NAIROBI — In recent months the number of pirate attacks along Somalia’s coast has dropped, but an estimated 97 seafarers remain in the hands of pirates. Many of these hostages are uninsured and negotiations for their release have come to a standstill.
For two years and nine months now, Somali pirates have held the crewmembers of the Malaysian flagged MV Albedo. The hostages were confined to the vessel until it sank last month, when four of the fifteen men went missing.
The Albedo was uninsured and its Iranian owner has disappeared, leaving nobody to foot the ransom bill for the 11 remaining hostages.
John Steed, a counter piracy expert who now runs a hostage support program, has been working for their release.
"There is no ransom negotiation going on whatsoever," Steed said. "So our job is to try and persuade the pirates that there is nothing to be gained from this, that they should be released on humanitarian grounds."
But for years Somali pirates have received huge rewards.
Jay Bahadur, author of the Pirates of Somalia, says ransom payments can reach tens of millions of dollars.
"It’s very hard to convince pirates that you’re the one company, the one organization that doesn’t have money to pay them," Bahadur said. "And more to the point, pirate gangs often finance their operations on credit. If you’ve put out over the course of three years hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy food, to pay your men, to buy them khat, you’re going to owe people on land."
The pirates released seven Pakistani sailors from the Albedo after a Pakistani businessman helped raise a $1.2 million ransom payment. Their fellow crewmembers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Iran and India, have had no such benefactor.
John Steed communicates with their families regularly.
“I’ve been a soldier for 37 years and I’ve seen some pretty horrendous things," Steed said. "But having to deal with these poor families is heartbreaking. Often the pirates will ring the families up and pressure them or even torture the loved ones while they’re on the phone.”
In desperation some families have launched fundraising campaigns, but Steed believes these efforts may be counterproductive.
"When the pirates, who monitor social media very closely, hear that families are raising money, they have this expectation that there is more money to come," Steed said. "But of course the families can only raise a few hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars."
Chirag Bahri was an engineer on the M.T. Marida Marguerite, hijacked by pirates in May, 2010. He was held on the boat for nearly eight months.
"Every evening I used to think whether I’d be able to see the sun tomorrow morning because the kind of torture we had on my vessel was enormous," Bahri said.
Bahri spoke to his family just four times during his captivity.
"It was very tough. They didn’t know what to do, whom to approach. My mother, it was very bad for her," Bahri said. "She was under total depression. And I lost her during that time."
Now Bahri is the South Asia coordinator for the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program.
He counsels the families of hostages from the Albedo and other vessels, some of whom have not heard from their loved ones in months.
Meanwhile, European Union naval forces patrol the waters near the Albedo’s sunken hull. Though their presence has deterred pirate attacks, their mandate does not extend to rescue operations.