x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Garland welcome for hostage sailors freed from Dubai's MV Iceberg

More than three years after setting sail for Dubai, five of the 22 crew of the hijacked ship Iceberg 1 have finally returned home. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports.

Jaswinder Singh's extended family greets him at Delhi airport after his release from captivity. Suzanne Lee / The National
Jaswinder Singh's extended family greets him at Delhi airport after his release from captivity. Suzanne Lee / The National

More than three years after setting sail for Dubai, five of the 22 crew of the hijacked ship Iceberg 1 have finally returned home. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports.

NEW DELHI // The crowd rushed to embrace Jaswinder Singh, bringing garlands and bouquets of flowers as he exited the Delhi international airport.

Mr Singh touched his father's feet - a traditional sign of respect - embraced his brother, Rigan and patted his three-year-old son on the head.

His son was 11-months-old on November 9, 2009 when he left for Dubai to join the crew of MV Iceberg 1, as their second engineer.

"How are you?" is all he could manage to say to Rigan, who for more than three years has campaigned tirelessly to obtain his brother's release.

Mr Singh and his fellow sailors had been held hostage by Somali pirates since March 29, 2010 until they were freed in a 13-day long military operation earlier this month.

Of them, five of the six Indians on the ship landed in India yesterday.

Jagmal Singh, Mr Singh's father, held his son's hand tightly as more than 20 relatives, all men, jostled around him.

"I want to go home and see my mother," said Mr Singh. "In all this time, I never lost hope, I never lost faith. I just wanted to be with my family again."

With that, Mr Singh began the last leg of his reunification with his family, who travelled 200 kilometres yesterday from the village of Sherpur in Haryana to welcome him home.

Rigan, waited outside the terminal for five hours from the time his brother's flight landed in Delhi throughout the debriefing by unidentified security personnel.

When he finally embraced his brother, he was lost for words.

"When I last saw him off, I did not expect this would lay ahead for our family," said Rigan.

For more than three years, Jagmal Singh had also waited for his son to return.

"No one after this will leave the family to go abroad," said Mr Singh, the family patriarch. "He was the first to seek an education as an engineer. We respected that. We were proud of his ambitions but we never thought it would it take him so far away from us for so long."

Mr Singh's son, Abhimanyu, only recognised his father from photographs.

"If you ask him where his father is, he points to photographs of the family," said Naresh Dhull, Mr Singh's brother-in-law. "Slowly, now he will get to know his father."

As Mr Singh was told of all his favourite dishes being made at home to welcome him - rice pudding, fluffy deep fried bread, a curry of chickpeas - his father grew concerned all of a sudden. "Is he warm? Shall we get him a jacket? We must get him a new jacket," he said.

The 22 freed crew members - seven Yemenis, four Indians, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese, two Pakistanis and a Filipino - were freed by the Puntland Maritime Police Force after a siege which began on December 10. Three pirates were killed, three were captured and nine fled the cargo ship.

Puntland is an autonomous region in north-eastern Somalia.

There were originally 24 crew members aboard MV Iceberg I. One Yemeni crew member committed suicide in October 2010. Another Indian, Dhiraj Tiwari, the ship's chief officer, remains missing. Hostages reported that Mr Tiwari position as first officer meant that he bore the brunt of the pirate crew's anger, frustrated over stalled ransom negotiations.

When ransom negotiations between the pirates and the Yemeni owner of the ship fell through in July, family members feared for their loved one's safety.

Not all reunions had a happy ending yesterday evening.

Purshottam Tiwari, Dhiraj's father, said from the northwestern city of Pune: "All I want to ask the released sailors is to give me a clear picture of what happened to my son. I just want some clarity on the situation."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae