The crewmen's tales: 'The pirates told us not to be afraid: "We're just poor people like you," they said'

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The Independent Online

The water was still, the sky cloudless and the 12-man crew of Kenyans and Sri Lankans relaxed after their Sunday morning cup of tea as they returned from taking food aid to Somalia. Then they spotted the speck on the horizon and saw it get bigger. Suddenly realising that a boat was heading right at them, they changed course and put the throttle down.

After an hour-long chase, the pirates' "mother ship" dropped two fibreglass speedboats, which raced up alongside. Each held half a dozen young Somalis armed with pistols, machine guns and rocket-launchers. The terrified sailors rushed to the bridge and held their hands high in surrender as the pirates hooked a metal ladder on the side and boarded, firing one warning shot. "They said 'don't be frightened, you are just poor people like us, we won't kill anyone unless you disobey us'," said Kenyan crew member James Sambi, who asked for a false name to be used in case of repercussions with employers.

So began a 42-day saga in February last year that ended when the owner of the UN-contracted ship paid a hefty ransom. Lost behind the headlines about ransoms, insurance premiums and valuable cargoes are the tales of seamen caught up in the hijackings, most from developing countries, some of whom earn as little as £68 a month.

Athuman Said Mangore, bouncing his two-year-old son on his knee in a village north of Mombasa, recalled how the pirates went through the crew's personal belongings when they captured his ship and held it for four months. "They took 4,000 shillings (£35) out of my wallet, and my engagement ring," he said. But relations soon improved. "After about two or three weeks, we were friendly."

The Kenyan sailors said they received no proper compensation after their release. Some employers gave them an extra £68 or so. "Others say 'why should I give you anything? You haven't been working'," said Andrew Mwangura of a local seafarers' welfare group.

Most sailors would prefer another job but they have no options. "What can I do?" Mr Mangore said. He has returned to Somalia about 50 times since his capture.