Nine fishermen who were enslaved in Yemen decided to take the owner’s boat on a sail and a prayer to get back home
On November 19, when 41-year-old Noushad Ibrahim Kutty from Kerala and his eight other friends, decided to flee with a wooden fishing boat from Yemen’s Ash-Shihr coastal town in southern Yemen, they had no hope at all of reaching India at all. They had to cross 1600 nautical miles - nearly 3000 km.
But they took the risk to flee only because they did not want to die as slaves in Yemen.
“We had some 3000 litres of diesel as stock. We lied to the Yemeni boat owner and bought some 4000 litres and filled the tank. We stored food, mainly biscuits, rice, and dal. It was windy and the sea was rough. But didn’t drop our plans. We left the Yemeni harbour cluelessly with prayers,” Noushad told The Lede.
Noushad, a traditional fisherman from Kollam district in Kerala, had migrated to Sharjah, an emirate in the United Arab Emirates, on a visit visa with high hopes in 2018 December.
However, he and his friends – one from Kerala and three from Kanyakumari – were made to stay in Ajman, another emirate in UAE, for one month without much work, food or pay.
They were told that they will be moved to Oman, the neighbouring Arab country of UAE, for work very soon on a boat.
However, they were led to the Yemeni coast instead of Oman and told to anchor there, where they were forced to work under a Yemeni national.
“While boarding the flight to Sharjah, Noushad was told that he will be given a salary of around AED 1000 (approximately Rs 18,000) per month and commission for working as a fisherman. But things changed when we reached there. While in Ajman, we were sent to catch fish for a few days only. Even though the promised salary was not paid, we were paid a little,” Noushad said.
“But things were entirely different when we were put under the Yemeni national. He would provide us only food on the days we went for fishing and AED 100 (around Rs 1900) for the entire 15 days. We were like slaves for him,” Noushad said.
As they did not have any residency papers to stay in Yemen, they were not able to go out of the harbour and find a new job or demand proper wages either. When Noushad and his friends were in the port, they were supposed to surrender their passport with the Yemeni police and were not supposed to leave. Even if they left the port, they were supposed to come back in an hour or so.
For 11 months, till they sailed back on November 11, they were in a fix.
“We were not getting pay for the fish catch, wages or proper food and shelter. When we went on strike, we were denied food. So, eventually, we budged in front of him. We will go for fishing only for the sake of food,” Noushad added.
As the conditions were worsening, Noushad and his friends had contacted the Arab employer in Sharjah.
“Even though he was talking during the first few calls, he, later on, went silent. He ignored our calls. We lost hope there. Then we approached the Yemeni police. They told us that the only way for escape is to flee Yemen,” Noushad said adding that in those 11 months, they suffered a lot and that it felt like 11 years for them.
On the days when Noushad and others were not going to sea, they would work as loaders and mechanics in the harbour.
“We used to get a pittance for that. But that was something when there is nothing,” Noushad added.
According to Noushad, they decided to flee with the Yemeni owner’s boat because they had no other options.
“We were not stealing his boat. But we had no other options. After a few hours of sailing on the day we fled, we were struck by heavy wind. So we slowed down the sailing pace, in order not to drain much fuel.
We could find a map on our phone, had a GPS and a satellite phone onboard. With that limited equipment, we started,” Noushad said.
On the tenth day, Noushad and his friends neared the Lakshadweep islands. And then, they switched on the satellite phone and called some of their friends, who then contacted the Church and the government.
“As we were not sure about reaching India, we were saving the battery of GPS and satellite phone. On the food front, we had only biscuits left. Luckily, we did not lose track. It is the Almighty who brought us to the shore,” Noushad added.
When Noushad and his friends had called the Church, they had sought the help of the Indian coast guard, who in turn jumped into action.
The Coast Guard initiated an air-sea coordinated search and rescue operation, in which a Maritime Surveillance Dornier aircraft was launched at 3:30 pm on November 28 from Kochi. The aircraft spotted the fishing boat 100 nautical miles west of Kochi.
Coast Guard Ship Aryaman sailed from Kochi to assist the fishing boat. And the boat was located 75 nautical miles off the Kochi coast.
The crew was questioned to corroborate the existing situation. The boat was brought to Kochi and handed over to the Coastal Police Station.
While asked what will happen, if the Emirati or Yemeni boat owner flies down to Kerala looking for their boat, Noushad said that they were not worried about it.
“Let the government decide on that,” Noushad said.
The boat is currently docked in Kochi port.
Meanwhile, Hubertson Tomwilson, a migrant rights activist in Tamil Nadu, said that even after government advising people to migrate only through regular channels, people err.
“People just want to migrate. They want to flee poverty. And at that time, they just forget about having a fair recruitment practice. Eventually, they land in trouble and lose everything, sometimes their lives too,” Hubertson added.