were assured that they would be home within weeks. “You are our guests,” the boss said. “We are only interested in money.”
The Albedo was five hundred feet long, and it was loaded with several thousand tons of cement, rice, flatware, and other cargo. Majestic Enrich Shipping, owned by an Iranian named Omid Khosrojerdi, had bought the ship in 2009 and reflagged it out of Malaysia, which issued a “flag of convenience,” a cheap imprimatur that provided little protection. Countries that issue these flags “set low standards and abdicate all responsibility if something goes wrong,” Alan Cole, of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, or U.N.O.D.C., told me.
Despite its name, Majestic Enrich was a tiny company. Khosrojerdi seems to have been its only employee. (Its Web site describes Khosrojerdi as having a degree in “nano-electronics engineering,” and mentions only one other person, a board member.) According to Khan and Aliabadi, the Albedo was Khosrojerdi’s only vessel. It is common practice for cargo ships passing near Somalia to carry piracy and war-risk insurance; the Albedo had neither.
The central government of Somalia is so weak that it does not control the country. Much of Somalia is divided into semiautonomous regions ruled by family clans or militias. In the middle of the last decade, many Somali pirate gangs, some pretending to legitimacy with names like the National Volunteer Coast Guard, attracted young men desperate for work. The pirates trawled an area of thousands of square miles, from the Mozambique Channel to the Red Sea. They coördinated their operations by means of smartphones and social media, employed professional negotiators, and solicited investments from Somali emigrants around the world. In 2010, Somali pirates took more than a thousand hostages and earned at least a hundred million dollars.
In many cases, ships were captured, ransomed, and released within weeks. The speed of the transaction depended on the shipping company’s ability to raise money and on the competency of the pirates. Leslie Edwards, a British hostage negotiator who has handled more than a dozen piracy cases, told me that some gangs were “very professional”: based on an assessment of a ship’s owner and its cargo, they would “make intelligent and articulate arguments about why they should get a certain figure.” Other groups, Edwards said, were “full of bullshit.”
In January, 2011, more than a month after taking possession of the Albedo, the pirates presented their ransom demand: six million dollars. Khosrojerdi told Captain Khan, “Please convey to the head pirates that the amount should be reasonable so that I can try to raise loans and borrow money.” Khan told the pirates that six million dollars was “probably double the value of the ship,” but they refused to reconsider.
For weeks, the pirates and the seamen waited for a response from Khosrojerdi. The days took on a dreary rhythm. The crew washed the ship, inspected its hull for leaks, and maintained the diesel generator, which powered a pump that provided a small supply of fresh water. The Somali guards relieved themselves wherever they liked, and Kumar and Rajbhar, the Indian crewmen, were tasked with cleaning up after them. At night, the crewmen were allowed to play cards in the recreation room. They shared what little information they had gleaned about their captors. “They have no government,” the steersman said. An older crewman, who had once docked in Somalia briefly, knew little about pirates except that they usually let ships go. The oiler, from Bangladesh, recalled that, when he was a child, his imam had asked him to pray for Muslims dying in a civil war in Somalia. “I think maybe good country,” the oiler said. “After they caught us, then I think, Why did we pray for them?”
As negotiations dragged on, the Somali guards grew frustrated, and they began to beat the crew. One guard, a short man with blackened teeth and thick scars on the back of his neck, walked around the ship with a pistol tucked into the waist of his sarong, hitting crewmen at random and threatening to kill them. When the generator stopped working, he beat the ship’s chief engineer unconscious. At one point, he tied Khan by the ankles and dangled him, head first, in the water. “We can’t say anything,” one of the crewmen said later. “In front we show respect, but inside we burn to kill them.”
Jabin was slower to anger. One day, he called Aliabadi, the bosun, into the recreation room, where several guards were seated around a table. “What is the cargo on this ship?” he asked.
Aliabadi, using broken English and facial gestures, told the truth: only the captain and the owner knew what was inside the cargo holds.
