After sailing in troubled waters, Indian crew finally makes it home

Express News Service
CHENNAI: On June 12, 2019, veteran Deck Officer Antony* reached an Iranian port to board ship MV ULA, which was carrying cargo to Bangladesh. He was on a two-month contract and believed it would end in no time. But it was not to be. He would spend the next 23 months stranded on board a stateless vessel, helpless and unable to support his family in Kanniyakumari throughout the worst of the pandemic.

According to Antony, the cargo was loaded in Iran, but the vessel’s cranes needed some repairs. Trouble began after the Qatari owner of the vessel refused to pay Iranians employed to repair the ship, claiming they did not do the job properly. This resulted in a three-month stand-off between the workers and the owner at the port. The issue was resolved after the payment was made. By this time, however, the Bangadeshi client cancelled the order citing delay in delivery. Subsequently, the vessel was asked to proceed to Oman. 

Six of the crew disembarked in Oman. “I could have been one of them, but I was held back,” Antony recalls. The next opportunity to disembark came in Sharjah in the UAE when the vessel was at outer port line. He, however, could not do so since a visa was required. The ship proceeded further.The ordeal began for the crew at the Port of Shuaiba in Kuwait in March 2020. Denied salary and running out of fresh water, he, along with 15 other Indian crew, started demanding their immediate release from the vessel. The onset of the pandemic and the global crisis that ensued, however, exacerbated their situation.

A ray of hope 

On January 17 this year, the crew went on a hunger strike, and their plight caught the attention of social activist Shaheen Sayyed, Kuwait Ministry of Communication, Kuwait Port Authorities and Harbour Master. Shaheen said that she helped  supply the crew with food and fresh water. The official allowed a few of the crew to leave but asked the others to stay as the ship had to be maintained. “The period between March 2020 till date is one of the most difficult phases in my life. I had never experienced such an issue during my two-decade long service in various vessels,” Antony said. He said that the vessel soon became flagless after its registration was cancelled by Palau, a Pacific-ocean country. Subsequently, the Kuwait Port Authority took over the vessel and the cargo was later sold, resulting in the crew’s release from the vessel. “We will be paid our salaries once the vessel is sold,” Antony said.

Help from Indian embassy

He said the International Transport Workers’ Federation helped the 16 Indian crew members with a lawyer and also paid them $500 along with Indian embassy’s $50. The Indian Embassy in Kuwait also provided us with flight tickets to return home, he added.“It was inhuman of them (authorities) to hold us (the ULA crew) on board for 23 months without salary. The seafarers were mentally traumatised and feared for the safety of their families back home. During the pandemic they could not support their families. Also, there are Indian seafarers imprisoned in Iran,” said Manoj Joy, Community Development Manager, Sailors Society.

(*Name changed)