One of the sailors released Sunday after being held captive by Somali pirates for more than four years has given a candid interview to The Beijing News discussing the hardships he endured, a failed escape attempt, and his future plans.
Leng Wenbing returned home to southwest China’s Sichuan province on Tuesday and saw his parents for the first time since 2006, when he left home at age 17 to become a sailor. “Coming back home, I feel so relaxed,” Leng told The Beijing News. “I feel so free and unrestrained.”
Leng and his 25 crewmates — who hail from other Asian countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines — worked aboard Taiwanese-owned fishing vessel Naham 3 when it was seized by Somali pirates in March 2012. A spokesman for the pirates claimed that the hostages’ release on Sunday was the result of a $1.5 million ransom being paid, though this claim has not been verified.
The crew members were held captive for four and a half years, the second-longest time period that hostages have ever been held for at the hands of Somali pirates.
Shen Jui-chang, chief engineer of the Naham 3, cries with his wife at the airport after being freed from Somali pirates, Taoyuan, Taiwan, Oct. 26, 2016. The crew were held hostage for more than four years. Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Leng recalled the day the Naham 3 was taken by pirates a few hundred kilometers off the coast of Somalia in March 2012. “I heard the sound of gunfire, but I didn’t really know what was going on,” Leng said. “Bullets struck the iron paneling of the boat.”
When the pirates boarded the fishing vessel from their speedboats, most of the crew didn’t resist, as the attackers were armed with guns. Only the Taiwanese captain of the ship tried to put up a fight with a stool. He was shot by the pirates and later died.
The captured crew spent most of the next year and a half on the fishing vessel, moored just off the coast of Somalia. In that time, two of Leng’s crewmates died after contracting an illness that caused severe swelling of the neck and legs. The first person to die was from China. “We told the pirates someone was sick, but they thought we were playing tricks on them,” Leng said. When the crew member fainted, the pirates called for medicine, but it was too late. An Indonesian crew member met the same fate, dying within 25 hours of experiencing the first illness symptoms, and before medicine arrived.
On one occasion, Leng attempted to escape by jumping overboard to reach a speedboat tied to the back of the fishing vessel. Leng made it into the water but spent the next hour swimming after the speedboat, which he had untethered before jumping in. Leng didn’t catch the boat and ended up swimming ashore instead. “I walked for more than 10 hours, then saw a shepherd. I went to ask for water, but he pulled a gun on me before calling the pirates, who recaptured me,” he told The Beijing News. Leng was then beaten by the pirates, but he still counts his blessings. “I’m lucky they didn’t hit me with their guns,” he said.
By the time Leng was retaken by the pirates, they had moved all of the captives to an inland forest. Leng shared shelter with around eight others under a plastic sheet tied to trees, and the shelter would leak water when it rained. Leng says the prisoners were frequently moved. “The pirates were worried other pirates or terrorists would snatch us,” Leng said. He and the 25 remaining crew members managed to survive the rest of their time in captivity.
Hostage situations like the ordeal that Leng and his fellow crew members faced are becoming increasingly rare. Since the crew of the Naham 3 was captured in 2012, instances of Somali piracy have decreased significantly. Increased patrolling by international warships and armed security teams aboard commercial vessels have helped to reduce piracy incidents in waters near Somalia, and no successful attack has occurred since 2012.
As for Leng, he is happy to be back home and looking ahead. “In the future, I want to have peace of mind and live a steady life,” Leng said. “I had a lot of time to think in Somalia, and I realized people don’t need much money or a great life. If they have food to eat and clothes to wear, then that’s enough.”
(Header image: Sailors who were held hostage by pirates for more than four years line up to board an airplane after being released in Galkayo, Somalia, Oct. 23, 2016. IC)