“You’re lying,” Jabin said. He ordered Aliabadi to open all the cargo containers. Aliabadi tried to explain that, because of the way the containers were stacked, this would require docking and unloading the entire ship.
Another guard slammed Aliabadi’s head against the tabletop and pressed a pistol to his temple. Aliabadi closed his eyes and whispered a Koranic death prayer. Eventually, Jabin took the pistol, said something in Somali to the other guard, and allowed Aliabadi to leave.
In February, Khosrojerdi called and offered the pirates a ransom of a million dollars. They were incensed. “It’s bullshit,” one said to Khan. “He’s a liar.” They refused to believe that the Albedo and its contents were worth so little. That month, a tanker was hijacked north of Somalia; it was ransomed for thirteen and a half million dollars, setting a record. Perhaps in response to this, the Albedo pirates raised their demand to thirteen million dollars.
Four months after the hijacking, the crewmen were allowed to call their families for the first time. One of the sailors learned that his wife had suffered a heart attack after seeing a news report about the Albedo. Kumar reached his mother and tried to explain the situation. “But my mother does not know what is Somalia, what is a pirate, what is a hijacking,” he said. She handed the phone to her husband. Kumar, crying, told his father that he would be home soon.
A new Somali negotiator boarded the ship. The previous negotiator understood that the crewmen were almost as poor as their Somali counterparts, if not poorer, and that they would have little influence over their home governments; brute force, therefore, would be a waste of time. The new negotiator either did not grasp this fact or did not care. When Khosrojerdi stopped returning his calls, the negotiator announced that he had drawn up a list of crew members whom he planned to execute. If Khosrojerdi did not offer a payment within a week, the negotiator would start killing them, one by one.
A week went by, and the negotiator, who had left the ship, returned and called Khosrojerdi’s number. There was no answer. “Now we must start killing,” he said. He gathered the captives on the bridge of the ship. Aliabadi whispered to Rajoo Rajbhar, who was sitting next to him, that the Somalis only wanted to scare them. One of the guards called Rajbhar’s name and led him off the bridge, out of sight. Then shots rang out.
Khan was led away next. Instead of shooting him, a guard took him to Rajbhar, who was on his back, limbs splayed, his T-shirt stained red. “When I went close to him, I could see that he was dead,” Khan said. The pirates ordered two crewmen to carry the corpse to a freezer. After that, a Bangladeshi crew member said, “we think they will kill us one by one like this.”
For weeks, Kumar refused to believe that Rajbhar, his closest friend on the ship, was gone. He considered jumping off the deck and drowning himself. Aliabadi looked after him, taking on his duties and making sure that he was eating. Eventually, Kumar decided that, if he and his crewmates were to survive, “we would have to fight.” They couldn’t force their way off the ship, but perhaps they could reason their way off, even if their captors were unreasonable. He resolved to learn everything he could about Jabin and the other hijackers.
Two Somalis who worked as cooks were friendlier than the others; they slipped the sailors extra food when they could. Kumar offered his services in the galley. With only two meals a day—usually noodles, rice, or potatoes—there was plenty of time to talk. The cooks taught him some Somali, and he wrote down the words in a small notebook, which he kept hidden. While working on the bridge, he eavesdropped on exchanges between the guards. He brought them tea and cigarettes, did their laundry, and listened to them as much as he could. In the galley, the cooks listened to Western pop music: Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bieber, Shakira. Kumar adored it all. He especially loved the Céline Dion song “I’m Alive,” which became a kind of personal anthem.
The guards all chewed khat, a plant with amphetaminelike effects. The drug is among the most profitable businesses in Somalia and is usually one of the biggest line items in a pirate gang’s budget. Kumar had grown used to sweeping up piles of leaves and chewed-up stalks. Now he developed a habit of his own. “If you sit with them to eat khat, they are very happy,” Kumar said. “They talk too much.”
