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A SAILOR who was held hostage for a year on a ship hijacked by Somali pirates has told of the harrowing moment he was forced to throw the body of his pal overboard.
Pritam Kumar, 36, was working as an engineer on the merchant tanker Royal Grace when it was chased down and hijacked by pirates wielding AK47s and rocket launchers.
The 22-man crew were held captive onboard the ship for a year – during which they endured unimaginable suffering.
The lowest point came when they had to throw the body of their dead friend overboard after he died from a heart attack.
The pirates revelled in the misery of the sailors and even singled out an old man to “torture” and kept them in darkness in a tiny room.
During the ordeal, one of the hostages managed to keep hold of a mobile phone, which he used to document the terrifying hostage situation.
The ship left for Nigeria from Dubai on February 28, 2012 on a voyage that should have taken no longer than 45 days.
But the tanker only made it to day three of its journey to pick up its cargo before disaster struck.
The men working on the deck spotted a small speedboat trailing the vessel and on board were a group of pirates, armed to the teeth, and slowly gaining ground on them.
The sailors’ worst fears materialised when the pirate pack started to aggressively pursue in a frightening game of cat and mouse.
Pritam told the Sun: “I was sleeping when they attacked, suddenly some of my mates were banging on my door saying, ‘Get up! Get up! We’ve been attacked by Somali pirates’.”
He explained how at first he thought it was just a prank and “wasn’t in the mood”.
After initially refusing to open the door, he described the moment reality set in.
“After I heard some gunshots I was aware of who these people were,” he said.
“Guys with guns and rocket launchers were chasing our ship with a speed boat.”
The cruiser was finally caught and the pirates were able to throw a rope across the two boats and climb aboard.
Once it dawned on him that the attackers were on the ship Pritam said he felt “completely numb” and that “everybody was panicking, we were not thinking straight”.
Some of the crew – including Pritam – rushed down to the engine room in a bid to stay undetected, but they soon received a chilling call from their captain to come to the deck.
Pritam said: “Everyone came up with their hands above their head.
“I was thinking they might shoot someone or kill someone, just to threaten us all.”
The “chief” pirate then addressed the crew in a manner that Pritam likens to the movie Captain Phillips.
He said “this ship has been hijacked and I am now the captain” and demanded that the original captain – who was “begging and crying” at this point – drive the ship to Somalia.
The Royal Grace wasn’t the only ship to suffer the unfortunate fate as another tanker of similar size was attacked by the same group of pirates who, according to Pritam, have their own logo and website.
During the five-day journey to the East African Country, Pritam and the other engineers were kept mostly in the darkness of the engine room, unaware of the nightmare that lay ahead.
There was very little food, but one of the pirates who Pritam believed had been “recruited by force” showed a shred of humanity and would sneak the men extra onions and potatoes.
Once the ship arrived, it was anchored off the coast of Somalia, miles away from land.
Pritam soon realised that the pirates intended to keep them there as prisoners until a ransom was paid.
The engineer described the torment of being able to see the land but not get there and revealed that he even wrote a “death note” to his family.
The men did not set foot on land for the whole year that they were kept captive and worked for their kidnappers, maintaining the boat and doing tasks for their captors.
On one occasion, Pritam was tasked with fixing one of the pirate’s guns that had got stuck.
The hostages were held in one tiny room and as the weeks passed and tensions grew, they became increasingly “mentally disturbed.”.
Pritam said: “There was not enough food so they were fighting over the minimal food we had, there was mental pressure.
“Any reason they could find they would start a fight.”
The men also had to ration fresh water for drinking, meaning that they could only wash with salt water they collected from the sea.
The worst moment of the terrifying ordeal for Pritam was when his “dear” friend died from what he believes was a stress-induced heart attack.
The engineer – from Nigeria – had been singled out and tortured each day by the pirates.
The cruel criminals would use him for target practice and shoot at him, sometimes only missing his body by a fraction.
“They would play with him, shooting here and there,” Pritam said.
“The engineer was old and afraid, he couldn’t take the pressure.”
The sailor described hearing screams ring out from the rest of the crew as the pensioner fell down.
When he arrived he saw his colleagues performing CPR, but they couldn’t save him.
He said the old man was “like a grandfather” and was “always cracking jokes”.
The crew tried their best to preserve his body with the intention of bringing it back to the old man’s family and they were permitted to keep it in the freezer.
In a heartbreaking recollection, Pritam described how each night it would be his “ritual” to go to the freezer and check on his friend’s corpse.
But after around 40 days the body began to smell, and the sailors had no choice but to throw him overboard.
Pritam said when this moment came there was an overwhelming feeling of “respect” for their beloved pal.
Another one of the darkest moments for the Pritam came several months before the group were released.
“Everyone was thinking we are not going to survive this, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
“Day by day we were losing weight, we didn’t have enough nutrition.”
One man lost nearly half his body weight and went from 75kg to 40kg, he said.
In their final days, Pritam said he sensed a feeling of excitement in the air and thought the pirates seemed in good spirits.
The captors had initially demanded £8million from the Indian government, but in the end, they were paid just a portion of that at £2million.
On the last day, Pritam said those on deck were stunned to see helicopters dropping down large black bags – which he suspects held the ransom.
But to this day, he says, he is not sure who paid the money.
He is curious as to why the Indian government would have taken so long to pay it – and is also suspicious of something unexplained that happened before the hijack.
Just days before the attack the crew were baffled to receive a call to their new satellite phone as no one had been told the number.
But the chief pirate revealed to them that it was him who called – leading Pritam to suspect the crew may have been “set up” by the owners of the ship.
He explained how the tanker was more than 30 years old and the owners may have thought they could bag a new ship for free through insurance.
Upon arrival back home in India Pritam was embraced by his tearful dad who had protested for many months demanding more be done to release his son.
Pritam is no longer a seafarer and now works in data analysis.