not all lost: how gerald gonzales survived a thousand days in captivity

in seafarer asia magazine, we like to feature true stories of extraordinary bravery and courage–sailors risking their lives to save marooned civilians, a captain maneuvering his ship through an incoming tsunami, and lately, mariners who have survived pirate attacks and hijackings.

we told the story of gerald gonzales in our march-april issue. his story had come out before in broadsheets and other outlets, but the folks at mphrp (maritime piracy humanitarian response programme) say we told it the best.

you be the judge:

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Gerald Gonzales, 31, is a man who didn’t know much. He didn’t have solid plans after graduating from high school. Becoming a seaman never crossed his mind, but his friends told him money was good and he would be able travel to different countries. So the boy from San Enrique, a third class municipality in Iloilo, worked hard to pass his seamanship course in Western Visayas College of Science and Technology.

He had a vague idea of what challenges he would face–the distance from family, the risks at sea.

What he didn’t know was about pirates. He didn’t know how they behaved, why they hijacked boats, how vicious and cruel they could be. “Akala ko mga pirate, kukunin lang mga valuables mo, tapos alis na.”

It was an equally cruel twist of fate that that ignorance would be replaced by a knowledge and awareness yet unmatched by any other Filipino seafarer, brought about by 1,000 days in close captivity by Somalian pirates on the M/V Iceberg 1.

Details come slowly

Seafarer Asia talks to Gonzales in early February 2012, just over a month after being flown home via Dubai from Kenya. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken man, showing no signs of trauma.

What he says later probably explains his equanimity. “Kinalimutan ko na yon. Di ka maka-move on pag palagi mong naiisip yon (I’ve forgotten about it already. You can’t move on if you’re always thinking about it).”

So the details of the day pirates hijacked his ship come slowly.

It was eight in the morning on March 29, 2010, Gonzales relates, when he was roused by an alarm. As an oiler, he had night duty and had only three hours of sleep and didn’t know what the alarm was for. “Di ko nga alam kung fire o ano—basta alam ko may nangyari. Di ko alam may pirates (I didn’t know if it was for a fire—all I knew was that something was wrong. I didn’t know there were pirates).” It was his first international assignment; the two years he had spent as a seafarer before that were inter-island gigs in the Philippines.

Nung dumungaw ako ng bintana, dun ko nakita yung pirate speedboat tapos pinaputukan kami. Dumapa na ako. Pinaputakan na yung bridge. Lumabas ako, pumunta ako sa mga kasamahan ko. Nag-panic na rin sila. Di rin namin alam kung anong gagawin namin (I looked out the window and saw the pirate’s speedboat; they were firing at us. I dropped to the floor. They were shooting at the bridge. I went out to my shipmates. They were also panicking. We didn’t know what to do).”

He couldn’t count how many pirates there were (later he counted up to 13 at a time, alternating their time on the boat; one pirate was only 10 years old).

Natakot kami, baka tamaan kami ng bala. Nagpwersa sila na tigilan ang barko. Umiko-ikot pa sila. (We were afraid we would get shot. They circled around us, forced our boat to stop).” Then, Gonzales says, they threw a makeshift metal ladder to clamber up the boat.  

Nakakatakot talaga sila—criminal talaga. Maitim, naka-military, camouflage, nakasabit mga bala, granada, mga AK 47, RPG (They were scary, they looked like absolute criminals. Dark, in military clothing, camouflage, with bullets hanging from their shoulders, grenades, AK 47s, rocket-propelled grenades).”

One of them spoke English. “’Crew no problem,’” Gonzales recalls them saying. “’We just need the boat.’” They would use the Iceberg to capture other boats.

They told the crew to divert their ship; they were going to Somalia, and that all they needed to do was to cooperate, and nothing would happen to them.

 

Inner and outer violence

But of course things did happen to the 24 men of M/V Iceberg 1, a ro-ro (roll-on roll-off) general cargo ship that flew the Panama flag. It was owned by an Emirati, captained by a Yemeni national, and manned by a crew from Interworld Shipping. They were on their way back from Yemen to Dubai and had no choice but to cross the Gulf of Aden. The boat had no citadel; the men had no training with regards to pirate attacks.

The first three to six were “okay”, Gerald says. They were given food. They were allowed to do their own cooking; the pirates had their own cook (“di sila naniniwala sa cook namin (they didn’t trust our cook).” As the ship’s provisions dwindled, the pirates brought aboard goats to slaughter. The crew was fed twice a day, but it became less depending on the pirates’ moods and their supplies.

