Crew Tells of Four Years at Pirates’ Mercy

It was about 1 a.m. when the pirates stormed the ship. First they killed the Taiwanese captain and tied up the crew. Then came the demands: millions of U.S. dollars in exchange for the lives of the captives—most of whom were from impoverished families and developing countries.

They said “if we did not give them the money, they would kill us all,” said 34-year-old Hem Phumany, who was among four Cambodian crewmembers aboard the FV Naham 3 when it was hijacked by Somali pirates about 100 km south of the Seychelles in March 2012.

Former captives released by Somali pirates pose on Sunday in front of the airplane that flew them out of Somalia and to Nairobi, where they will depart for their home countries. (Hostage Support Partners)
Former captives released by Somali pirates pose on Sunday in front of the airplane that flew them out of Somalia and to Nairobi, where they will depart for their home countries. (Hostage Support Partners)

“I didn’t think I would ever get away from the pirates,” he said in a telephone interview from Nairobi.

Mr. Phumany walked free, along with 25 of his surviving crewmates, more than four years later when mediators Hostage Support Partners finally secured their release on Saturday morning.

“When it all comes together, it’s one of the best feelings you can have,” said John Steed, the British coordinator of the mission to free the men, on Monday, adding that it took years of negotiations to finally attain their release.

The former hostages of the Naham 3, an Omani-flagged fishing vessel, were the final group from commercial vessels still in captivity after being caught during the height of the region’s piracy crisis in 2012, he said. They included men from Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Taiwan.

“There was lots of crying, lots of tears…. When we crossed the border into Somalia—the pirates arranged for [the hostages] to meet us across the border—there was a big cheer,” Mr. Steed said of the group of fishermen, which included Mr. Phumany and fellow Cambodians Khorn Vanthy, 25, Nhem Soksan, 37, and Kin Koem Hen, 33.

“They’re in pretty good condition…. It amazes me how resilient these guys are,” he said, adding that Mr. Vanthy, who is originally from Kompong Cham province, was immediately treated for a four-month-old gunshot wound in his right foot.

“They shot one bullet in my right foot when I asked to go pee and they didn’t allow me to go,” Mr. Vanthy said on Monday, also by telephone.

Even when they were allowed to relieve themselves, gun-toting pirates would constantly watch over them, he said. And food—a bit of rice, bread or cassava powder—was carefully rationed.

“They allowed us to eat twice a day,” said Hem Phumany, 34, of Kompong Chhnang province. “A bit of rice in the morning, then a little bit of cake. And they gave us a little bit of drinking water.”

When their ship started to fall apart, the pirates moved the captives to a shelter in the forest, but little changed in their daily lives.

“During detention we ate rice once per day—there was not enough water and rice,” said Kin Koem Hen, 33, of Kratie province.

The captors continued to demand money. “The pirates ordered me to call my family to get money from them, but my family didn’t have millions of dollars,” he said.

“I called my family and I told them [the pirates] were demanding lots of money and I told my mother and father not to worry about my death,” he added. “After I talked, they asked ‘Did you get the money?’ I said, ‘Wait for a moment, my mother will contact somebody for help.’”

All the while, the pirates were in regular contact with Mr. Steed and his partner, so much so that the men became known to the captives before they first saw them on Saturday.

Mr. Steed declined to say whether a ransom was paid. However, The Associated Press reported that Somali pirate Bile Hussein claimed a $1.5 million ransom was paid for the sailors’ release.

“What I would say is that we got there in the end via the local community,” Mr. Steed said. “The religious leaders put pressure on the pirates. It was a team effort.”

Photographs of the rescued captives were posted online on Monday showing the men posing—many with a smile across their faces—in front of an airplane before being flown out of Somalia and across the border to Nairobi.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Monday saying the Cambodians would be flown to Manila on Friday and that plans to fly them to Phnom Penh were in the works.

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