Soon, they were describing the mechanics of the Albedo operation. Hijackings were complex financial enterprises, they explained, with committees of investors, accountants, even classes of shares. Assuming that there was a sizable ransom, each of the major financiers probably stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars; Jabin would likely make in the tens of thousands. Like the Albedo crewmen, the Somali cooks and guards were mere laborers and would earn only a few hundred dollars. While negotiations dragged on, the investors continued to pay for food, fuel, and supplies. With every passing day, their overhead increased, making them less willing to lower the ransom demand.
Some of the Somali guards knew the Koran well and were heartened to find that the Bangladeshi and Pakistani crewmen did, too. The sailors pointed out that it was a sin to kidnap fellow-Muslims. (One Koranic verse, 9:5, is sometimes interpreted to mean that only non-believers may be held in captivity.) But the guards argued that piracy was their only alternative to starvation. One of them said, “If you can’t give money, then you all are Christians.”
In 2008, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force against Somali pirates, but only a few countries are able and willing to exercise it. Military interventions almost always occur in international waters. (The most famous of these—the 2009 raid depicted in the movie “Captain Phillips”—took place three hundred miles from shore.) Within Somalia’s borders, the U.S. military focusses on the Shabaab, the terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda. Richard Neylon, a lawyer who handles piracy cases, told me that, once a ship has been hijacked and brought to shore, “there is a very short list of unappealing options” for ship owners. “Ultimately, the only viable option is to negotiate and pay a ransom.”
Recently, I visited the daughter of one of the Albedo sailors, in Sri Lanka. She said that she had contacted Sri Lankan officials about her father and received no response. In Bangladesh, I met with the family of another sailor, Aminul Islam. His parents told me they had appealed to the Bangladeshi government, which initially denied any responsibility: because Islam had not received official permission to work for a foreign company, he was at sea illegally. “They don’t listen,” Islam’s mother said.
Aman Kumar’s father told me that, after months of harassing Indian officials, he finally heard from the Ministry of Shipping. An official there told him that the government was aware of the problem and was doing all it could. Kumar’s father says that he suggested trying to raise money for a ransom but was told that it would be fruitless—no matter how much he raised, the pirates would ask for more. The father printed out any news he could find about the Albedo and kept it in a folder under his bed. Every day, he and his wife went to local shrines to pray for their son.
Shahnaz Khan, the captain’s wife, was one of the only people in touch with both sides: the Somalis and Khosrojerdi, the owner. After Khosrojerdi failed to prevent Rajbhar’s murder, she realized that the crew could not depend on the owner to get them out safely. In the summer of 2011, she began canvassing Pakistani officials, diplomats, and businesspeople for help. She and her younger daughter, Mishal, who had moved home to support her mother, set up donation boxes outside local mosques. Mishal and Nareman made a Web site and a Facebook page, and appeared on talk shows. Nareman arranged meetings with several ambassadors and philanthropists in Dubai. “They seemed very promising, but they never did anything,” she said. Still, by early 2012 the family had collected about a million dollars, most of it from a real-estate mogul in Karachi who had seen Mishal on TV.
When the Somalis heard that there was ransom money in Pakistan, they took the captain, the six Pakistani crew members, and other sailors, including Kumar and Aliabadi, to shore in a motorboat. Onshore, the crewmen were loaded into S.U.V.s and driven to a remote area in the bush. Khan was handed a phone and told that, if he didn’t arrange for the money to be delivered, he would spend the rest of his life in Somalia.
A few weeks later, Shahnaz received an e-mail from an anonymous Somali account. Reluctantly, she opened a video attachment, and saw her husband and the other Pakistanis crouched on the ground. Several Somalis, faces covered, had their rifles trained on the captives. She barely recognized her husband—he was gaunt, his feet and lips grotesquely swollen.
The Somalis said that a million dollars would be enough to free only the seven Pakistani captives. Shahnaz and Nareman insisted to me that they intended their ransom to be used to free the whole crew. But after Shahnaz saw her husband in the video she reconsidered. “I thought he was not going to survive,” she said. She authorized the negotiator to arrange for the release of the Pakistanis, leaving the others behind.
