The devil and the deep blue sea
Four Thai fishermen watched their friends die and suffered brutal assaults during five years of captivity at the hands of Somali pirates
Thanakon Kaeokamkong was resting after a six-hour shift when he was roused by loud knocks on his cabin wall. “I opened my eyes and saw a black man walk in,” Mr Thanakon recalled. “He was wearing military fatigues and carrying a large gun. He pointed the gun at me and told me to step outside.”
Mr Thanakon did as he was told, walking out onto the deck of the fishing trawler along with 24 other crew members. Two heavily armed Somali pirates kept their weapons trained on the fishermen, their small speedboat tied to the side of the larger vessel. “From that point, I realised I had lost my freedom,” Mr Thanakon said.
It would be almost five years later that Mr Thanakon and three crew mates would find freedom again, landing safely in Thailand on Feb 28. As they piece their lives together, they share the ordeal of being held hostage in Somalia.
Nightmarish ordeal: Thanakon Kaeokamkong has been reunited with family in Buri Ram.
The pirates took control of the Prantalay 12 and ordered the trawler’s captain, Channarong Navara, to change course. Eight days and 1,200 nautical miles later, the boat was in Somali waters. It would never leave.
The trawler was one of three Thai-flagged fishing vessels, all owned by frozen seafood giant Prantalay but operated by PT Interfishery Co Ltd, the pirates seized on that day in April 2010.
Two pirates initially boarded each of the three ships, but reinforcements were on their way. Soon, there were seven heavily armed Somalis on each vessel.
Mr Channarong told Spectrum he was able to make contact with PT Interfishery to report the hijacking. The company advised all crew members to remain calm and follow the pirates’ orders while a solution was worked out.
But when the pirates demanded US$9 million as ransom for all three vessels and their crew, the company ignored the request.
“I felt hopeless,” said Kosol Daungmakkerd, an assistant mechanic aboard the Prantalay 12 and a cousin of Mr Thanakon.
“The ransom was too high, and I knew no one would pay that amount of money to free people like us.”
Demanding justice: Mechanic Kosol Daungmakkerd wants to be compensated for the ordeal.
Mr Thanakon had little idea of the dangers that lay ahead when he answered a call in February 2010 from Mr Kosol, who offered him a job. His only concern was the money that was on offer.
“I thought to myself, ‘I can finally get enough cash together to marry my girlfriend,’ ” he said.
Mr Thanakon, then 32, accepted the offer without hesitation. Although it would require him to be away for nearly two years, life at sea was nothing new for him. This would, however, be his first time leaving Thai waters.
Mr Kosol had been hired by PT Interfishery to work as a mechanic in the Prantalay 12’s engine room. He was a veteran of similar fishing trips, having been to Indonesia, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand. This job would be no different, except that it would take him much further than he had ever been before.
He agreed to a monthly wage of 20,000 baht. His cousin, Mr Thanakon, was to be paid just 7,000 baht per month to work as his assistant — a step up from the 180 baht per day he earned working on a potato plantation in his home town of Buri Ram.
Mr Kosol and Mr Thanakon travelled to Ranong province, where their ship was docked. After a short wait while travel documents and visas were processed, the boats put to sea on April 7, 2010. A total of 77 crew members were on board the three Thai-flagged boats.
Taking guard: A Somali pirate keeps vigil on the coastline near Hobyo, northeastern Somalia. Armed pirates kept the four Thai fishermen hostage in a remote location for nearly five years.
ALL AT SEA
Mr Kosol and Mr Thanakon worked alongside three other Thai crew members and 20 from Myanmar aboard the Prantalay 12. They travelled along with sister vessels Prantalay 11 and Prantalay 14, bound for the waters off the tiny African republic of Djibouti, which shares its eastern border with Somalia.
The journey of more than 8,000km from Ranong to Djibouti was dominated by boredom, with little to do aboard the ships other than to preserve energy for the hard work ahead.
The men lived on a diet of frozen food products from Prantalay. Mr Kosol and Mr Thanakon took turns working six-hour shifts to make sure the engines and bilge pumps were running properly.
By April 18, the three boats had reached the Maldives Strait, and everything appeared to be going as planned.
About 9am, however, the pirates struck. At the time, the EU Naval Force said it was the farthest offshore attack by Somali pirates in the region.
The crew members were left helpless and confined to their boats as they waited for negotiations for their release to proceed.
As the days turned to weeks, and the negotiation process stalled, the pirates began to revise down their demands.
“The ransom went from nine million to eight, then seven, then lower,” Mr Channarong said.
“They finally brought it down to $1 million, but still PT Interfishery didn’t want to pay.”
Eleven months passed. During that time, the pirates used the three fishing vessels as mother ships to launch raids on other vessels rounding the Horn of Africa, with the Thai and Myanmar fishermen forced to act as human shields.
“It was terrifying,” Mr Kosol said. “I have been to Yemen, Indonesia, Oman and many other places before. But I have never experienced anything like this.”