In the beginning, the Yemeni captain headed negotiations. “Kung may negative na news sa demands nila, may sinasaktan sila. (When there was negative news on their demands, they would hurt us).” The captain, for example, was hung upside down and beaten. Towards the end, he gave up his captainship to the chief officer, who also refused it. “So sinong tatayong officer? Naging yung second engineer namin. Siya ang may lakas na loob (Who would be officer? It was our second engineer. He was the only one who had the guts to take it on).”

Gonzales says the initial ransom was “10 million dollars, tapos bumaba ng 6.6 million, tapos tumaas ng eight million. Umakayat ng 15 million hanggang 20 million.

 Growing desperate, the pirates even forced Gonzales to call home to ask for money. “Di ako pumapayag. Nanay ko nasa bukid; wala talagang magagawa, wala naman kaming pera (I refuse. My mother’s just a farmer; we couldn’t do anything, we didn’t have money).”

Gonzales was relatively lucky; the most the pirates did was to point a gun at him, or shout at him.

The chief officer and third mate weren’t so lucky. The chief officer was beaten, then electrocuted, and suddenly went missing. The pirates found his clothes in the water, but no one knows what really happened to him. The third mate jumped overboard when they were anchored off the Somalian shore. “Hinabol sya sa speedboat, binalik siya, di namin alam ang ginawa sa kanya (He was chased by a speedboat and brought back. We didn’t know what they did to him).” Gonzales says they tried to revive him, but failed. “Baka na-heart attack. ‘Di namin alam.”

The chief engineer was punched repeatedly in the back, his ears were sliced off.

Takot na takot kami (we lived in constant fear),” says Gonzales. “Di ako nagkukumpiansa kasi kaya nilang barilin ka tapos palabasin na lumaban ka (we couldn’t let our guard down because they could shoot us and just say we were the ones who started it).”

 

Despair

Sometimes, the things that the pirates said left Gonzales more speechless than the things they did.

Minsan, tinatanong kung sino presidente natin. San ko naman makukuha yung news na ganyan? (Once, they asked who our president was. How was I to get that information?)” Gonzales says with a small laugh. “Dati si Gloria. Ngayon ‘di ko na lam kung sino.” Or “’Marami bang isda don?’ o ‘May dagat ba kayo?’ Di ko alam (kung bakit sila nagtatanong ng ganon). Siguro kasi desyerto doon. ‘May gold ba kayong tinatago dito (sa ship)?’ ‘May pera ba kayo dala-dala?’ Ano bang akala nila parang armored truck yung barko? Minsan natataglaan akong sumagot. (It was Gloria (Macapagal-Arroyo) before. Now I have no idea. Or ‘Do you have a lot of fish?’ or ‘Do you have a sea?’ I didn’t know why they asked those things. Maybe because they lived in the desert. Or ‘do you have gold on this boat?’ or ‘do you transport cash?’ Did they think the ship was an armored truck? Sometimes it took me a while to reply to them.)”

The pirates called him “Filipino”. He, in turn, remembers some of their names: Abdul, Faizal, Ayu, Ada. “Pero wala akong friend doon. Di ko sila kino-consider na friend. Kahit minsan parang mabait sila. (But I didn’t consider any of them friends. Even if they acted nice.) Di ko…” his voice trails off.

The little kindnesses the pirates showed always evolved into a reason for despair. They allowed the captives to talk amongst themselves, and when they did, they talked about when they would leave. “’Yung iba, ‘dito na tayo mamamatay’. May kukuha ba sa atin? Tutulungan ba tayo ng gobyerno natin?’ (The others used to say ‘we’ll die here.’ Is anybody coming for us? Is our government going to help us?)

Di na ako nag-hope. Kasi yung Indians—anim sila–na mas malapit sa country nila, di matulungan gobyerno nila e. Ako pa kaya mag-isa lang. Wala na talaga akong pag-asa na tutulungan ako ng gobyerno. (I didn’t have any hopes. We were very near India and the six Indians I was with weren’t getting any help from their government. I was the only Filipino. I knew the Philippine government wouldn’t send help.)”

The pirates constantly chewed on quat, an herb with mild stimulant properties. “Parang dahon na nakaka-high. Binibigay nila sa amin, pero ayoko. Di ako nakakatulog (They offered me some, but I didn’t like it. I couldn’t sleep).” Gonzales attributes the pirates’ erratic behavior to quat. If they didn’t have their fix, he says, they grew more violent.

