NAIROBI: A group of 26 hostages freed from nearly five years in the hands of Somali pirates touched down in Kenya on Sunday, with both tears and smiles marking the end of their ordeal.
“Am so, so happy. Really, am so, so happy. For UN, for Mr John (negotiator), for all the world. Thanks to you all,” said one of the hostages, Sudi Ahman.
But, one of the survivors shared disturbing ordeal they endured during the captivity. Arnel Balbero told the BBC that the group were forced to eat anything they could get their hands on, including rats, and were given only tiny amounts of water.
“Eat anything, even you not like, you feel hungry, you eat it,” he said.
“You eat rat, you cook it.”
Balbero, speaking in Nairobi after his release, said his time as a hostage had left him feeling like a “walking dead” and it was very hard to imagine restarting his life.
AFP adds: Meanwhile, the relief of the men was palpable, with some unable to hold back tears while others hugged each other and smiled broadly.
John Steed, coordinator of the Hostage Support Partners (HSP) who helped negotiate their release, had gone to the Somali city of Galkayo to fetch the crew of the Naham 3, who had been held hostage for longer than any other crew except one.
“We have been working on this for four-and-a-half years… it’s great to bring them home and hand them over to their embassies and their families,” said Steed.
A retired British colonel, Steed has made it his mission to rescue “forgotten hostages”: poor fishermen with no insurance who are often left languishing the longest in the hands of pirates.
The crew were taken captive when their Omani-flagged vessel was seized in March 2012 south of the Seychelles.
Pirates initially took 29 crew hostage, but one person died during the hijacking, and two more “succumbed to illness” during their captivity, said a statement from Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) on Saturday.
“We have achieved what we achieved today by getting elders, religious community and local leaders and regional government all involved to put pressure on these guys to release the hostages,” said Steed.
The crew members are from China, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia and Taiwan and they were the last remaining seafarers taken hostage at the height of Somali piracy.
Only a crew of Thai fishermen, released in February last year after nearly five years in captivity, spent longer in the hands of Somali pirates.
Steed said the crew was malnourished and one of the hostages had a bullet wound in his foot, another had suffered a stroke and another had diabetes.
At the peak of the piracy epidemic in January 2011,Somali pirates held 736 hostages and 32 boats.
According to the OBP, while overall numbers are down in the Western Indian Ocean, pirates in the region attacked at least 306 seafarers in 2015 .
While there has not been a successful attack on a commercial vessel since 2012, there have been several on fishing boats. There are still 10 Iranian hostages taken in 2015 and three Kenyan kidnap victims — one a seriously ill, paralysed woman — in the hands of pirates, said Steed.