Lost at Sea

In May last year, Sunil James set off on a voyage to hell.

Updated: January 27, 2014 2:55:59 pm

In May last year, Sunil James set off on a voyage to hell. The merchant navy sailor speaks about the pirate attack which led to his imprisonment in West Africa, as his family copes with the emptiness of a house without their child

EyeOn a Friday evening, two weeks after 11-month-old Vivaan has been buried, his parents, Sunil and Aditi James, are seated on a couch in their 12th floor flat in suburban Malad. The window behind opens up to the sprawl of high-rises that Malad West has become in the last decade. At the other end of the living room, a shelf charts the last three years of the family’s life — a picture of Aditi and Sunil on their wedding day, another of the newborn Vivaan, and one of the three together. Thirty-eight-year-old Sunil, dressed in a grey T-shirt and jeans, speaks about the ordeal that led him to miss the final days of his son’s life, while Aditi, 32, is mostly silent, offering to re-heat a cup of tea that has gone cold as we speak.

Sunil embarked on the voyage to hell in May last year, when he signed a contract with UK-based Union Maritime Limited. For the first time since they were married three years ago, Aditi had not accompanied him, staying home to tend to Vivaan. It was a first for Sunil too: a merchant navy veteran of 17 years, he had not sailed for the pirate-afflicted waters of Africa before. Born to railway employee Joseph James and Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) staffer Anamma James, Sunil and his two older siblings were raised in the MbPT Colony in Wadala in central Mumbai. After college, he enrolled in a merchant navy course and by age 22, was out in the sea.

On July 13, the MT Ocean Centurion, with Sunil at the helm, reached the choppy waters near Togo, a country on the west coast of Africa. He supervised the loading of petrol, in a ship-to-ship operation in the anchorage area in Lome, the capital of Togo, and delivered the fuel to nearby Lagos, Nigeria. It was a trip countless vessels had made without an incident over the years.

But sailing in West African waters is fraught with risk. Of the 264 pirate attacks recorded by the International Maritime Bureau in 2013, 79 had occurred in Africa, 27 alone in July and seven in Togo. Worryingly, six of those heists had occurred in Lome. Scarcely a month before the attack on Sunil’s vessel, a pirate gang launched an audacious attack on a French-flagged chemical tanker, MT Adour, while the ship was at anchor in Lome. Three crew members were injured. In another violent attack in May, pirates moving in speedboats opened fire on a chemical tanker, 27 nautical miles off Lome.
On July 16, at the end of a three-day loading operation, Sunil had retreated to his cabin for the night after steering the vessel out of Lome Anchorage. Around 4.30 am, the pirates struck. “I opened my eyes, they were there,” he says. A dozen masked men, armed with automatic weapons and knives, who had overpowered the crew before they could raise an alarm. “It was a bad day, a bad night. They took away all our clothes, money, laptops and all other personal belongings. We were probably left with two jeans each. They didn’t even spare our undergarments. I had $5,000 in a safe and another $2,000 in a wallet, they took that. They broke our equipment, took our satellite phone handsets and cut off all VHF wires and left us with one VHF set. They took our lifeboat to store our luggage. After they left, we found a few suitcases they had left behind because their ship and the lifeboat was full,” he says.

The pirates, who spoke French with a smattering of English, struck Sunil on the nose with the butt of a rifle, breaking it. They also left a deep cut on his forearm. Having bound the limbs of the crew with electric cables, the pirates locked Sunil inside the engine office. They would remain on the ship the whole of that day. “They took two crew members down to the deck and tied them there. But they bit at their bonds and broke free. First, they came to the engine office, which was tied from outside with thick rope, so I couldn’t open it. They released me and then went to the smoke room where the other crew members were kept. It was pitch dark and we saw the time on the fixed electric clock. It was 12.30 am, on July 17,” says Sunil.

But they weren’t free yet. “Before they left, the pirates warned us not to come out for two hours. So I told the crew not to switch on the lights. They could easily come back and if they started firing, and a bullet hit the cargo, then boom! We waited till 1 am and went to the navigation bridge. We plotted our position and found that we were 10.5 miles east of Lome,” says Sunil.

Using the VHF set that remained, Sunil radioed the Togo Navy for assistance, aware that the pirates could be listening to every word. “The Navy told us to proceed to port and drop anchor,” he says. In the first couple of days in Togo, the crew were given medical attention and the Togo Navy recorded their statements. “No one told us we were going to prison,” says Sunil.

Twenty-two of the crew members were let off, leaving Sunil, third engineer Andi Vijayan and chief officer Peechuli Ashok Chandran to participate in the investigation. Inexplicably, the Togo government charged them with aiding and abetting the pirates.

The cell that the Indians were held in measured no more than 150 sq ft, which they shared with 80 others. “Ten people would sleep on the floor and 10 others would sleep on top of them. The African prisoners managed to sit 12 hours, chicken style, but we could only sit like that for 10 minutes, and our thighs and backs would ache,” he says.

He lived in that cell for five months, having to buy food, and even the luxury of using the toilet. A local agent of their shipping firm visited them once a week to give them money to buy essentials. “We had to pay to go to the loo. You could use the loo from six in the morning to six in the evening. After that, the prison doors were closed. If you wanted to piss in the night, they kept a bucket there. In between 80 people, you keep a bucket? We would wait for morning so we could feel our legs again,” he says.