The Pakistani crewmen were driven to an airstrip in Galkayo and put on a plane to Dubai. Nareman met her father at the airport. “He was so frail and thin and wrinkly, and his hair was all gray,” she told me. His teeth were decayed, his clothes dishevelled. “I knew that he had been tortured. I knew they weren’t given proper food. But it’s just different when you see it for yourself.” She sensed that he wanted to cry, but knew that he wouldn’t do so in front of her. He went to the bathroom and returned with bleary eyes. Grateful as she was, Nareman told me, she thought of the families of the other captives: “It must have been so sad for them to see that our father has come back home, while their fathers are still stuck there.”
Back on the ship, Kumar told the crew about the bravery that Aliabadi had displayed onshore. Even after being whipped for days, he kept up his crewmates’ spirits. With the captain gone, Aliabadi became the crew’s de-facto leader. He cut the men’s hair and gave English lessons using an Oxford dictionary he had brought from Iran.
Soon after the release of the Pakistanis, Khosrojerdi cancelled his phone and e-mail accounts. No one could reach him. The remaining fifteen crewmen tried to stay hopeful, but they knew that, with the owner unresponsive and the captain gone, their chances of getting out of Somalia were worse than ever. After more than two years, their families had been unable to raise any ransom money.
At the time, the coast of Somalia was dotted with captive vessels. In March of 2012, a gang of pirates affiliated with those in charge of the Albedo captured a fishing trawler, the Naham 3, which had a crew of twenty-six. When the Naham developed problems with its engine and its anchor, the pirates brought it close to the Albedo and ran three lines between the ships, keeping the trawler in place. A few times, the Somalis brought engineers from the Albedo to the Naham, to work on its engine.
The Albedo was in even worse shape. The pirates had ransacked the cabins and looted much of the cargo. The boiler and the water pump were broken, and the engine, long dormant, was clogged with sludge. One day, while inspecting belowdecks, Aliabadi discovered a leak in the hull. Water was rapidly seeping into the cargo hold. The chief engineer determined that, if the leak went untended, the ship would sink. He told the pirates. “No problem,” they said. Eventually, they brought submersible pumps, but there was only enough diesel fuel to run the generator for two hours a day, and the pumps couldn’t drain the ship fast enough.
By June, 2013, the Albedo was listing dangerously to port. Monsoon winds began pushing seawater over the deck wall, and rusted cargo containers came loose and slammed into one another. Aliabadi told the crew that the ship could go down at any time. He and Kumar dropped plumb lines and determined that, if the ship sank, only the bridge would remain above water. One of the guards joked that, if they had to abandon ship, the crew would be liberated, because none of the captors could swim. “All seamen will live, only Somalis will die,” the guard said.
On a Friday in early July, the bow tipped steeply into the sea. The Albedo stopped rolling with the waves, whose crests now reached ten feet or more. Water poured into the hatch, disabling the generator. Containers tumbled from the deck into the sea. Aliabadi rushed around the ship, gathering up the few life jackets that hadn’t been looted. In the engine room, he found the chief engineer, who made no move to leave. “We’ve been here for two and a half years—we might as well die here,” he said. Night fell, and the Albedo was left in darkness.
As the ship flooded, Aliabadi led the crew from the bridge to the poop deck, which was now a few feet above the surface of the water. They shouted to the Naham for help. The Naham’s floodlights came on, illuminating the Albedo’s stern, and the Naham’s crew lowered a life raft.
“We will jump in together,” Aliabadi told the men near him. He shouted “Now!” and then jumped. As he swam, he grew exhausted and felt himself sinking. He said the death prayer again. At that moment, a Vietnamese sailor from the Naham swam toward the bosun, threw him a rope, and pulled him onto the raft.
Kumar couldn’t swim. He hugged a large empty jerrican, which would keep him afloat, yet he was paralyzed with fear. A Bangladeshi crewman pushed him overboard. Kumar held on to the jerrican, made his way to one of the lines between the ships, and grabbed hold of it. As the Naham rolled and bucked with the waves, the line went taut and then slack, taut and then slack. Kumar let go, and someone pulled him to safety.
