Piracy Nightmare Still Haunts Filipino Families
The Maersk Alabama crew is finally back in the United States after successfully fighting off Somali pirates, and capturing the attention of the world.
But in Manila, more than 100 Filipino families are still desperately awaiting the release of their loved ones.
One American cargo captain has been rescued. But 250 other seafarers, mostly from poor, developing nations, remain in captivity. Almost half of them are Filipino.
Pictured: Doris Deseo, left, and Catherine Boretta, right, show pictures of their husbands as they visit the office of a shipping agency in Manila on April 13, 2009.
(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
"What a high price to pay for a father who only wants something good for the future of his family," lamented Catherine Borreta. Her 36-year-old husband Rodell has been held captive by Somali pirates for more than five months.
Catherine said Rodell called on April 10 and said he feared that if negotiations between the pirates and their company dragged on, the pirates might use their vessel as a mother ship. He said he didn't know what was going to happen in the next few days.
"He kept on saying that he loves me and his daughters, it was like he was already saying goodbye," Catherine said.
Rodell (at left) and 22 other Filipino seafarers were captured on Nov. 10, 2008 by Somali pirates, along with their ship, the MT Stolt Strength, as the chemical tanker sailed through the Gulf of Aden en route to Japan.
Since then, there have been on-and-off negotiations between the pirates and Philippines-based Sagana Shipping, Inc., the owner of the tanker, according to company spokesman Capt. Dexter Custodio.
"We are continuously working on their release, but the problem is that there seems to be multiple groups holding our crew, and they can't seem to agree among themselves," Custodio said.
Relatives of the hostages say the pirates have lowered the ransom to half of the original amount, but their fate remains unclear. As the crisis continues, so too does their suffering.
Doris Deseo, whose husband Carlo (at left) is the ship's third mate and a father of two young girls, said they have very little food and water left, some of them have been getting sick, and the pirates threaten them by firing guns near their heads.
"He told me he really felt the bullet passing near his head and ear," said Doris.
Catherine's husband, Rodell, was apparently shot in the leg and she's worried that he's not received proper medical attention.
Hope for the release of the Stolt Strength's all-Filipino crew seems, right now, to rest entirely with the ship's owners.
"It is normally the ship owners who negotiate with the pirates because the ship is very important to them, very expensive, the cargo's very expensive," said Nelson Ramirez, president of United Filipino Seafarers.
In most cases of Somali piracy, ransom money has won the release of hijacked ships and captive crews. Last year, Somali pirates made around $150 million, according to a report by the British Broadcasting Corp.
Some families of the Stolt crew are getting frustrated over ship's owners' handling of the situation.
The pirates holding the Stolt and the ship's owners have yet to reach an agreement, according to Custodio. "We don't control the time, the pirates do," he said in defense of the lengthy negotiations.
Following pirate attacks on the Maersk Alabama and another U.S. cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, President Obama vowed to step up the fight against the pirates.
The Philippine government, meanwhile, is powerless to do anything, said Ramirez, president of the seafarers union. The government has considered banning Filipino seafarers entering the waters off Somalia's coast, but the Department of Foreign Affairs said this would be extremely difficult.
Somali pirates are not backing down. Instead, they've vowed revenge for the deaths of the three bandits killed by U.S. Navy snipers during the rescue of Maersk Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips, raising concerns for the safety of the remaining hostages.
Despite the obvious dangers, hundreds of aspiring Filipino seafarers still flock to Manila's Luneta district, where shipping companies and manning agencies have set up application booths.
Ruel Tala, a father who has been sailing for five years, said he's passed the Gulf of Aden a few times, and he is willing to take the risk again.
"I don't know how I would react if pirates are able to seize the ship I'm in, but I'm prepared," said Tala. "I am willing to take the risk for my future and for my family."
Filipino seafarers can earn between $500 and $8,000 per month — amounts well above the average income in this country.
Families of the hostages still at sea are still receiving their monthly salaries, but to them, all that matters now is the opportunity to reunite with their loved ones.
"I just want him to be able to come back home," said Doris Deseo. "Even if he doesn't go abroad to work, we can survive."
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