Stowaways 'killed and thrown overboard'

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The Independent Online
IF KINGSLEY Osufu had not survived, no one would ever have known what happened to the stowaways on the MC-Ruby cargo ship one night in the Atlantic two years ago.

Mr Osufu, now 24, is a casual dockworker from Ghana who left a wife, expecting their first child, to head for Europe where he hoped to be trained and return home as an engineer. Now, looked after by the Salvation Army, he washes dishes in the Channel port of Le Havre.

He will be the crucial witness in the trial next February of six Ukrainian sailors accused of murdering and dumping overboard eight Africans who had stowed away on their ship. If proved, the inevitable question arises of whether it was an isolated incident - or are stowaways regularly slaughtered and thrown into the deep?

His ordeal began in October 1992 in his home port of Takoradi when, with seven others, including his younger brother Albert, he slipped aboard the MC-Ruby, which was carrying a cargo of timber and cocoa to Europe. Hiding in a hold, they found another stowaway who had boarded in Cameroon.

According to Mr Osufu, the atmosphere among the nine was relaxed, even cheerful. Eating the food and drinking the water they had brought with them, they exchanged stories of what they would do in Europe.

On the fifth day, their water ran out. During the night, three of the Ghanaians left the hold and found a fresh-water tap. Returning to the hideout, they did not realise they had left footprints on the deck.

The next morning six sailors appeared, armed with knives and revolvers. ''Who are you? Where are you from?'' they asked in English. Mr Osufu, who quickly became the group's spokesman, told the sailors where they had embarked. The Ukrainians asked if they had money. Mr Osufu said they did. ''Get it ready and we'll come back to put you up somewhere else,'' one said.

That evening the sailors returned and, taking the money, led the stowaways to the bow of the ship where they pushed them through a hatch into a space like a storage tank. One morning a sailor opened the hatch to throw down three bottles of water. Otherwise, they were given nothing and lived in their own filth for three days.

In the early hours of 3 November, after 10 days at sea, the hatch opened and two sailors ordered the men out ''in groups of two or three''. Finally, only Kingsley Osufu and his brother Albert remained. When the two sailors came for them, they noticed the other four standing in the shadows. Some had blood on their clothes.

Mr Osufu asked where the other stowaways had gone. A sailor responded by hitting him across the head with an iron bar. He broke free and ran along the deck; he turned in time to see two men throw Albert into the sea. Some of the sailors opened fire on him but missed. Reaching number three hold, he hid among containers holding sacks of cocoa.

For the next three days, he hid while every morning and evening the sailors searched the hold. Later, other members of the 23-man crew told French investigators they had noticed nothing unusual.

One evening, the MC-Ruby docked. As the engines stopped, Mr Osufu left his hideaway. Filling a pocket with cocoa beans and hiding his Ghanaian docker's work-card under a sack, he climbed up a ventilation shaft and forced open the rusty grill at its mouth.

Early on the morning of 6 November, he jumped to the quayside and ran towards a street-cleaning vehicle. The two operators spoke no English but pointed him in the direction of the harbour police. Running through the shadows along the unfamiliar dock, he at last found the police station. At 4am, he began his story. Looking at a map on the wall, he saw the word ''France''. Until then he had not known where he was.

After daybreak, the Le Havre police searched the MC-Ruby. They found Mr Osufu's work-card. Still terrified, he was allowed to watch an identity parade on the deck hidden behind a port-hole to identify his six tormentors.

The investigators concluded that five members of the crew and the Captain Vladimir Ilnitsky were responsible. They were charged with offences ranging from complicity to murder to extortion, kidnapping and acts of piracy.

Four admitted the crime immediately, two denied it. Those who admitted their role said they were worried because of the heavy fines imposed on shipping companies whose vessels bring stowaways into European ports.

Legal questions were raised owing to the multi-national nature of the case - typical of today's shipping industry. The ship was registered in the Bahamas, owned by MC Shipping of New York, managed by V-Ships of Monaco and crewed by Ukrainians, and was off Portugal when the eight Africans were killed.

But Le Havre prosecutor Marc Guibert ruled that, with the suspects detained on French soil, a French court could try them. All of them, held in different jails in Normandy, now face life sentences.

Last week, Mr Ofusu, whose ordeal is being made into a film by the British company Union Pictures, said he had spent the past two years learning French and his ambition remained the same. ''I want to become an engineer.''

He said he has applied for entry papers for his wife and child ''and I hope my family will be here before the trial . . . now I'm always alone and when I'm alone I always think about my brother and all the other guys.''