On the deck of the Naham, Aliabadi lost consciousness. When he came to, he began screaming the names of his crewmates. A head count revealed that five were missing. (One of the sailors had climbed to the bridge of the Albedo and survived.) Most of the Somali guards had drowned. Aliabadi and ten other crew members were still alive.
The Somalis brought the remaining crew members to shore in a skiff and drove them a few hours inland, to Cammaara, a village of about a hundred houses, surrounded by semidesert. Galkayo, the nearest city, was a day’s drive away. From Cammaara, the pirates tried to revive the ransom negotiations. They now had no captain, no owner, and no ship. Their only hope of extracting more money from the Albedo was to bargain with the crew’s lives.
John Steed is the head of the Hostage Support Program, an obscure agency within the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. He works out of his apartment, on a leafy road in an affluent neighborhood of Nairobi. The walls are covered with maps of the Somali coast, photographs of various ships, and lists of captive sailors. In 2010, when Steed became a military adviser to the U.N. in Somalia, piracy was seizing the world’s attention. Hundreds of hostages, many of whom had been forsaken by their employers, were being held in Somalia. Steed tried to raise international interest in the plight of the captive sailors and worked to get them medical care.
Most U.N. employees have never heard of Steed or his program, and those who have tend to be apprehensive about it. Because Steed deals directly with pirates, he is in a gray zone between humanitarian work, which the U.N. does, and negotiating with criminals, which, officially, it does not. When Steed makes overtures to the sailors’ home governments, he is often politely ignored. Still, without his work, dozens of captives would never have returned home.
In early 2013, a surveillance analyst told Steed that the Albedo was sinking. Knowing that pirates monitor the Web site of the U.N.O.D.C., Steed uploaded a press release to it asking the Albedo’s captors to free the crew. He included his phone number. As he expected, a “whole range of random Somalis” called, claiming to be affiliated with the Albedo pirates. “Some of them were just a bunch of assholes,” Steed told me. “But I knew that somewhere amongst the rubbish there would be somebody who was connected.”
In Cammaara, one of the investors in the Albedo operation, a khat dealer called Sahro, took over day-to-day responsibility for the crew. She rented a small compound on the outskirts of the village and used it as a makeshift prison. It consisted of a cooking area, a toilet, and two sleeping rooms—one for the captives and one for the guards—within a fenced-in courtyard. The guards watched the perimeter at all times, but inside it the crewmen could do as they liked. They played chess, exercised, and studied English. One guard loaned them his cell phone and allowed them to listen to BBC radio, and they heard about the war in Syria. “If the Syrians can survive, we can survive,” Aliabadi told the crew.
Sahro, a large, affable woman, wore fine black shawls and hijabs. She came to the compound often, bearing food, clothing, cigarettes, and piles of khat, to which Kumar was now addicted. Kumar and the guards sat and chewed together for hours. They called Kumar sahib, a term of respect in Hindi. Sahro told Kumar that he reminded her of her son, and he called her Mama Sahro. When a crewman needed something, he’d ask her for it, and she would usually oblige. Kumar and Aminul Islam cooked for everyone in the compound, and occasionally they accompanied the guards to the market and picked out their own food.
Sahro rehired the first negotiator from the Albedo, who had been popular with the crewmen. In Cammaara, he drank tea with them and offered encouragement. He understood that, after nearly three years, there wasn’t going to be another big payoff, and he urged Sahro to let the men go. Kumar also pleaded with her: “You’re keeping us here like dogs.” Sahro listened sympathetically but never changed her mind. She enumerated her expenses on her fingers: including food, fuel, khat, and other supplies, she claimed, she had already spent seven hundred thousand dollars keeping the crew alive. Kumar explained that the crew’s families would never be able to pay even that much, but she didn’t seem to care. He realized that, despite her relative kindness, Sahro saw the crew as collateral, not as people.
