Filipino seafarers lament ordeal in the hands of Nigerian pirates 

3 piracy incidents reported within 20 days in Singapore Strait


Nigerian pirates recently released eight seafarers held for almost a month in captivity under terrible conditions. Two of the hostages were Filipinos — one of whom was badly wounded and was almost left for dead. He gives details to The Manila Times regarding his desperate struggle for life and survival along with other foreign seafarers who were held captive in the jungles of Nigeria.

“I was unconscious and bloodied all over. No one knew where I was hit, but my mates knew for certain that I was barely clinging to life,” says John “Pope” Estinoco, an Ordinary Seaman for MT Happy Lady.

Pope, as he is fondly called by his friends, was unconscious for nine days with sporadic convulsions due to a gunshot wound in the hand. With penicillin as the only medication administered to him, his fellow hostages half-expected the 24-year-old sailor to succumb to infection and fever.

“There was no bandage to wrap my wound with, but when I finally woke up, I found that it was already clean, and my coveralls were replaced by [a] fresh shirt and boxers. It was then that everything came rushing back to me,” he recalled.

Night of the attack

At around 11:30 p.m., two days before New Year, Estinoco was making his usual rounds on the deck of the MT Happy Lady, an oil/chemical tanker anchored in Limbe on the southwest region of Cameroon. Apart from the usual small boats dotting the surrounding waters of the vessel, the young OS found nothing amiss or suspicious.

“It was just like any other night during our past two months in Limbe. It was quiet and dark. But, as I walked towards the forward [bow] of the ship, I saw a ladder latched on the railings. My first thought was that a stow away or a thief was trying to board us.”

Estinoco’s disquiet grew when his repeated calls to the bridge remained unanswered. “I called our Able-bodied Seaman (AB) Kristoffer De Ocampo to guard the entrance and raise the alarm. I also got no answer from him,” Pope said. As thoughts of a signal jammer entered his mind, an armed pirate suddenly climbed aboard.

“I knew then that it was a pirate attack. Armed men hurriedly mounted the railings even if the ladder was askew. I started to run, but I never made it to the safe house. I remember screaming for help; then a gunshot, a spray of blood and darkness. I never felt any pain, only that I was alone.”

Acts of heroism

De Ocampo was at the aft of the ship, doing his own rounds when the bandits came spilling through the deck. One butted his left ear with a gun even before he could radio for help.

“I saw Estinoco pleading. ‘No, no, no’ he said, but he was still shot. He fell down the stairs, was dragged and kicked by one of the pirates until he fell overboard. Everyone was intent on leaving him as they took him for dead. He was bloodied all over,” de Ocampo recalled.

With several M-16 charging handles racked against his face, de Ocampo begged to save Estinoco who was already floating near the pirates’ getaway boat. “

When they finally conceded, I plucked him out of the water, administered CPR and embraced him to share my body heat.”

Held in captivity

For 19 days, the heavily armed pirates and their hostages — five Greeks, two Filipinos and a Ukranian — traveled from Cameroon to Nigeria with days spent tracing and missing routes.

During this period, Estinoco had the sense of being dragged and fed. He woke up surrounded by his shipmates in a camp in the middle of a jungle.

“We stayed on a platform elevated by stilts over a swamp. Apart from the roof, there was nothing else to protect us from the elements. We’ve had hard boiled eggs in the morning, noodles for lunch and bread for dinner, which was optional.

“We’ve seen many other hostages in the camp who were claiming to be held captive for more than a month already. They’ve been trying to survive by eating anything they can; they fish from the swamp where the pirates and captives were also bathing and defecating.

“We were constantly startled by gunshots around the camp, and our guards would say they’ll kill us. It was so terrible,” Estinoco recalled.

The Filipino seafarers observed that the armed guards were a mix of western African people, most of whom were rebels.

“It seemed that piracy is a way for them to revenge against their government who were stealing oil from their villages,” he said.

Home to safety

“The rescue was critical, it was a lot more disturbing than the 22 days that we were held hostage. At the time, we [had] already adjusted to life in the camp and knowing that our ship owner and company were negotiating for our release [had] calmed us.

“When we were told by the pirates to go, we initially felt that it was a trap. Like, we could be ambushed during the transit or they might just rain bullets down on us. After several boat transfers in the dark, a mediator picked us from the coastline and took us to the hospital. We only knew we were safe when we saw our Greek superintendent,” Estinoco said.

As all of the eight crew of the MT Happy Lady returned to the safety of their homes, Estinoco and de Ocampo were welcomed by their families and Capt. Edgardo Flores, the president of Eastern Mediterranean Manning Agency.

The captain guided his crew back to their feet and slowly reintegrated them to the normalcy of life.

Source: Manila Times