Interview – Piracy costs more than just a ransom


Piracy off the coast of Somalia is big business but the increased production of oil in the Gulf of Guinea has encouraged more acts of piracy in the region this year.

The role of the seafarer, however, has not changed much in the task of transporting goods across the sea lanes of the world. The scourge of piracy, thought to have faded in the pages of history, has seen resurgence that puts the lives of innocent sailors at risk. As greater international effort is called for to stem the spread of piracy, it is acknowledged that long-term economics will suffer, but in the short-term, it is the seafaring community that literally ‘pays the price’.

As an officer of the watch of a tanker vessel, Jurica Ruic was onboard a floating storage and offtake (FSO) vessel when it was boarded by Nigerian militants – Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – in 2007.

For 33 days he was held in the depth of the jungle not knowing whether he would see out each day as it came. He gives a personal account of the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping of himself and the crew, the actions of the pirates and those of the shipping company.
“At the moment of the attack there were 78 people onboard and 1 million barrels of crude oil. I cannot imagine what could have happened if we did not surrender to the pirates. Human lives endangered and disastrous pollution; they had over 100kg of C4 explosive in one of the speed boats.”

The threats made against the crew of the tanker by the MEND militants, or rather the pirates, were no less harrowing; no matter what length of time they were held as hostages. The experience is not easily forgotten. In a series of questions and answers, the events are revisited to emphasise the treatment at the hand of pirates off the African coast. Whether in the East off Somalia or the West off Nigeria; the fears and subsequent trauma remains long after freedom is regained; providing release from captivity comes about. What aftercare a shipping company provides is a key issue for the future of its recruitment and retention of crew members.

The Interview

Q. First of all, can you explain the circumstances leading up to your vessel being boarded and being kidnapped by pirates off Nigeria?

A: On May 1, 2007 at 0400 hours, I was the officer of the watch at the moment the attack took place. I was the first one to be contacted by the militants. After the first VHF contact with the pirates, or MEND militants; I sent a Distress alarm and then woke up the whole crew and advised them that we were under possible attack and should commence following procedures. I then received another VHF call from the pirates and the first demand was “WE WANT ALL WHITE PEOPLE TO SURRENDER”. In the meantime, they threw 5 pieces of dynamite onto the FSO unit. I passed the portable VHF radio to the Captain, and then made my way to the radio room and called the company to advise them about the situation.

The company said that if MEND wants money, they are willing to pay as much as they ask. We tried to convince MEND to come on board to start negotiating and to stop them throwing dynamite, particularly because we are a tanker ship, and if they blew it up it was possible everybody could die.

After the fifth piece of dynamite they realized the potential hazard and we hoisted 5 of them up in the transportation basket. When they arrived in the Captains office, they specifically said that they are not here for the money. They asked the Captain if we were all the white people onboard, to which he gave an affirmative answer.

I was the closest one to the door and a pirate told me to lead the way out and to go as fast as possible. I followed his instruction blindly and found I was pretty much faster than he was. He told me to stop and fired one gunshot close to my ear. I fell onto the floor for a second as my initial thought was he had killed me. Then he told me not to play smart and to go easy. When we reached the main deck we were transferred in the basket onto the tug boat and from the tug boat to the speed boats they had arrived in.

Prior to the attack: We were guarded by 5 or 6 security boats with a civilian crew and 2-3 MOPOL officers on each one. There was also a Nigerian Navy Ship, but departed 2 days before the attack occurred. Why? Because they needed to be refuelled! Our FSO unit was providing fuel on a daily basis to various vessels in the area. Why should the Nigerian Navy ship be an exception? In my view, I think this explains a lot.

Q. Was there any opportunity to contact (or receive a response from) the local authorities?

A: People from local communities were working on board and they informed the Captain about a possible attack, as there were rumours ashore. Also there were 4 credible threats. Militants were trying to attack Funiwa platform, which is the part of the same terminal and it was approximately 15 nautical miles east from the FSO unit. The terminal supervisor had previously transferred four times from the Funiwa platform by helicopter to our vessel because it was thought that we were a safe spot. He too was kidnapped with us. Two or three days before the attack, pirates came within the vicinity of the FSO unit camouflaged as fisherman to assess the situation. I was on the bridge when they came one afternoon and reported to the security boat that there was a suspicious fishing boat in the area, and security boat went to warn them that it was forbidden to fish there. The ‘fishermen’ explained that they were without fuel. I know knew that those people were militants [pirates] because they attacked us in the same kind of boat.

Q. What were the pirates’ demands?

A: Their demand was to all expats to surrender. Since all the non-essential crew members were hidden, as per the contingency plan, only 6 of us were there to negotiate with them. At the moment of the attack there were 78 people onboard and 1 million barrels of crude oil. I cannot imagine what could have happened if we did not surrender to the pirates. The potential consequences could have been catastrophic. MENDs intention was to blow up the FSO. Human lives endangered and disastrous pollution; they had over 100kg of C4 explosive in one of the speed boats.

Q. What threats or violence did the pirates use?

A: They were professional soldiers trained in the Nigerian army. They were using various kinds of weapons such as C4 dynamite, AK 47, heavy guns, rocket launchers etc. They were not nervous, and they were well prepared.

