Dubai: Three years after being stranded at sea, an Indian ship’s cook finally breathed a sigh of relief after setting foot on mainland this week.
Rajib Ali, 39, had spent 38 months since April 9, 2016 on board three vessels of Elite Way Marine Services which abandoned a total of eight ships with 40 seafarers in the past couple of years.
Rajib was among the last three crew members, including the captain, Ayyappan Swaminathan, to disembark on Sunday from MV Azraqmoiah, a UAE-flagged cargo ship that was stranded for 16 months.
Speaking to Gulf News at the Indian Consulate in Dubai on Wednesday, Rajib recounted how he dreamt about flying back home to Guwahati in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.
He was employed on board two other vessels of the same company before he was moved to Azraqmoiah. While he was aboard the cargo ship, anchored five nautical miles away from the Ajman Port, Rajib said seeing a plane fly overhead every time pulled a tug at his heartstrings and he hoped to be a passenger flying home one day.
“Everyone back home had lost hopes about me going back,” Rajib said, his eyes downcast.
“Only my mother believed firmly that I will go home one day,” said Rajib who lost his father to cancer in August 2018.
His only sister had died of kidney failure in 2013 and the farmers’ family had to take loans on their small land for paying the bills for her treatment.
“I was earning very little those days. I had paid Rs. 80,000 to an agent to get this job with $750 salary. In all these years, I stopped working and took rest for only four days when I got the news about my father’s death. But, after all the negotiations, I am getting only 24 months’ pending salary.”
Captain Ayyappan, who had joined the company in February 2017, is losing $25,000 in unpaid wages.
However, the Indian-duo, and the Sudanese chief officer Ebrahim Adam Lazim are relieved that their fight for survival at sea has finally ended.
“After all, I will be able to see my family after three years,” said Captain Ayyappan, who just missed his only daughter’s eighth birthday on Wednesday.
Recounting the long ordeal, he said: “We went through a very bad phase. Our company had totally abandoned us, we didn’t have food, water or even medicines.”
The vessel faced blackouts due to a lack of fuel. Bearing the sizzling summer heat in the UAE was a big challenge, he said.
“We never got shore passes. But I tried to keep my crew stay positive and never let them lose hope even when we were heart-broken about our families suffering back home and missing us.”
He said it was only with the support of the Federal Transport Authority (FTA) of the UAE, the Indian Consulate in Dubai and the Mission to Seafarers charity that the stranded crew managed to end their ordeal.
“We are extremely thankful to the FTA, especially Captain Abdullah Al Hayyas, director of maritime transport at the FTA, who took legal action against the company by banning its commercial operations and arresting the ships through the legal firm Fichte and Co.”
He also thanked the Indian Consulate for keeping the crew alive with supply of provisions, freshwater, medicines and mobile chargers. “Vice Consul Vibhakant Sharma came on-board two-three times and was constantly in touch with us to support us.”
Andy Bowerman and others from Mission to Seafarers also supplied provisions and medicines and sent $1250 each to the families of all the 31 Indian crew members in April.
With whatever money they have managed to secure from the company, the Indian sailors said, they hoped to start a new life after meeting their families. They were scheduled to fly home on Friday.
630 stranded Indian sailors repatriated from Dubai in two years
Consul General of India in Dubai Vipul told Gulf News that the Indian Consulate in cooperation with the UAE Federal Transport Authority (FTA), repatriated around 630 stranded Indian sailors since 2017.
The mission repatriated about 280 stranded seafarers in 2017 and about 260 of them in 2018. Almost 90 sailors were repatriated so far this year.
“On [the vessels of] Elite Way Marine Services, we had 31 Indian sailors who were in trouble. Of those, 23 have already returned home. Two are flying home now… We are fairly confident that four more will return in the coming days and talks are ongoing for the return of the other two as well.”
With the sustained intervention of the FTA and with policy changes in both India and the UAE, he said, the number of stranded Indian sailors has come down over the past two years. “We do not have any major issues after the Elite Way’s cases. We are glad that the long ordeal of these sailors has ended.”