After a while, she brought back the former head guard, Ali Jabin. He and other guards took the crew into the semidesert outside Cammaara and beat them one by one, calling each man’s family on the phone as they did. Aliabadi believes that the Somalis were torturing the crewmen out of habit, or simply for pleasure. One day, he told them so: “You fucking don’t have brains in your heads!” They continued beating him without a word.
In addition to the torture, the crewmen suffered from rashes, infections, and fevers. Aliabadi had been kicked in the mouth, and his teeth were falling out. He became convinced that the Somalis did not care whether the crew lived or died. When he was alone with the other captives, he tried to convince them that they should find a way out. “We’ve got to escape, or we die,” he said. Other crewmen were skeptical. They pointed out the obvious risks: they had only the faintest idea where they were; Cammaara was surrounded by vast tracts of semidesert ruled by feuding militias; if they didn’t die of thirst or exhaustion, they would probably be killed or recaptured. Night after night, they discussed it, taking votes.
In early 2014, a law firm in London agreed to work pro bono on the Albedo case. The firm raised two hundred thousand dollars from a charity and enlisted Leslie Edwards, the British hostage negotiator, to make a deal with the pirates. At the beginning of April, Edwards called Jabin and offered him the money. “This is all we have,” he said.
Jabin gave Kumar and Aliabadi cell phones, and Kumar, who could now speak Somali, acted as a liaison. He had seen several negotiations fall through and could anticipate the pirates’ reactions. When Jabin complained about the amount Edwards was offering, Kumar responded that there would be no other deal—it was a miracle that there was any offer at all. Meanwhile, Steed was wiring Jabin small amounts of money, expecting that he would use some of it to pay for medical care for the crew and that he might pocket the rest. It was a game they both understood, meant to build a perverse kind of trust.
Finally, Jabin agreed to accept the two hundred thousand dollars. At first, he told Edwards that he would present the money to the investors who had funded the Albedo hijacking. But in mid-April he called Edwards with a new plan: he wanted to split the money among himself and three accomplices, one of whom was a guard in Cammaara. Together, they would smuggle the crewmen out of prison, cutting the other pirates out of the deal.
Edwards was opposed to the plan—he had never advised captives to attempt an escape. He called Aliabadi and said, “Look, this is your call, because you’re the one on the ground, not me. But it’s very high-risk.” The crew had little reason to trust Jabin, who had tormented them for years, but their other options were worse: they believed that the investors would sooner kill them than free them for so little money. Finally, the crew voted unanimously to participate in Jabin’s plan.
Edwards had found that Somali negotiators appreciated an appearance of formality, and he had a template for a provisional agreement. He had also learned that many pirates did not accept payment in installments—he would have to send the entire sum up front and hope that Jabin kept his word. He typed in the details and e-mailed the document to Jabin, who signed it, scanned it, and e-mailed it back. (One of the accomplices appended a handwritten note: “We signed this agreement and we’ll do it as it is.”) Jabin provided three Somali account numbers. Edwards wired the two hundred thousand dollars to the accounts and then flew from London to Nairobi, where he and Steed began to arrange the handover.
Steed knew officials in Galmudug, the region where Cammaara was situated. He called the region’s leader, a former warlord, and asked for his help. The leader told one of his ministers to meet the hostages and protect them once they were out of Cammaara. In exchange, Steed wired the minister eleven thousand dollars. The minister then called Jabin, and they agreed on a drop point in a valley outside the village. The handover of the crew was set for the night of May 10th.
Jabin had stopped working as a guard and was spending most of his time in Galkayo. As May 10th approached, he visited Cammaara more frequently. He usually arrived at night, when the guards and Kumar were likely to be chewing khat and relaxing. Jabin chewed with them, and, in the darkness, he furtively handed supplies to Kumar. The rest of the time, Jabin communicated with Kumar and Aliabadi by phone.
The guards would need to be incapacitated on the night of the escape. Jabin told Kumar to catch some poisonous frogs, chop them up, and mix them into the guards’ food. Kumar immediately rejected this idea. (“That fucker was a cannibal,” he said. “We have minds.”) Then Jabin smuggled in a small pair of metal-cutters. Aliabadi tried to cut a hole in the sheet-metal fence, but quickly gave up—it was far too loud. Next, Jabin suggested digging a tunnel. One night, the crewmen worked away at the dirt floor of their sleeping room with silverware, but they made little progress and refilled the hole before morning.
