Families, sailors freed by Somali pirates recount four years of torture and separation
Claire Balbero was in Hong Kong when one of her sisters-in-law sent her a message: her husband, Elmer and cousin Arnel were finally free after four and a half years of captivity by Somali pirates.
"Sabi niya, umiiyak siya, 'Malaya na sila, praise God, natupad na yung prayers natin,'" Claire said.
Elmer was aboard FV Naham 3 with Arnel when Somali pirates boarded the ship as it passed by the western Indian Ocean near the Seychelles on March 26, 2012 and kidnapped its crew of 29 sailors.
Arnel convinced Elmer to join him on the ship after two successful years, though their family would learn at the peak of the crisis that their agency was not licensed to deploy workers.
One of Arnel's six siblings, Lily, said, "Yung two years, okay pa naman. [Nagsimula siya] ng 2010. Dapat nga sana magbabakasyon siya pero hindi siya nagbakasyon. Mage-extend daw muna siya ng isang taon bago siya magbakasyon. Hindi na siya [nakatuloy],"
"Fake naman daw po pala, hindi naman pala lisensyado yung agency," Claire added. "Akala namin totoo kasi marami naman [silang] fishing vessel. Wala po kaming nababalitaan na captive-captive na ganyan."
The Somali pirates made Balberos and the other sailors memorize the mobile number of one of their relatives before they took their phones away
Their plan, according to Arnel's other sister Sheryl, was to have them call their loved ones to demand money for their release.
"Tumawag po siya sa kapatid namin sa Hong Kong. Binigyan ng pagkakataon yung mga pirata na tumawag," Sheryl said. "Ano bang purpose ng pakikipag-communicate nila? Para mabulabog, mag-produce tayo ng pera na ibabayad sa kanila."
The families of the Filipino sailors said they kept silent for nearly five years upon the advise of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and waited for updates from the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) and other agencies negotiating with the pirates.
During this period, Augusto, brother of captured Filipino sailor Akes Edwas, remembers being called by the DFA to look through photographs to identify his sibling.
"May taon po na tumawag po yung DFA para ituro ko po yung brother ko doon sa picture o doon sa video para i-verify po nila kung buhay pa o hindi," he said.
"It's hard to identify them dun sa picture nila na talagang ang payat payat nila," Augusto added.
Getting along with the pirates
A continent away in the fishing community of Dabagala, his brother and the crew of Naham were barely surviving.
"Pinagsasabihan namin yung mga kasamahan namin na kahit anong ginagawa natin dito, wala tayong magawa, kaya pakisamahan na lang natin sila," Elmer said.
"Pag sinasabi nilang trabahuin namin, tinutulungan namin sila. Minsan, pinapahugasan pa sa 'min mga baril nila," he continued. "Tawagin ka, usap kang maglaba ng damit nila. Maglaba kami para kami makalaba rin ng damit namin."
"Kung makipag-away ka sa kanila, kung hindi ka makikibagay sa kanila, hindi ka kaibigan. Kung nakikisama ka, okay ka sa kanila," Ferdinand Jacinto Dalit added.
Rats and cats for food
Even with all their effort, however, they were denied proper food and water and had to craft objects like knives to trade for basic necessities such as salt and detergent.
"Sa isang araw ho, dalawang beses lang kaming kumain. Bihira lang sa panghapunan. Yung kainin naming pananghalian, hatiin namin para may panghapunan pa. Minsan nanghuhuli kami ng daga para lang hindi kami magutom, pusa," Elmer said.
Dalit added, "Parang hayop na utus-utusan diyan na ano, na pinapakain ng hindi husto, pinapainom ng hindi husto. Pero wala kaming magawa kasi bihag kami. Sunud-sunuran na lang kami."
They were also forced to watch three of their crew mates die- two out of sickness, and one shot by their captor.
"Yung engineer namin na taga-Taiwan, sumakit ang tiyan, muntik nang namatay, kaming Pilipino ang tumulong sa kanya. Yung ka-kwan niya na taga-China, 'di man lang pinapansin. Buti, gumaling din yung sakit niya," Elmer recalled.
"Humingi kami ng gamot sa mga pirata. Wala man lang ibigay. Sabi nila, nasan ang pera ninyo?" he added.
"Nilalabanan namin. Para lang hindi mawalan ng pag-asa. Panginoon lang ang inaano namin para makauwi kami," Dalit said.
Day of release
For all that they endured, the day of their release came in a flurry of activity.
"Yung umaga na 'yun, October 21, binalitaan kami na 'uuwi na kayo.' Parang wala lang, parang sinungaling lang," Antonio Libres said.
"Nung tanghali na nun, lahat ng pirata nagbihis ng magandang damit. Nag-usap-usap kami: uuwi na tayo."
For being held in captivity for four years, the Philippine government will provide P100,000 each to the released sailors.
While they have yet to figure out what they will do with the grant, the families of the Balberos, Libres, Edwas, and Dalit plan to help their loved ones recuperate from the traumatic experience.
Augusto said his mother and his seven other siblings will care of Edwas.
"Tulungan po namin siya, i-counsel po namin siya bilang magkakapatid. We will understand, at uunti-untiin naming ibalik yung pag-iisip niya," he said.
Eloisa Crizel and Kathleen Jane, a self-confessed daddy's girl, hope to care for their father Elmer. Their mother is scheduled to leave for Hong Kong at the end of the week.
Both girls are hoping they will be able to ease the traumatic memories of the past four and a half years from their father's mind by forming new memories that would hopefully make up for their separation.
"Hahayaan po namin siyang magkwento. Hindi po namin siya tatanungin [tungkol sa pagiging bihag ng Somali pirates]. Ibabalik namin yung mga ginagawa namin dati," Eloisa said.
"Gagawa kami ng bagong memories para makalimutan niya, hindi totally dahil mahirap naman talaga, para lang po hindi siya ma-depress."
The sailors will receive "comprehensive physical and psychological support" from the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network for their recovery. —ALG, GMA News