Captured & beaten by pirates

Captured & beaten by pirates
Mr Yeo Eu Loone, the lone Singaporean who went missing for several days after a ship he was on was hijacked in July, is back in Singapore.

The punches flew fast and hard into his abdomen.

When they finally stopped, Mr Yeo Eu Loone (above) caught his breath and looked up - only to see a shotgun pointing at his head. The trigger was pulled twice but the shots flew past his ear and into the sea.

They were a reminder to the 38-year-old cargo officer - and 20 of his shipmates - that their lives belonged to the dozen African outlaws who had boarded the Hai Soon 6 oil tanker.

Mr Yeo was the sole Singaporean on board and had never had a gun fired at him before his ordeal off the coast of Western Africa less than three months ago.

After nine days of captivity, countless beatings, and eight weeks at sea as the Hai Soon 6 returned to Singapore, Mr Yeo finally made it home on Sept 25.

Speaking to The Sunday Times in his family's five-room Bedok flat, Mr Yeo still bears the scars on his knees and arms.

Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, his voice solemn, he said he had nearly lost hope of making it home alive, and "would give up anything to not have gone through all that s***".

Mr Yeo still does not know how he managed to survive, but remembers the day the pirates took his ship, which had been on a supply route to refuel other ships off the coast of Western Africa.

On the night of July 25, he was in his cabin as the Singapore-owned tanker was filling up a larger ship when he heard a commotion coming from outside.

At first, he thought it was a scuffle between his fellow sailors, but when he went to investigate, he saw two burly African pirates wielding AK-47s and long knives, herding the other sailors up on deck.

One caught sight of Mr Yeo and grabbed him - then smashed his head with a knife handle.

It was the first of many beatings to come.

The sailors knew there was little hope of fighting off the pirates, who boarded from a speedboat.

The Hai Soon 6 had no weapons or armed security personnel on board to guard the $2 million worth of oil the tanker was carrying - the target of the invaders.

The pirates cast off the tanker from the bigger ship it was fuelling and disabled most of Hai Soon 6's communications systems. The bigger ship did not stick around and sailed off as soon as the pirates took over the Hai Soon 6.

However, Mr Yeo believes its crew alerted maritime authorities about the hijack.The pirates had apparently wanted to siphon off the oil into their own boat but it sank after they tried to lift it onto the tanker.

Instead, they decided to claim the tanker as their own. They painted over its name and stripped the bunks of the sailors' belongings - which were considerable, bearing in mind that an oil tanker supply trip can last up to 60 days.

For the next nine days, the 21 men - Mr Yeo, his South Korean captain and chief engineer, 12 Chinese, and six Myanmar nationals - were held in a room that could barely contain them.

"We were supposed to eat there, sleep there, s**t there," recalled Mr Yeo. Food was hard to come by - "they fed us when they felt like it" - and they seldom got to shower.

As their hopes of freedom faded, the stench grew.

A day after the hijack, the pirates asked to speak to the cargo officer and Mr Yeo was brought forth. In broken English, they asked him about the oil on board.

Fearing they would try to take the vessel ashore and hold the sailors hostage, he took a gamble and lied.

He told them the tanker held a cheap type of oil which could not be discharged as the cargo pump had been damaged while casting off from the bigger ship.

That was when the beatings began. They would use the butt of their rifles, their fists or just kick him repeatedly.

At nearly 1.8m tall and weighing 90kg, Mr Yeo, a former combat engineer during his national service, counted himself as a tough seaman, but he conceded: "Nothing could have prepared me for this."

Below deck, the sailors had little clue of where the pirates were heading, or what they had planned.

There was brief hope when the Togo Navy appeared three days into their ordeal - only to beat a hasty retreat when the pirates brandished their AK-47s.

On Aug 2, a Nigerian Navy convoy appeared on the radar and called out to the Hai Soon 6. But Mr Yeo was forced at gunpoint to respond that all was well on board.

It appeared that all hope had been lost until later that night, when the pirates abruptly took off in a rubber dinghy - leaving the tanker drifting off the southern coast of Nigeria.

No explanations were given and it is unclear if any authorities had negotiated for the tanker's release.

"My guess is they got all they could take," said Mr Yeo, who was "just thankful to be safe".

Once the pirates were out of sight, the crew immediately called Singapore and extra supplies were shipped out to them in preparation for their journey back.

Mr Yeo's widowed mother, a 62-year-old chef, and 41-year-old brother Eugene had been informed about the hijack by Hai Soon shipping company and broke down with emotion on learning that Mr Yeo was heading home."My mum spent every day crying when she first found out about the hijacking from Hai Soon," Eugene said. "I was at a loss, I treated it as if I had already lost my brother and was prepared for the worst."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it does not have diplomatic representation in that area, and had "sought the assistance of relevant authorities from countries in the region to assist in locating the vessel and to ensure the safety of the personnel on board".

The incident was Hai Soon International's first brush with pirates in 12 years of sailing around Africa. The Sunday Times asked the Singapore shipping firm what additional security measures and action it will take to combat piracy but it declined to comment.

Mr Yeo somehow escaped without permanent injury or broken bones but he has undergone a battery of medical tests since returning to Singapore on Sept 25. He is also seeking psychiatric treatment to help him get over the ordeal.

"It'll take a while to get over this," he added. "I did enjoy sailing but maybe this is a sign that I should explore other areas."

NIGHTMARE ON BOARD

In broken English, they (pirates) asked him about the oil on board. Fearing that they would try to take the vessel to shore and hold the sailors hostage, he took a gamble and lied.

He told them the tanker held a cheap type of oil which could not be discharged as the cargo pump had been damaged... That was when the beatings began. They would use the butt of their rifles, their fists or just kick him repeatedly.

WHY IT'S TOUGH TO PROTECT SHIPS

Offshore supply vessels such as the oil tanker Hai Soon 6 are common targets of pirates in the Gulf of Guinea. Pirates often use violent tactics to steal the cargo for resale, or kidnap seafarers to hold for ransom.

Such hijackings can occur once to twice a month there, said Dr Philip Belcher, the marine director of Intertanko, which advocates safe transport and has some 300 member companies in the tanker industry.

"This is a growing and significant problem in the area," he said. Worse still, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are known to be "more violent than their colleagues in Somalia" - who rose to notoriety after the hijacking of an American cargo ship in 2009, as played out in the recent blockbuster movie Captain Phillips.

Tankers carrying valuable cargo off Somalia tend to employ private security detail for protection and deterrence but "the placing of armed guards on board vessels in this region (Gulf of Guinea) is fraught with difficulties", said Dr Belcher.

This is because many states in the region do not allow armed guards on board unless they are nationals of that state, a rule that is tough to comply with when supply vessels can cut through several territorial waters on a single trip.

The attack on the Hai Soon 6 was the third near the Ghana-Togo border in seven weeks, according to Mr Ian Millen, chief operating officer at maritime intelligence firm Dryad Maritime.

Dr Belcher recommended that vessels take up physical protection measures, such as having barbed wire around the vessel, and also encouraged ship owners to place hidden transmitting devices so hijacked ships can be traced even after pirates disable regular communications.


This article was first published on October 19, 2014.
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