The plight of forgotten Somali pirate hostages

Somali pirates pictured in Hobyo in 2010

Picture the scene. You are being held hostage by pirates on a ship just off the coast of one of the most lawless corners of Somalia. You have been there for more than two years in the grimmest conditions.

Now your ship has sunk in stormy seas, and some of your colleagues are missing.

You have been transferred to a smaller fishing boat tethered, precariously, to the wreckage.

The owner of your ship has shown no interest in paying a ransom or negotiating your release. You and your crewmates come from impoverished families with no hope of raising any cash to buy your freedom.

Start Quote

Their families are pretty traumatised”

End Quote Col John Steed Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security

Welcome to the impossibly bleak situation in which 11 members of the Albedo container ship now find themselves.

"Enough is enough. These guys have suffered terribly. It's time to let them go on humanitarian grounds," said John Steed, a British man who now appears to be the only point of contact between the pirates and the outside world.

Col Steed, formerly head of the UN's counter-piracy unit, runs a small organisation called the Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security.

It is partly funded by the UN and other non-governmental organisations and tries to link all the main regional administrations inside Somalia and other outside interest in their anti-piracy efforts.

"It's nothing grand," he told me by phone from his office in Nairobi, Kenya. "Just me and one other guy."

Four missing

The long ordeal for Albedo hostages took a turn for the worse nine days ago when the ship sank in shallow waters of the notorious pirate town of Haradheere.

Eleven hostages were transferred to a fishing boat, the Nahem 3, which was also seized by pirates and has 29 hostages on board.

Three of the Albedo's crew have since managed to call their relatives, but four of their colleagues are missing.

"There are rumours the four might be alive," said Mr Steed. "Their families are pretty traumatised."

Dutch frigate HMS Evertsen takes part in the Operation Atalanta, a campaign from the European Union to stop piracy off the Somali Coast - 2009 Pirate attacks off Somalia have decreased in the last few years thanks to navy patrols

The Albedo's crew come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran. The ship is Iranian-owned and registered in Malaysia.

The smaller Nahem 3 is crewed by men from China, Vietnam and range of other Asian nations. It is Taiwan-owned and registered in Oman.

Normally, the owners of captured ships, or their insurers, hire a consultant to negotiate a ransom.

But that has not happened in this case. "I'm having to do it - we're left to hold the baby," said Mr Steed.

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It's 40 hostages in total. Anywhere else in the world 40 hostages would be pretty big news”

End Quote Col John Steed Secretariat for Regional Maritime Security

"We've managed previous releases with a bit of pressure from clan elders on shore. A translator for the pirates says 'we've spoken to the elders'. But it hasn't produced any results yet.

"He's not talking money, but he's not talking release either. The pirates and hostages are in danger [because of the high seas]."

Relative of the Albedo crew members have written an open letter to the pirates in which they speak of the emotional trauma they have suffered over the past 31 months.

"We appealed to everyone in this world to pay money towards the release of our people. But no-one listened to us.

"We have tried our best but we are very poor people. We even do not have any money to pay for medicines, school fees, buy food for our children," they wrote, urging the pirates "to please release our men".

Mr Steed said warships from the European Union's anti-piracy taskforce Operation Atalanta, were poised "just over the horizon", and could be in position to rescue the crew within the hour.

However they would "not intervene in an armed hostage situation" which could put the men's lives in danger.

"It's 40 hostages in total. Anywhere else in the world 40 hostages would be pretty big news," said Mr Steed in obvious frustration.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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