Christmases came and went, as did his birthday. The hijacked ships that were anchored around them were rescued and freed. “Naririnig nalang naming na-rescue na sila (We would hear the others being rescued).” Gonzales counted 11 rescues; he didn’t bother to count the days anymore. “Natutulog nalang kami para di kami mag-iisip. Tulog ng tulog. Kung pwede matulog nalang at di na kumain. (We just slept so we wouldn’t dwell on our situation. Sleep and sleep. We wished we could just sleep, not even wake up to eat).”

 

Rescue

Their time to be freed came on December 22, 2012, after 12 days of gunfire between the pirates and Puntland Maritime Police.

The fight took that long, he says, because the pirates had that much ammunition on board. The Puntland police were also unwilling to back down. 

In the end, two Iceberg crewmembers were hit; and two of the pirates’ reinforcements—not the any of the original pirate crew–died. But only nine captors were left on the boat. They left on a speedboat after the police commander gave them the choice whether to surrender or die.

As soon as they left the boat, Gonzales phoned his mother. She didn’t recognize his voice. “Nakalabas na ako, ‘Nay.” he told his mom. “Nakaligtas na ako.” I’m free, Mom. His mother didn’t know what to say. “’Di siya nakapagsalita (she was dumbfounded).”

Even then, even when they spent two days in the police detachment in Eyl, even when they reached the main camp in Bosaso, Gonzales couldn’t believe that they were finally free. “Kahit nung nire-rescue kami di ako sigurado. Habang nagpuputukan nga kami rin natatamaan. Di ako siurado na makakalabas kaming buhay. Mga sundalo, wla silang pakealam kung nasan kami; ratrat sila ng ratrat. Nagtatago lang kami sa kwarto (Even while we were being rescued, we weren’t sure of anything. We were also being shot at. We weren’t sure we would come out alive. The soldiers didn’t care who they shot at. We were just in the room, hiding.)

Mga kasama ko non happy, ako nagdadalawang isipa pa  ko—baka lusubin pa ng pirates ‘to (My companions were happy. Me, I was having second thoughts—maybe the pirates would invade the camp again).” He was, after all, still in Somalia.

 

Home

After Bosaso, they were transferred to Kenya, where the Indian nationals were met by representatives from their government.

Ang nagsalubong sa akin taga-U.N. Walang sumundo galing sa Philippine government. Doon ko nakilala si James Ferdinand at Jeremy Lagura, mga taga-embassy. Kinamusta ako tapos sabi inaayos nila pag-uwi ko. (Someone from U.N. came for me. No one from the Philippine government was there. But that’s were I met James Ferdinand and Jeremy Lagura from the Philippine embassy. They asked how I was and told me my flight home was being arranged.”

He was asked if we wanted to fly out on the 31st, but he said he’d wait the next day so he didn’t have to spend New Year on the plane.

Here, finally home after almost three years, he was met at the airport by Rancho Villavicencio, Philippines Director of Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) and officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). It was Villavicencio who accompanied Gonzales to Iloilo, crossing two rivers to get to his hometown at the foot of a mountain.

The first thing Gonzales told Villavicencio? “Gusto kong bumalik sa trabaho. Babalik ako sa barko. (I want to go back to work. I will get back on board.)”

Villavicencio says Gonzales is extraordinarily strong. “Di gaya ng ibang survivors na ayaw nilang sumakay. (Not like other survivors who don’t want to go back onboard).”

God, the Bible, and prayers sustained him throughout his ordeal, Gonzales says. During his captivity, he and five Ghanian shipmates learned to read the Bible. “Nagre-reflect ako sa mga binabasa ko,” like the story of Joseph, he says, which tells of an innocent man being thrown in jail, and regaining his life and more after he was freed.  

There were times when he felt hopeless, he admits. “Sabi ko rin kunin nalang Niya ako, wag nyang pahirapan ng ganito. Kasi nagtrabaho lang naman ako, wala akong ginawang masama. Pero sabi ko sa Kanya, bigyan ako ng isang chance na makauwi. Pinagtibay niya loob ko. Napalapit na ako sa kanya dahil napakinggan nya panalaangin ko. Malaking bagay yon. (It came to a point that I was praying, Lord please take me. Don’t make me suffer like this. I just wanted to earn a living, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. But I also asked Him to give me a chance to get back home. He strengthened my faith. I grew closer to Him because He heard my prayers. It meant a lot to me.)”

After everything, what does Gonzales have to say about the piracy issue?

Dapat mahihigpit yung IMO sa rules sa barko; kelangan may drill sa barko para sa piracy (IMO should impose stricter rules on ships; there should be drills for pirate attacks).” (This became a requirement just before Gonzales’ boat was hijacked.)