The last option was a casement window in their room, at shoulder height. It faced the back of the building, not the fenced-in courtyard. If they could get through the window, they would be outside the compound. For months, the sash had been nailed shut. But, just weeks earlier, the crewmen had asked for more fresh air, and the guards had removed the nails, allowing them to open the sash. The window frame was about a foot wide, and the guards assumed that it was too small to escape from. A few nights before May 10th, Aliabadi pulled the sash to the breaking point. The bulkiest of the sailors stood on a suitcase and pulled himself through the window as far as his waist. It appeared that, given enough time, he would be able to wriggle out.
On May 10th, the minister and his armed convoy arrived at the drop point. Steed had a U.N. turboprop plane, in Nairobi, fuelled and put on standby.
Earlier, Jabin had brought a paper bag to Kumar. Inside were foil packets containing several dozen sleeping pills. On the night of the tenth, Kumar, using a small piece of wood, crushed a few pills inside a glass and then poured in water, making a paste, which he mixed into the guards’ tea and curry. He tasted the food, and, finding it not too bitter, crushed some more pills and mixed those in. He sat up late with the guards, chewing khat and waiting for them to fall asleep. They didn’t—the khat counteracted the pills. The next night, Kumar mixed in even more pills. Again, nothing happened. The night after that, Kumar mixed in all the pills he had left. Sampling the curry, he found it inedible. If the guards ate it, they would figure out that he’d tried to drug them. He spilled the food near the cook fire and apologized to the guards, telling them he’d knocked over the pot.
After waiting at the drop point for six nights in a row, the minister called Steed and said that he was going home. Edwards flew back to London. Jabin would not answer phone calls from either man. “We were pretty convinced that we’d been stiffed,” Steed said.
In the first week of June, Jabin found out who was delivering khat from Galkayo to Cammaara and bribed him to divert that week’s shipment. The guard who was acting as Jabin’s accomplice went to a pharmacist in town, bought a new package of sleeping pills, and slipped it to Kumar. On the afternoon of June 5th, Jabin called Aliabadi and told him to try again that night. Kumar put the pills in the guards’ dinner. This time, with no khat, most of them fell asleep.
The crewmen had rehearsed their escape plan. They put on dark clothing and went barefoot, hoping to leave a less conspicuous trail in the dirt. Aliabadi and Kumar put their phones on vibrate. Whispering, they agreed that, if any of them were caught, all would surrender.
At 3:30 A.M., Jabin called and told them to move. He said that he was waiting in a car outside the village. “Then we prepared our mind to make home,” Kumar said.
Two guards were still awake in the courtyard. One of them, Jabin’s accomplice, was distracting the other with a video on his cell phone. The crewmen tied back the window sash. The bulkiest one pulled himself up to the casement, stuck out his head, looked around, and then squeezed his torso through. The others took hold of his legs and lowered him down, hands first. Within a few minutes, all eleven men were outside, on a near-moonless night.
They army-crawled past the nearby houses. Once they were clear of the village, they stood up and jogged until they were out of earshot. Kumar called Jabin, who instructed him to lead the men toward a radio tower in the distance. They walked in spread-out single file. When they needed to rest, they crouched together, trying to look like silhouettes of rocks and bushes.
At the tower, they found a Land Cruiser. Jabin was not in it, but the driver said that Jabin had sent him. He drove for a few miles and then kicked the men out of the car, handing Kumar a flashlight and pointing to a barely discernible track in the dirt. “Walk fifty metres and someone will meet you,” he said. They walked several hundred metres, then got anxious and called Jabin, insisting that he come meet them.
“I’m in another city,” Jabin admitted. “But don’t worry. Keep walking.”
