At the Mercy of Somali Pirates Hansa Stavanger Crew Describe Hostage Ordeal

Somali pirates released the German freighter Hansa Stavanger last week after a four-month hostage crisis marked by gunfire, drugs and an unpredictable pirate commander. Now crew members have described their ordeal in the hands of the khat-addled pirates.


When ships that have been taken hostage by pirates and later freed enter the port of the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, they are usually accompanied by sharks. The battered freighters have often spent months at anchor off the coast of one of the pirate havens north of Mombasa, in neighboring Somalia.

And when ships lie at anchor for so long, mussels, crustaceans and algae grow on the underside of their hulls. This attracts small fish, followed by larger fish that eat the small fish and, finally, sharks that eat the large fish. When a ship that has been detained for a prolonged period of time is eventually released, the large numbers of mussels attached to its hull slow its progress, allowing an entire food chain to follow behind, with sharks bringing up the rear.

There must have been plenty of sharks swimming around in Mombasa harbor last weekend. After spending four months in the hands of Somali pirates, the German container ship Hansa Stavanger crawled its way to Mombasa at a mere five to 10 knots, according to the captain's log.

The crew consisted of 24 men, including five Germans. Now that they are free, the men are describing their lives as the pirates' hostages, telling stories of fear and terror, mock executions and gunshots on deck, of the agony of spending months hoping for the best, and of the relief they felt when they spotted parachutes carrying the millions in ransom money falling from the sky.

German security experts, on the other hand, are not as relieved. This time, the government's crisis task force in Berlin had not intended to simply pay the ransom. In fact, this time German authorities hoped to use force to gain the ship's release. Under the initial plan, Germany's elite GSG-9 police unit was to storm the ship in one of the biggest secret operations in postwar German history. However that plan failed. Then the plan was to get navy frogmen to attack the pirates. But the pirates got away too quickly, and the marines were left to attend to the hostages.

Under Stress

The fiasco began with a dot that appeared on the Hansa Stavanger's radar screen on April 4, at approximately 9 a.m. A tiny boat was approaching the ship head-on. It was still four nautical miles away, but it was traveling at high speed. Seeing such a small boat 400 miles away from the mainland, Frederik Euskirchen knew right away that the men in the craft were not out fishing.

Euskirchen, the second officer on the Hansa Stavanger, was working on the bridge at the time. He is only 26, but he has a cool head despite his youth. Euskirchen received his training at the marine college in Elsfleth in northern Germany, which has one of the best nautical programs worldwide. All he needs to work as a captain is another year-and-a-half of experience on board a ship. He certainly has the nerves for the job. He would later say, in an understatement worthy of the British, that one can certainly feel "under stress" when being shot at by gangsters.

Map: Route of the Hansa Stavanger

Map: Route of the Hansa Stavanger

As the boat approached, the men on the bridge immediately called the captain. Krzysztof Kotiuk, 62, a German seaman of Polish extraction, was sitting in his cabin doing the monthly accounts. He hurried to the bridge.

The Hansa Stavanger veered sharply to the side and reversed course, its two-stroke diesel engine operating at full power, just as planned. But even at its top speed of 17 knots, the freighter was too slow to outrun the pirate boat. "We tried to get away. But it was impossible," the captain would later say. "Their boat was so fast that they caught up with us within 20 minutes."

There were only five gaunt figures squatting in the boat, their traditional Somali clothing fluttering in the wind. They began shooting immediately. The bullets from their Kalashnikovs whipped across the deck, followed by the hiss of rocket-propelled grenades. A grenade hit the captain's cabin, and a fire broke out, which it took the crew six hours to extinguish.

The pirates quickly gained control over the ship when Kotiuk's officers decided not to do anything heroic and stopped making risky, evasive maneuvers. The pirates calmly climbed on board.

High but Friendly

None of the Somalis spoke English. They were the attackers, the ones who were best at climbing and shooting; the brains of the operation would arrive later. Nevertheless, using their hands and feet, the nautical maps on the bridge and a piece of paper, the pirates quickly made it clear to the officers where they wanted the ship to go: to Harardhere, one of the three most notorious pirate hideouts on Somalia's east coast.

When the freighter was later anchored near Harardhere, small motorboats shuttled back and forth between the beach and the ship, bringing reinforcements. According to Kotiuk, "there were always 10 to 12 people on the bridge, and about six people on the deck. There were also guards posted on the deck." The captain estimates that about 30 heavily armed pirates were on the ship at any given time to guard their prize.

Everything seemed tolerable at first. On April 6, the captain used the ship's satellite telephone to send the following message to his wife Bozena in Munich: "We have been kidnapped. The kidnappers are high, but friendly. Don't worry, we're waiting for the ransom."

The pirates rounded up the sailors at night. The Europeans were locked up in the heavily guarded bridge, while the sailors from the Philippines and the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu were placed in a room in the hold. The pirates slept in the cabins. They also stole all the sailors' belongings.

The pirates established contact with the Hamburg shipping company, Leonhardt & Blumberg. Piracy is an old business in Somalia, and there are established practices for what began next -- the negotiations over the ransom money.

European Jackpot

Few people are more familiar with the way this works than Kenyan Andrew Mwangura, a diminutive, soft-spoken former sailor. In 1996, Mwangura founded the Seafarers' Assistance Programme in Mombasa, a network of contacts in African ports designed to help seamen.

In recent years, Mwangura has become something of a middleman between pirate clans and the shipping industry. Everyone contacts him when a ship disappears: the shipping company, the insurance staff, the security firms and the sailors' families. He tests the waters, sets up contacts and collects information. He has also been directly involved in some negotiations.

Mwangura is also familiar with the people in charge of the pirates, who move the bulk of the money to Kenya and Dubai, where they invest it, in real estate among other things. There are no opportunities to invest millions in Somalia. It was professionals who hijacked the Hansa Stavanger, says Mwangura.

They initiated the first round in this game of pirates' poker. Much was at stake: human lives, a large sum of money and the question of how much ought to be paid for what types of human lives.

Many pirates use spies to assess the total value of their takings. Somalis in the city where the shipping company is headquartered investigate the company to determine how large and wealthy it is. Other Somalis in local ports estimate the value of the cargo. The value of the ship itself depends on two factors: size and age. There are also straightforward guidelines for determining the value of the people on board. "Black sailors are worth little, but Europeans and Americans are the jackpot," says Mwangura.

A Kenyan sailor of the lowest rank earns about $200 (€140) a month. To determine the crew's ransom value, the pirates ask the men on board where they come from. If a captain makes $5,000 a month, he is worth 25 Kenyan sailors.

Naturally, the pirates began the negotiation by asking for outlandish sums. In the case of the Hansa Stavanger, their initial demand was for $15 million.

Frank Leonhardt, one of the owners of the shipping company, had hired the Armor Group, a British security firm, to handle the negotiations. The middleman countered the pirates' demand with an offer of $600,000. The haggling had begun, and it would drag on for months.


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