Q. Where did the pirates order the ship to go?

A: They could not order that because it was an FSO unit which is permanently moored on Single Point Buoy Mooring (SBM). The FSO was a storage tanker with 1.8 million barrel capacity and over 300 metres in length. It was impossible to hijack the vessel.

Q. What were the conditions of the area you were held captive?

A: It was a military camp in the jungle. We slept in a tent on the floor. Black mambas and other animals were around so it was impossible to go anywhere. We were not tied up and were allowed to walk only in a limited area with extremely poor hygiene conditions and no real food. We were heavily guarded with 200 armed militants. Most of them were between 16-20 years of age.

To pass the time we talked amongst each other and tried to support each other. Three or four times they left to carry out sabotage on certain oilfields and, each time before action, they had 24 hours to prepare. They believed that they were bulletproof and that gave them extra power in their minds; apart from the drugs and alcohol. They killed two of their own in front of us simply because they did something wrong during sabotage operation on one of the oil fields. Each day they informed us that our company was not doing anything to release us and that we would be killed. We were not informed about negotiations or any given any other information.

While in the jungle, I could not remember my wife’s face, my kids face, not even a song…it is difficult to explain… The switch in the brain goes to another setup- survival only.

When they kidnapped me, I said goodbye to life. Whilst held captive in the jungle they were playing with our minds. For example, they would instruct us to stand up to be shot. We would say goodbye to each other, then they would shoot above our heads, following that they would start laughing. They did this at random 5-6 times.

Q. Was your shipping company aware of the hijack/kidnap when it occurred?

A: As stated previously, people from the local communities were working onboard and they informed the Captain about a possible attack after hearing rumours ashore and four credible threats.

The company’s plan was always to cooperate with the local communities by employing people from the area to prevent possible attacks or any other issues. That was only defence plan and programme. The management was also convinced that we were too far from shore and that MEND did not have any kind of ship or vessel to attack the FSO unit. After the four credible threats, they decided to implement further regulations from security level # 3 to security level #2 and created a security level #2.5, which does not exist in maritime law. A decision made 3 days prior the attack. If they had declared security level #3, which was our idea (and suggested by Captain and officers), then they would have had to have stopped production of crude oil and cast off, moving the FSO to a safer spot, which they did week after we were kidnapped! Nobody was ever briefed or trained for any such situation. I think that the company was aware; they were informed immediately. I was the one who called the company and explained the situation.

Q. How were you and the other crew members treated by the company and government(s)? Was there a different approach from Flag State and other national governments (that you were aware of)?

A: When we came home we had psychiatric help. This situation never happened to my company, so they were not prepared well for it, but they gave their best. They treated us according to the book and that was the biggest mistake. Private investigators from the UK visited and carried out questioning. We held plenty of meetings in Italy and UK all together with various independent psychiatrists. I told them that I did not want go back to work for them anymore because they made so many mistakes and, because of those mistakes and negligence, we ended up captives in the jungle. Two months after we were released, the Shipping Company President called me to ask if I wanted to come back to work, but I said NO. Immediately after that they cut me off my salary.

I called them and told them that I would go to USA and tell all the newspapers how my company is treating their workers. The next month I was back on the pay roll with all expenses. I was visited by a psychiatrist from September 2007 until August 2008. His diagnosis was that I was permanently disabled to work on any vessel. This is too deep to explain. What I will say is that the company always treated us according to the flag and rank.

Q. Were you still paid during the time you were held hostage?

A: Yes; we were paid while we were there.

Q. Were the families of the crew members kept informed of what was happening during the time held captive?

A: Yes. They did assist out families in every respect. They were keeping our families informed about the situation.

Q. Do you still work in the shipping industry, and will you go (or have gone) back to sea?

A: I do not work as a seaman anymore, because of a lot of things that had happened. Maybe others have returned to work after all, but I did not. I have my reasons. My goal now is to become a lecturer, trainer or consultant. I am not a negotiator, but I know what was going on right at the spot while the company was negotiating, and how they reacted, and what they were doing to get what they want. To lecture, train or consult would be my goal for the future. Some people might say what I have been through is not enough, and that maybe I’m not sufficiently experienced having only been held for 33 days, which is nothing compared to some. For me, it was eternity. We are not the same. I know that what I have learned can be used in the maritime world to at least prevent it happening to others and to help to overcome the ordeal if they are lucky to come home alive after being captured. I cannot stop piracy. I’m telling this because I am, or I was, a seaman and I know both sides of the story.

Q. Would you recommend a career at sea to anyone?

A: What I would recommend or not it is not important. A seaman’s life has advantages or disadvantages. In the old days, it used to be something we were proud of. I’m telling my story because my family is by tradition a seafaring family. My father was a Chief engineer for over 40 years and is still working. My grandfather was a mate on a passenger ship a long time ago. My father suggested that I stay home when I returned from captivity. Today, the seaman’s job is not so much fun anymore, it has become only about paperwork that makes it less desirable than it was 10 to 15 years ago. Today, seamen are exposed to a lot of stress, safety and security, company demands, and the growth of piracy. To recommend something to somebody is not easy. It is more of a personal choice.

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