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Somali piracy survivor: ‘We lived off rats and birds

Somali hostages freed after years of captivity

02:33 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Hostage says he lived off bush meat to survive

The crew of Naham 3 spent nearly five years in captivity

Three died during the ordeal

CNN — none

Somali pirates have released 26 hostages held for nearly five years in terrible conditions. Three died during the ordeal. One of the survivors tells CNN of his desperate struggle.

In the northern Somali bush, Arnel Balbero trapped birds, wild cats and even rats – anything to outwit his captors and survive.

“You need to eat everything, he said. “You need to eat to survive…”

These 26 members of a fishing vessel -- most of them from Southeast Asia -- were hijacked in March 2012.

Balbero was one of a 29-man crew of the Taiwanese registered fishing vessel, the Naham 3. Its crew of fishermen came from different corners of East Asia – Cambodia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Balbero spent four and half years in captivity as one of the longest-held hostages in the history of Somali piracy. He spent most of it living outdoors in the Somali bush, close to the town of Galkayo.

Heading home

The crew members are now returning to their homes thanks to the efforts of the Hostage Support Programme, which has been fighting for their freedom by appealing directly to elders and religious leaders within Somalia for the past 18 months.

Balbero was 28 years old and sailing around the south of the Seychelles, and very far from his home in the Philippines, when on 12 March 2012, his vessel came under attack from Somali pirates.

This was at the height of Somali piracy. By February of 2012, figures from the UN suggested that 10 vessels had been held by Somali pirates, 159 hostages captured and some $146 million in ransom paid to the gangs.

But the Naham 3 was no merchant ship that belonged to a wealthy sea faring company – and there was no forthcoming ransom. With few working for their release, these men were often called the “forgotten hostages.”

Piracy reduced

Its crew of 29 was reduced to 26 when the captain was shot dead as the pirates boarded and two crew members later died from illness. The ship was forced to travel to the coast off Somalia.

On Monday, Balbero arrived in Nairobi as a 32-year-old man. During his captivity the story of Somali piracy had reached Hollywood screens with Tom Hanks starring in the title role of the film “Captain Phillips.”

Since then, a more robust international naval presence in the dangerous waters off Somalia in the Indian Ocean has helped reduced the instances of piracy. There has not been a successful attack on a large commercial vessel since 2012.

In pictures: Piracy in Somali waters

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Besides depriving the men of food and water, the captors would often beat the men.

“They had the mentality of animals,” said Balbero.

“When you got sick and you asked for medical treatment, they said it’s better to die. What can you say about that? Of course that is an animal mind to let people die.”

It is the memory of the three crew members who did not survive this ordeal which appears to haunt Balbero the most.

He remembers that he joined the Naham 3 on the same day as the men who succumbed to illness early in captivity. He said their legs and faces swelled with an unknown disease before they died.

“We worked in the ship the same year and were on the same three-year contract. When we were told we were going home, I remembered these two crew members and the captain, and I said ‘We’re sorry.’”

After 1,672 days, Balbero’s harrowing ordeal appears to be over, and he is soon to be reunited with his sister and family in the Philippines. But the psychological scars of such a lengthy time in captivity will surely be his next challenge.

Despite this latest hostage release, the fight against piracy has spread to West African shores, and has not been completely eradicated from the Somali coastline.

Somalis point to the increasingly unregulated fishing by international trawlers in their waters, and say it is robbing their young men of a livelihood and driving them back into the hands of the pirates.

DMU Timestamp: February 21, 2023 13:31

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