In Mumbai, his family swung into action, petitioning the government and launching appeals on social media. When everything seemed to fail, Sunil’s brother-in-law, Rakesh Madappa, a financial consultant in Bangalore, went to Togo in September. He appointed a lawyer but returned home frustrated at the language barrier and the unwillingness of the Togo government to listen to their defence. Any hope of his release would come two months later. “In November, our lawyer said everything was done but the judge was holding out on a technicality. We thought we would be back in December. The family was looking forward to December, there was Vivaan’s birthday. You find joy wherever you can find it. And then this happens,” recalls Rajeev Belani, a close friend of the family.

Baby Vivaan began to vomit continuously on December 1. Taking no chances, Aditi rushed him to a hospital. Doctors were surprised to find that he had contracted gangrene in the intestines but assured the family that there was nothing to worry about. His death the next day came as a complete shock.

At first, Aditi refused to bury Vivaan until her husband returned home — which was still two weeks away. But as it was proving difficult to preserve the body, the family decided to go ahead without Sunil. “At the end of the day, you need to be respectful of that as well. More than anything, I don’t think Sunil would have approved if we had delayed the funeral any further,” says Belani.

The Indian government went into overdrive only after Vivaan’s death. “I don’t think Sunil would have been freed without Vivaan’s death. And that’s really unfortunate. Nobody was moving, not our machinery, nor the government,” says Belani.

But Aditi was spurred on more than ever. She approached local MLA Aslam Shaikh, who, along with Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam, got her an audience with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The weekend before Sunil returned, the family went on a peace march at Marine Drive, accompanied by other seafarers. “It would have been very easy for Aditi to give up completely after that. But she held everyone together. For the first few days, she looked tired and I knew she wasn’t sleeping a lot. She was used to having Vivaan with her when she was sleeping. But when she woke up in the morning, her eyes were on the prize. After that, it (bringing Sunil back) became a mission for us,” says Belani.

Even so, Togo was less than willing to give up Sunil. “Initially, they didn’t even let me go for two days for my son’s burial, because on what basis would they call me back? They had no reason,” Sunil says. The family met Singh on December 10, having placed in him their final hopes for an immediate release. “When the meeting was confirmed, we thought, this is it. The PM will get him out soon,” says Belani. Sunil was released from the detention centre nine days after the PM’s intervention.

On the day the release was announced, nobody had expected it, Sunil included. “Only by afternoon, we realised something was happening. By 8.30 pm, the guards let us out. The High Commissioner, Jeeva Sagar, is a thorough gentleman. He told me, ‘I will not leave without you.’ In a meeting with the Togo president, he had said, ‘I will not leave without my captain. Don’t think I will go back to Accra’.” Sagar did not leave Sunil’s side until he was seated on a plane the next day. He finally returned to India on December 20.

“It felt like a victory for us. But whatever you might say, he had come back to an exceedingly sad turn of events,” says Belani.

Held up temporarily by the swell of the cameras waiting to engulf him, Sunil entered Malad to find his mother, Anamma, seated on a plastic chair at the foot of the stairs in the apartment complex. She performed a short puja at the doorstep, before allowing him to rush into Vivaan’s room. “He broke down completely,” says Belani.

In the month that he has now been home, the 38-year-old and his wife are slowly feeling their way to normalcy, though the emptiness left behind by their child hangs thick in their apartment. We met them again after a special mass for Vivaan at the Orlem Church in Malad. Soft-spoken and petite, Aditi is the perfect foil to the brawny Sunil. The sailor might have been in the eye of the storm, but Aditi is no less a protagonist in this family’s attempt to recover from a tragedy. While her husband talks freely, Aditi chooses to hang back, nodding only occasionally. “Aditi is my rock of Gibraltar,” says Sunil.

While he has publicly thanked the Indian government for bringing him back, he does not hold back at its lack of concern for the seafaring community. “We sail all over the world, unmindful of what our families and companies say. We sail in untamed waters and countries all the time. If something like this happens, only the government can help. We are not criminals. We are sailors,” he says.

Even though all charges have been dropped against Sunil and Andi Vijayan, Peechuli Ashok Chandran still faces a trial. The Togo Navy says that Ashok’s older brother, Peechuli Arvind Chandran had led the pirates. It submitted in court phone records that show the brothers were allegedly in contact with each other in the hours before the attack. For Sunil, though, the only culprit is the Togo government, which has not provided any incriminating evidence against him and his colleagues. “No country would say the pirates have come from our waters. [But] they probably came from the anchorage. The Navy knows who came from where. They know every detail. They got our lifeboat back from the port police station. So if they managed to get it, they know exactly where it came from,” he says.
People around him sense that he needs the familiarity of routine and domesticity to help him recover. “The only way they will get back to normal is if everyone stays the way they were. We still don’t stop cracking jokes on him, around him. I don’t think Aditi would behave any differently,” says Belani.

For Sunil James, it will be time eventually to set off on another voyage. Not sailing is not an option. “Aditi will accompany me when I sail now. But if a firm asks me to go to Africa, I will drop out. There are things only time can heal,” he says.

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