In their haste, Kumar and Aliabadi hadn’t called Steed or Edwards to tell them that the escape was on. Now Aliabadi called Edwards, who was asleep in England. “We are in a very bad position,” Aliabadi said. “If the sun rises and we don’t go out from here, they will catch us.”
Kumar called Steed, asleep in Nairobi. Steed called the minister in Galmudug, and he called a local militia commander. The commander roused his men, and they drove in a convoy to the valley to look for the crew. On the phone, the commander told Kumar to climb a tree and shine his flashlight. When the commander saw it, he fired a round; the crewmen saw the muzzle flash and walked toward it.
Near dawn, the crewmen, their feet bloodied from thorn bushes and rocks, met the convoy. They got in the S.U.V.s and drove all morning until they reached a clearing. The minister was there. “We’re sorry about what happened to you,” he told the crew. “There’s no more trouble for you.” But an argument broke out: the militia commander demanded fifty thousand dollars for his services. The crewmen were terrified that they’d be brought back to Cammaara. After four hours of haggling, the minister called Steed, who agreed to wire the commander a few thousand dollars. At last the minister’s convoy drove the crew to Galkayo.
In a hotel that night, Kumar and Islam were too excited to sleep. They stayed up all night, making plans to visit each other’s home towns in India and Bangladesh. The next morning—June 7, 2014—the minister and his convoy brought the crewmen to the airstrip in Galkayo. Steed met them there. As the plane left Somali airspace, the pilot announced, “We’re safely in Kenya.” Some of the crewmen began crying. As Steed recounted this moment to me, tears came to his eyes, too. “I’ve done all sorts of shitty things as a soldier over the years,” he said. “But this was by far the best thing.”
By the time the crew of the Albedo escaped, Somali piracy was no longer an epidemic. Thanks to naval patrols, criminal prosecutions in various countries, and security measures such as sailing with armed guards, no vessels were hijacked by Somali gangs between 2012 and earlier this year. (In March, two Iranian fishing trawlers were hijacked in Somali waters.) When Steed started the Hostage Support Program, there were more than seven hundred seamen in captivity in Somalia. Now there are seventy-four: the crews of the two Iranian trawlers and the crew of the Naham 3. Almost thirteen hundred hijackers, all Somali, are in jails and prisons around the world, but only two of those, a pirate-gang boss and his associate awaiting trial in Belgium, are considered important, according to Alan Cole, of the U.N.O.D.C. Of the rest, he says, “You can bet that none of them were going to make more than a couple of hundred bucks out of it.”
When Shahriar Aliabadi returned to Tehran, Omid Khosrojerdi, the owner of the Albedo, met him at the airport. Aliabadi, in front of his family, berated Khosrojerdi for abandoning him and the crew. Khosrojerdi left in shame. Majestic Enrich is no longer in business. (Khosrojerdi did not respond to requests for comment.)
Jawaid Khan does not want to return to sea, but he feels that he has no choice. During his captivity, he and his wife lost all their money, and he is not qualified for any other work. When he got back to Karachi, Shahnaz Khan told me, he continued to sleep on the floor. “He was disturbed, mentally,” she said. She wanted him to seek counselling, but he wouldn’t consider it. After his release but before the escape, a charity organization asked Khan to help raise awareness about the Albedo, but he didn’t. Khan admitted to me that he has never got in touch with any of the men who escaped.
In late 2014, Ali Jabin was shot to death in Mogadishu. It remains unclear whether the Albedo investors had him murdered.
When I visited the Kumars in Jawali, their home town, in northern India, Aman took me to see some of the local shrines where his parents had prayed for his release. There are more than two hundred of them. He intends to visit each one and offer his thanks. One day, as we drove from one of the shrines back to his family’s farm, he admitted that he still misses khat. Aliabadi called his cell phone. “Hello, boss!” Kumar said.
Kumar plugged an MP3 player into the car stereo and put on Céline Dion’s “I’m Alive.” He began singing along: “I’ll be the one standing by through good and through trying times. And it’s only begun, I can’t wait for the rest of my life.”
He looked out the window and smiled.
“I’m alive,” he sang. ♦