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Airstrikes in Yemen find tragic echo in Gujarat coastal villages

2 dead in bombing, vessels plying in those waters have mostly Gujarati crew.

Written by Gopal Kateshiya | Bharana |
September 26, 2015 3:28:48 am
Yemen, Yemen airstrikes, Yemen indians, Indians killed in Yemen, saudi air strikes, Yemen Indians killed, Saudi airstrikes Yemen, Yemen Saudi airstrikes, MEA, Indians, Saudi-led air strikes, Saudi airstrikes, Yemen, Indians yemen, yemen indians, saudi, indian killed in saudi, indian killed, Yemen, latest news, world news, indian express news The grieving family and neighbours of Valimamad Chamadia in Bharana. (Express Photo by: Gopal Kateshiya)

There is a deafening silence in this coastal village near Vadinar port in Gujarat’s Devbhoomi Dwarka district. People are gathered in small groups discussing their men out at sea, while the houses of Valimamad Chamadia, 60, and Asgar Sanghar, 35, are in mourning.

Chamadia and Sanghar were among the six Indian sailors killed in a Saudi-led airstrike on two boats off al-Khokha port in Yemen on September 8, which were allegedly getting badly needed fuel supplies into the country.

In the perilous waters off East Africa and Yemen, choppy due to the presence of both Somali pirates and the civil war-like situation in Yemen, many of the vessels ferrying goods were once owned by Gujaratis, and almost all continue to be manned by Gujarati crew.

After the bombing, the Indian government helped nearly 70 seamen from the coastal villages of Gujarat stuck at al-Khokha port get out. Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel had tweeted about talking to External Affairs Minister Sushama Swaraj over the crisis.

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Sanghar was on board Al Mustafa, chartered by a Somali merchant, that was bombed. Of Al Mustafa’s 10-member crew, six were from Bharana and one from Salaya in Devbhoomi Dwarka district, and three from Sikka in Jamnagar. It was carrying some 60 barrels of diesel and was on its way from Berbera port in Somalia to al-Khokha when Saudi forces apparently mistook it as carrying arms for Houthis, who have rebelled against the government of Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Chamadia and another Indian, Imran Bhatti (22) of Sikka, too died in the strike, while seven crew members, including Ravi Duttani (24) of Bharana, survived by swimming around 5 km to the shore.

The other three Indians, all from Mandavi in Kutch, were killed in the bombing of the Mandavi-registered Al Ashmar, while one is still missing. Al Ashmar too had seven survivors.

Sanghar’s family had been banking on him to return with Rs 50,000 for treatment of his wife Jenam, whose cancer has resurfaced. His two sons, Samir (18) and Mustak (17), and his brother Aslam work as crew on fishing boats. Sanghar’s two daughters are 16 and eight.

The 18-member joint family shares a four-room home.

The Sanghars are now fearful for Asgar’s father Anwar (65), who is in Somalia, working as a sailor on board Al Sharif, owned by a Somali Arab. In the phone calls since, the family has been urging him to come back.

At Chamadia’s house too, the sorrow is compounded with uncertainty over the fate of his nephew, reportedly stranded at Mokha port, also in Yemen.

Indian country craft or mechanised wooden vessels have been plying between India and East Africa and Arab countries for centuries. Till the early 1990s, these vessels used to get good business, with a government policy ensuring that dates could be imported to India only on them. In turn, the craft would carry potatoes and onions to Gulf countries. That trade collapsed after India joined the World Trade Organisation in 1995, forcing the small vessels to compete with large ships for business.

In 2010, the Indian Directorate of Shipping prohibited Indian dhows from sailing to East Africa and the western coast of the Gulf peninsula beyond Oman as Somali pirates prevailed in those waters. The ban did not apply to large steel ships. The already-desperate Indian dhow-owners got merchants from the UAE and Somalia to charter their vessels and thus found a way around the prohibition.

Almost all of these vessels continue to have Gujarati crew. Mostly illiterate, they know only this work, and employment opportunities at home are limited, forcing them to risk the troubled waters.

Duttani’s father Vijay says while his son got saved, all his savings have been lost. The 14 survivors of the two vessels which were bombed have been shifted to Al Hudaydah city by their shipping agents. Duttani, who is among them, told The Indian Express that they didn’t know when they could return. “Four of our fellow crew who suffered injuries in the bombings are in hospital,” he said.

“Ravi was a truck driver, earning Rs 12,000 per month. His friend Ali convinced him to go to Dubai for a better job. Ravi was earning around Rs 20,000 a month working as crew and doubling up as labour. He told us he had around Rs 1.8 lakh in cash. Everything has been lost now,” says Vijay.

Of the three from Mandavi and Salaya killed in the blasts, Zulfikar was fifth among eight brothers, and had been working as a sailor for 17 years.

“He left home on March 18 and sent Rs 5,000 around three months ago. He made a call to his wife two months ago when he was in the UAE. Since he was a sailor, he would talk to his wife only when he was in the UAE or Oman,” says Karim, Zulfikar’s younger brother, also a seaman, who returned home in March after a season of 10 months.

In a pucca house in Razak Colony nearby, Adam Chauvan, who retired from the Merchant Navy, keeps checking WhatsApp for any voicemail from son Majid (35), captain of Aarjoo, a country craft owned by a Dubai businessman which, last heard, was stranded at al-Khokha port. He has scant news of his younger son Mohsin (25) either, who was last on board a Porbandar craft headed towards a port in Oman.

Majid gets Rs 10,000 a month plus bonus on safely delivering cargo, but a crew member of a Gujarati-owned craft like Mohsin gets only Rs 7,000. Both are married, and Mohsin has a three-year-old daughter.

“At 3 pm on September 17, Majid called up to say they had managed to sail out of al-Khokha and crossed international waters. However, the conversation lasted only two minutes. Their mother keeps weeping whenever they call and pleads with both of them to return home and work here as labourers,” says Chauvan.

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