To the government: “Dapat tulungan nila mga kababayan natin na nasa labas ng bansa. Wag nang pansinin yung reklamo. Aksyunan lang. Ang laki ng tulong ng OFW sa bansa natin, tapos mapapabyaan lang…(They should help our overseas workers. Ignore whatever complaints they have against them. Just act. Our OFWs contribute a lot to our country, their concerns don’t deserve to be taken lightly…”

And to his fellow seafarers who—heaven forbid—might encounter pirates: “Wag kayong tumalon o tumakas. Hintayin mo nalang na may magliligtas sa iyo, kasi may magbabantay naman dyan e.  Magbasa sila ng Bible palagi. Isipin din nila na one day makakaalis din sila. (Don’t jump ship or try to escape. Wait for help. Someone is watching. Read the Bible. Believe that one day, you too will be able to leave.)”

 

 

Sidebar: 

Pirates modify attack strategies for vessels plying HRAs

By Yashika F. Torib

Armed robbery on ships plying high-risk areas (HRAs) may have been reduced, but the number of successful attacks by pirates has increased.

This was the statement made by a maritime security expert during the second International Maritime Conference held at the John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University (JBLFMU) Arevalo last January 22 to 23 in Iloilo City.

According to James Braziel of the Asian Pacific Strategies and Solutions (APSS) Group, the increasing number of successful attacks on ships transiting HRAs is attributed to focused and customized strategies employed by the pirates.

Based on investigation and research, the seasoned American security officer says that attacks by pirates are now customized to a particular targeted ship and HRAs are already expanding to offset the nations’ naval operations against them.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) defines HRAs as the shipping area that includes the entire Gulf of Aden and extends up to 400 miles east of Somalia. Due to persistent pirate attacks despite the presence of international navies, ITF and the joint negotiating group extended the geographical coverage of HRAs in April 2011.

The Extended Risk Zone now includes (western border) the coastline at the border of Djibouti and Somalia to position 11 48 N, 45 E; from 12 00 N, 45 E to Mayyun Island in the Bab El Mandeb Straits. Braziel further says that pirates continue to expand their attack areas in hope of assaulting ships that are rerouting to avoid piracy in HRAs.

Recent reports from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) show that piracy attacks across the world has already reached a five-year low in 2012, due in part to decreasing Somali piracy. The IMB Global Piracy Report states that 297 ships were attacked in 2012, compared to 439 in 2011.

In this light, Braziel adds that the decline in the number of attacks are attributed to private armed guards employed by flag counties, world naval anti-piracy operations, and nations within HRAs recognizing the need for private security and making laws to meet the industry.

Misleading statements of pirates “retiring”

With news revealing that one of the most notorious pirate leaders has already retired, questions were raised on whether such admission can save the pirate from prosecution.

According to Braziel, who also served with the U.S. Marine Infantry and the Army National Guard, such cases wherein pirates admit to their crimes and guarantee the government that they will, thereafter, end such unlawful activities, is a mere publicity stunt.

Recent reports reveal that Mohamed Abdi Hassan, known as “Afweyne” announced his retirement after eight years of terrorizing the vast areas of the Indian Ocean and generating multimillion-dollar ransoms from ships he’s seized. His attacks, among others, include MV Faina, a Ukrainian transport ship carrying 33 refurbished Soviet-era T-72 battle tanks; and the supertanker Sirius Star.

“I have decided to renounce and quit, and from today on I will not be involved in this gang activity,” announced Afweyne, without, however, providing the reason behind his change of craft.

Braziel believes otherwise. “I don’t think that he (Afweyne) meant it. It’s like when retiring politicians say, ‘I want to spend time with my family’. I think he’s just going to shift to another (unlawful) activity given that piracy has already declined in the area due to the presence of naval forces and private security onboard ships,” he saysThe inability to prosecute pirates due to the lack of authority in domestic laws and the absence of a stable Somali government has continued to frustrate various flag state members whose vessels ply the HRA.

Combating pirate attacks on commercial vessels has been something that international navies and countries have been supporting, but such enthusiasm is often tempered by the reality of the absence of a place to try pirate prisoners.

“While international law provides that any state may take jurisdiction over piracy in international waters, counter-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia continue to be hampered by a lack of authority in domestic laws, as well as by questions concerning jurisdiction over apprehended individuals suspected of piracy and related crimes,” states a November 2010 memo by Canadian Defense Minister Peter Mackay to Deputy Defense Minister Robert Fonberg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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