After Freedom, Filipino Seafarers Captured by Pirates Battle Trauma

 

Eloisa remembered that it was only she, her sister, and her mother who believed that her father was still alive. “Kahit ’yung mga magulang niya, akala patay na siya,” she said. (Even his parents thought he was dead.) 

Small-Time Vigilantes to Million-Dollar Businessmen

The Gulf of Aden, where the Somali coastline is located, is a vital shortcut between Asia and Europe, and is one of the most notorious sealanes for piracy.

Unregulated overfishing of neighboring countries following the fall of the Somali government in the early 1990s ravaged the waters of the Somali coastline, depriving fishermen of their livelihood and food source. The earliest pirates were angry fishermen- turned-vigilantes who boarded commercial ships demanding a fee.

Piracy grew into a multi-million-dollar business enterprise bankrolled by local crime groups. Modern day marauders are armed with machine guns and equipped with GPS devices that track a ship’s travel coordinates based on information leaked by bribed maritime authorities.

From 2001 to 2016, more than 3,000 seafarers were held hostage by Somali pirates.

Filipino seafarers, owing to the country’s status as being the largest supplier of seafarers in the world, are the most at risk. At the height of the piracy, the Philippine government said a Filipino seafarer is kidnapped every 6 hours.

Joint international navy patrols by sea and by air have minimized piracy in the region. However, research by the maritime industry think tank Stable Seas showed that while the percentage of Filipino seafarers exposed to piracy in East Africa dropped to 12% in 2019, Filipino sailors remain the top nationality most exposed to maritime piracy.

Captivity

In 2010, Balbero boarded a plane from Manila to Singapore to meet his wife Claire, who was working as a domestic helper. He was prepared for a brief goodbye before he was to board another plane for Mauritius. It would be nearly 7 years before he would get to see or speak to his family again. 

After a brutal cycle of typhoons and droughts ravaged his harvest and left him buried in debt, Balbero decided to trade in farming for fishing in the high seas. He and Claire were barely managing to make ends meet and the couple was afraid that their two daughters would have to stop going to school. 

Balbero and the crew of the FV Naham 3 had been out at sea for two years when Somali pirates on two speed boats commandeered their ship in the middle of the night. The ship’s captain tried to fight back and was shot and killed.

For over a year, the crew was locked down in the FV Naham 3 anchored a few kilometers off the coast of Somalia. When the ship sank, they were brought onshore where armed pirates guarded them 24 hours a day. There was little food and water and the men caught and ate anything crawling on the ground to survive.

As the years of captivity wore on, time stopped for Balbero. He thought of his two little girls and wondered who was taking care of them. He was wracked by guilt for not sending them money. He worried about his wife, who had to take on the financial burden by herself. And he thought of himself and wondered if he would make it out alive.

Naisip mo na baka nakalimutan na kayo ng ganyan ng pamilya ’nyo, ng gobyerno. May kukuha pa ba sa atin?” (You begin to think, has your family maybe forgotten about you? Has the government? Will anyone still come for us?)

Even when he was reunited with his family, Balbero was tormented by the voices in his head.

Need for Support

“The trauma of piracy is the forgotten risk of seafaring. Both the seafarer and their families are traumatized,” said Pablo, ISWAN’s welfare officer. 

Balbero and the 4 other captured fishermen were given P100,000 by the government when they were released, but as Pablo put it, “There is no just compensation for the trauma. It can take years — decades for them to go back to normal.”

Despite the high risk of piracy among Filipino seafarers at present, there is little humanitarian support to prepare them for the threat of hijacking. Neither is there adequate mental preparation for them to deal with the possibility of being held captives.

Deep sea fishers who are often trafficked onto fishing vessels easily fall through the cracks. And if they are rescued, there is insufficient recovery support in terms of mental health and livelihood.

It is this gap that family and community support must fill. 

Balbero, with the love and patience of his family, and the support from their church group, has slowly been able to recover. His wife and daughters won’t let him get back on a fishing vessel but he has gone back to farming and working in construction. Their family is held together by their faith that miracles can happen.

When her father was held captive, Eloisa would complete the 9-day Simbang Gabi novena every year, wishing that her father would be home in time for her debut. He was released 10 months before she turned 18.

Source: https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/after-freedom-filipino-seafarers-captured-pirates-battle-trauma

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