Somali hostage living in hope

May Titthara / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Nhem Soksan is still haunted by the time he spent as a captive of Somali pirates and is now hoping to learn how to become a mechanic. KT/Mai Vireak

Nhem Soksan sat on his hammock under a shady tree in the middle of what would typically have been a work day, trying not to think about the 1,672 days he spent as a captive of Somali pirates.
 
The 37-year-old just lazed around because he is still unemployed some three months after he and three other Cambodians were rescued from Somalia.
 
Mr. Soksan is waiting to attend a trade school to learn to become a mechanic so he can resume taking care of his family.
 
“Today I have not started working yet as I’m waiting for an organization to help me study how to become a mechanic so I can feed my family.
 
I decided to learn this skill as it requires less capital to start a business,” he told Khmer Times during an interview in Kampong Chhnang province.
 
However, the horrors of the squalid conditions he was subjected to after being kidnapped remain fresh in his memory.
 
In 2012, Somali pirates hijacked the Taiwanese-owned, Omani-flagged Naham 3 vessel he worked on and held all 29 of its crew hostage until they were rescued last October.
 
One died during the assault on the ship and two others died in captivity, due to the dismal conditions they were forced to live in.
 
“I never thought I’d know what a pirate ship was like in my entire life. I thought I’d only see them on TV. But it really did look like how it is in the movies – it’s as cruel as it is in the movies,” he said.
 
Mr. Soksan said he decided to work abroad to earn a better wage to support his family, but he never thought he’d end up being a hostage onboard a pirate ship.
 
He said he enlisted the wih the help of a placement company, which he only identified as Giant, and he was expecting to work either in Malaysia or in Japan, like his brother.
 
Little did he expect to be sent all the way to South Africa, where he’d be subjected to grueling hours aboard a fishing boat.  
 
“My brother said that working abroad, I earn in three months what I’d earn working in three years as a construction worker in Cambodia. So I decided to do as he did,” he said.
 
When he initially approached the placement company in Phnom Penh, they showed him the ship he would be working on as a fisherman, owned by a Taiwanese company.
 
The company paid for Mr. Soksan to get a passport and other relevant documents before sending him to South Africa via Malaysia and Singapore.
 
“I went fishing twice. Each time I would be at sea for six months,” he said.
 
“I earned $150 per month. The company kept $10 each month, wired $100 to my bank account and sent $50 to my wife. But later I found out my wife only received $25 each month.”
 
Despite the hard work, Mr. Soksan said it was nothing compared to the conditions he endured during his 1,672 days in captivity.
 
He said that three of his fellow hostages in the group of 29 died from illness in part due to their captors only providing the hostages with one liter of water per day.
 
The pirates forced them to live at sea for a year before they were moved to land and put in a forest, which Mr. Soksan recalled as being cold and wet.
 
“I had to sleep in a cave. I was no different than the mice there,” he bitterly recalled.
 
“We ate whatever we could find and I went without showering for an entire year. I didn’t wash my clothes for a year and sometimes I’d have to drink my own urine to survive.
 
“Some people died, but we survived – they had left us for dead.”
 
Seated nearby, Mr. Soksan’s wife Kong Sopheap, 47, recounted the harrowing moment she learned that her husband had been kidnapped.
 
She traveled to Phnom Penh seeking more information about his condition and his whereabouts, only to be met by a shuttered placement office. Even NGOs and the government had little information they could give her.
 
“Up until November 1, 2014, I received information that was husband was still alive, but I did not know if he would ever be returning home as he’d been kidnapped by pirates,” she said.
 
“When I got the news that my husband was still alive, I wanted to fly to where he was immediately, but I didn’t know where he was being kept.
 
“So I just stayed home, burned incense sticks and prayed that my husband would return home safely.”
 
Nhem Soksan, Em Phumany, Khorn Vanthy and Kim Kimheng, were the four other Cambodians kidnapped by the Somali pirates.
 
According to the Kenya-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime Program, the fishermen were kidnapped when their Naham 3 was in the Seychelles archipelago at the peak of Somali piracy in March 2012.
 
With the release of the 26 men – who hailed from Vietnam, Taiwan, Cambodia, Indonesia, China and the Philippines – there are no more hostages from that peak time of Somali piracy in 2012.
 
In April 2014, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced the Taiwanese general manger of Giant Ocean International Fishery to 10 years behind bars for trafficking hundreds of Cambodian fishermen to work in slave-like conditions abroad. Five other Taiwanese nationals were also convicted in absentia.
 
Interior Ministry secretary Chou Bun Eng could not be reached for a comment, but has previously said the ministry was tracking down the individuals responsible for sending Mr. Soksan and the four other Cambodians to South Africa, where they joined the boat before being kidnapped.
 
“The ministry is looking for the companies or brokers who trafficked these four Cambodian workers to work on fishing vessels overseas. These men have lived through such a bad time,” she had said.
 
Caritas Cambodia executive director Kim Rattana said his organization was now providing the four kidnap victims with the opportunity to learn the skills necessary for them to become mechanics after their having survived their harrowing ordeal.
 
“We’re not only giving them the skills, but we will help them run their businesses once they’re done with their studies too,” he said.
 
Labor rights NGO Central’s executive director Moeun Tola explained that many Cambodians still risk working abroad due to extreme poverty and high unemployment rates in the kingdom, on top of their limited access to information.
 
Also, state procedures and official channels are complicated and expensive, forcing the average Cambodian wanting to work abroad to turn to brokers who often exploit them.
 
“If the government increases employment by promoting agriculture jobs, citizens will have more employment opportunities and they won’t risk their lives with migration,” Mr. Tola said.
 
According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Cambodian embassies and consul-generals have helped 816 Cambodians working abroad who have suffered at the hands of abusive bosses or who may be victims of trafficking.
 
The Foreign Ministry confirmed it has repatriated 139 Cambodians from Thailand, 231 from Vietnam, 272 from Malaysia, 78 from Indonesia, six from Singapore, four from the Philippines, 64 from China, 16 from Japan, one from Australia, one from Saudi Arabia and two from Russia.
 
There are now more than 600,000 Cambodians working abroad, with no more than a memorandum of understand, which has no legal standing, dictating their treatment and protection in the countries they go to.
 
Sitting next to his 14-year-old daughter, who was only six months old when he first left to work abroad, Mr. Soksan said he remained optimistic about his future.
 
“I hope I can make a career out of being a mechanic. I will repair motorcycles from my house here,” he said.
 
“I’ve learned what pirates can do, I’ve seen beyond what is shown in the videos. It’s so cruel, but I’m still hopeful for a bright future for my family.”

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