Mr Thanakon said the most horrific moment came when the boat was confronted by an Indian naval ship.
“They [the pirates] pointed a gun at me and told me to act as a lookout on the boat’s bow,” he said. “They directed us toward the Indian battleship. They [the Indian Navy] sent Morse signals to tell us to stop, but the pirates insisted that we continue.”
Mr Thanakon was shaking uncontrollably. He looked through his binoculars and found himself staring down the barrel of the warship’s deck gun, which was now trained on the fishing boat. Mr Thanakon said he began to scream frantically, urging the pirates to call off the raid or else everyone would be killed.
The warship then opened fire.
“It was shooting toward us. I couldn’t move, I was too scared. The shell landed in the water next to our boat,” Mr Thanakon said.
But the warning shot worked. The pirates, apparently realising they were outgunned, turned the boat around.
For the Somali pirates though, the retreat was only temporary. A month later, they ordered the Prantalay 11 and Prantalay 14 out again, while the Prantalay 12 remained at anchor.
Once again, they were confronted by the Indian battleship.
This time, the pirates employed different tactics, launching two skiffs to attack the naval vessel. The Indian Navy also changed its defensive strategy. Instead of firing its deck guns, it launched a speed boat to intercept the pirate vessels.
The Prantalay 14 was sunk during the shoot-out that followed, but 25 pirates were apprehended. All of a sudden, the Thai and Myanmar crew members found themselves rescued by the Indian Navy and on their way home.
Phochai Prombuapa, the skipper of the Prantalay 14, told the Bangkok Post immediately after the rescue that he did not think he would survive the clash between the Indian Navy and the pirates.
Back on the Prantalay 12, the news of their peers’ rescue cast a shadow of despondency over the captive crew members.
The men were running out of food and fresh water. The frozen supplies they had packed were almost gone. They were able to fish for something to eat, but were forced to beg their captors for water to drink.
After three months, people began to die. Mr Channarong attributed the deaths to an “unexplained illness” which he said caused swelling and intense pain.
He described it as “heartbreaking” to see one man die after another, with no way to help them. After seven months on the boat, five Myanmar and one Thai crew members had died.
“All of the Myanmar workers call me por [father], Mr Channarong recalled. “The saddest was when one of the Myanmar workers told me that he couldn’t bear the pain any more. I told him everything would be OK as he died in my arms.”
Witoon Nimitmala, Mr Channarong’s assistant, was the sole Thai crew member to die from the unexplained illness. The pirates refused to allow the bodies to be taken ashore for cremation. Instead, they were unceremoniously dumped into the ocean, Mr Channarong said.
At the end of 2010, when the Prantalay 12 was sent out on another mission, one of the Myanmar crew members jumped overboard and swam away. He was presumed dead, though was later discovered to have been successful in his escape.
In July 2011, more than 15 months after their capture, the pirates stopped giving the crew members petrol to run the ship’s bilge pump. Weighed down by water, the Prantalay 12 sank.
The captive crew members had to be transferred to the mainland, where the pirates soon realised that controlling 18 hostages without the natural confines of the ship would prove difficult. They decided to let the Myanmar crew members go, believing their government would never pay the ransom. The 13 captives were handed over to UN officials.
For the four remaining Thais, their ordeal was still only beginning.
The pirates allowed Mr Channarong to contact his family to set a new ransom of $2 million for all four men. They then transferred them from one town to another by jeep, staying for 10-15 days at a time.
After about a year, they reached their final destination: a remote patch of jungle, where they were housed in a tin shack and surrounded by pirates toting guns and grenades.
One of the captives, 40-year-old Ton Wiyasing from Trat, decided to take his chances and make a run for it.
“I ran away from the camp while I was out collecting water from a nearby canal. I hid in the jungle in the hope that someone would find me and rescue me,” Mr Ton told Spectrum. “But I stayed hidden for only one hour before the pirates found me and took me back to the camp.”
The pirates dragged Mr Ton into the centre of the camp, and called over Mr Kosol, Mr Channarong and Mr Thanakon to witness the punishment.
“One of the pirates hit Ton in the head with a pistol grip again and again until he fell to the ground unconscious,” Mr Thanakon said.
The three men could do nothing except beg for their friend’s life. One of the pirates, who could speak Thai, threw them a first aid kit and warned them of a similar fate if they ever attempted to run.
Mr Ton said he could not remember much of what happened as he now suffers from severe short term memory loss as a result of the brain damage sustained during the beating. But he is still able to recall small acts of rebellion against his captors.
“He told me to use the toilet on the right, so I went to the left,” he said. “I thought that if I annoyed them enough they wouldn’t want to keep me there any more. But it didn’t work.”
The four men had little to occupy their days. Mostly, they just sat around idle, or were made to cook for the pirates. The food they cooked was simple, usually rice soup and peanuts with a bit of oil and salt. Meat was a luxury, available only once every five months or so.
RELEASE OF EMOTIONS
Three years went by with no contact from the outside world. The fishermen’s hopes of ever seeing Thailand again had all but faded.
Then, one day late last year, an unexpected phone call came. Mr Channarong, as head of the group, was handed the phone by one of the pirates.
“Please be a little bit more patient, we will try to get you out within two weeks,” a voice on the other end of the line said in Thai.
“I felt like I could see light [at the end of the tunnel],” Mr Channarong said. “After so many miserable years, we would all get to go home soon.”
They began making marks on the wall of their tin shack, counting the days until their departure. Two weeks passed, but no news arrived.
A few days later, another phone call advised them to stay put for two more weeks.
Another three weeks went by without any word.
After the third phone call, again telling them to wait, the men once again lost hope. “I gave up and accepted the fact that I might die there,” Mr Thanakon said.
The men stopped their rescue countdown. When another call came telling them to wait another week, none of them took it seriously.
Then, the next day, they received a surprising awakening.
“The pirates came into our shack and told us to get ready to leave,” Mr Kosol said. They thought they were being moved to another camp.
They drove for about an hour in a convoy of six trucks, until they reached a remote stretch of road where four other trucks were parked, facing them.
“We weren’t sure what was happening. We saw a group of black men in military uniforms waiting for us,” Mr Thanakon said. “When we got on the truck, one of the men told us that he was a representative of the Somali government and the UN.”
The truck drove for three hours before reaching a Somali town called Galkayo. The four fishermen were put up in a hotel where they stayed overnight — their first night in a proper bed for almost five years. Even though all four were given special treatment, none of them fully believed they were going home.
“We saw no white faces or Thai people. So I wasn’t sure if this was a real rescue mission or not,” Mr Channarong explained.
The following morning, there was a knock on the door. A white man walked in wearing a UN badge. He brought shirts and suits for the four men to wear, and they were taken to the airport in a convoy of 10 cars with a military escort.
At the airport, a large UN plane was waiting for them on the tarmac, along with Thai officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I started to cry and finally believed that it was real,” Mr Kosol said.
The circumstances which led to their release remain unclear. Initial reports that a small ransom had been paid remain unconfirmed, though it is believed United Nations agencies played a major part in negotiations.
Roy Paul, programme director for the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, told the Bangkok Post earlier this month that officials had worked hard to rescue the Thai crew. He declined to provide details of the mission, saying it could affect operations to help other fishermen still being held by pirates.
The Thai government has tried to claim credit for the hostages’ release, though its role in the negotiations, if any, remains unclear.
After nearly five years in captivity, Mr Channarong, Mr Kosol, Mr Thanakon and Mr Ton finally touched down on home soil on Feb 28.
Mr Kosol and his cousin Mr Thanakon headed straight for Buri Ram, where they have been busy catching up with family and friends. They are not looking for work at this stage, and are instead planning to enter the monkhood for a few weeks from April 11.
“I don’t know what to do next. I may end up working on a boat again, but for now I will take it slow and see what I can find around here,” Mr Thanakon said.
Mr Kosol said what he really wanted was the wages PT Interfishery owed him.
“I contacted them but they told me that no one was available to talk to me,” he said. “All I want is the money I am supposed to get as stated in the contract, which is 20,000 baht a month.”
Mr Channarong is now back in Ranong with his wife and three sons. At the age of 62, his sons have tried to persuade him to retire and stay home. But Mr Channarong has other ideas.
“I have been working on fishing vessels for more than 37 years and have travelled to many countries,” he said. “I don’t see myself doing anything else. If the opportunity comes, I will accept a job and go out to sea again.”
Mr Ton is now back in Trat, where he is being cared for by his mother. He is no longer able to work because of the brain damage sustained during his beating in the jungle camp.
“My son is no longer the same person as when he left,” said his mother, Somsri Kasrimas. “He suffers from short term memory loss. He forgets what he said or what he did sometimes.”
Besides taking time out to heal their physical and emotional scars, the four men have been trying to contact PT Interfishery to ask for their outstanding wages or additional compensation.
“Our lives were unbelievably difficult,” Mr Channarong said.
“We got through it and now we are back to our normal lives again with bad memories haunting us almost every night.”
Songsang Patavanich, the director of PT Interfishery, told Spectrum that money has been paid to the families of all crew members except for Mr Kosol, who didn’t give the company his bank account details.
Mr Songsang said he had made an appointment with all four men to offer them extra compensation.
“We plan to meet on March 25 and discuss how much we will give them as an extra bonus,” Mr Songsang said.
“After all, they were our employees, and we won’t leave them behind.”
Mr Songsang said that while the men were gone, those who had provided their bank account details had had monthly wages transferred as promised.
He also claimed the company had attempted to pay the ransom demand, giving $1.4 million to “a company” which promised to deliver it to the pirates on PT Interfishery’s behalf. He said the cash, however, was “stolen in transit”, declining to go into further details.
“We lost more than 100 million baht during the whole operation, we lost three vessels, but I am so happy that we got most of our crew back alive and well,” Mr Songsang said. n