Nimith, Ponleak, Sokhem, and Khemera
Staying in IOM transit center in downtown Phnom Penh, Nimith, Ponleak, Sokhem, and Khemera sit on chairs reuniting with loved ones in a mix of excitement, happiness, and shock. The four former fishermen had been held captive by Somali pirates alongside 22 others for nearly five years, one of the longest kidnappings by pirates in the Horn of Africa.
The men were caught by pirates while sailing near the Seychelles waters in 2012 where they were forced to remain on their ship for over a year, exhausting the food supply they had on board. “They forced us to only have two meals a day so they can stretch out the food as much as possible. “We got so hungry towards the end,” says Sokhem. It was during this time that one of the other fishermen died of illness while out in sea.
Eventually their boat sank and they were moved to Galmudug state in central Somalia where they lived in as hostages. “They would set up these small tents for us and move us every three months so we never knew exactly where we were” said Sokhem.
Initially, the pirates demanded a lump sum of USD 20 million for all of the fishermen and later split them up by nationalities and demanded a total of USD 1 million for the Cambodians.
“I remember getting that first phone call from my son one day who just said ‘Mom, I have been taken by pirates and they are asking for one million. Don’t expect to see me again’” says Ponleak’s mother, Chanlina. She quickly ran out to buy more credit for her phone to return the call but also knew that he was right; they had nowhere near that amount of money to pay the ransom.
Making matters worse, the fishermen also struggled with communicating with their captors who instead would simply resort to yelling and torment. “We both knew a few words in English and over the years we learned some Somali but we never really understood each other. They often would shout and threaten us while shooting in the air to scare us”.
Back home things were not improving for their families.
“While my son was taken we all had to pull our weight here at home to make ends meet” explains Nimith’s mother Kannitha. “We all worked in the rice fields and cassava plantations where we made a total of 30,000 Riels (4 USD) per pound which came to only 8,000 Riels for each of us which is not enough”
“Sometimes we would buy only one kilo of rice at a time and ration it for as long as we could” recounts Khemera’s wife Taevy.
Sokhem, last time he heard, his parents living condition had completely deteriorated. “When I left, my parents lived with my brothers and sisters but by now they have all been married and moved away leaving our parents alone and they cannot work.”
Eventually the fishermen were released by the pirates bringing an end to the nearly five year long ordeal.
When they saw their families and loved ones again for the first time it was all tears and cries of joy. Words could not measure how much they were missed.
The biggest shock of all came to Khemera when he saw his daughter, Neary, again. When he left she was just seven years old and now she is closer to turn 12. “On my worst days I would often look at the photo I had of her which I put under my pillow before going to sleep. I couldn’t imagine how she would look like now but when I finally saw her again she was just as beautiful as I imagined she would be.”
When asked why the men worked as overseas fishers they had the same explanation as millions of other Cambodians. “Our families have always been poor living in tough conditions and when we heard that fishermen made a good amount of money, we jumped onto that chance”
Now that they are finally home, the former fishermen are uncertain about their future and how to resume the life they’ve had on hold for nearly five years. One thing is for certain, none of these men want to ever leave Cambodia for work ever again.
Khemera shows the photos he held onto during his five year captivity including the last photo he took of his daughter Neary which he regularly slept with under his pillow.
*names have been changed
photo credit: IOM/muse mohammed