Letters From Chennai: Anti-Piracy Crew's Six Months of Hell, Part 1/3
The ETV investigative journalism program Pealtnägija obtained letters sent home by Lauri Ader, one of the Estonian seamen detained in October held by Indian authorities until their release late last week. The letters were reprinted by ERR last month with permission from family members. They have now been translated by ERR News's journalinguists.
The Estonian "pirate hunters" were detained in India on October 12 for alleged arms violations in territorial waters. The 25 crew members - including 14 Estonians - were arrested by Indian authorities six days later.
Italics indicate use of an English expression in the original.
30 October 2013
All right, I’m going to try to give you a picture of what’s going on here.
As I mentioned, these are my own views and this letter doesn’t reflect any one else’s thoughts and opinions. And I’m not writing out of a desire for pity and sympathy. I want to give as objective an overview of the situation. As you know, what’s happening here is the not the worst I’ve experienced, so I’ll be OK.
On October 12, we were in international waters, when, under threat of use of weapons, we were "invited" to visit the Indian port city of Tuticorin. We reached the port about noon, escorted by an Indian warship and two soldiers armed with automatic weapons who had boarded us.
The Indian authorities rummaged through our ship, in disregard of all international rules on boarding a foreign ship, and also rifled through our personal effects. The authorities threatened and terrorized us continuously. They vowed to show us the "true face" of the Indian police and went through the ship night and day so that only a few of us were able to sleep.
An Indian officer tried to steal a flashlight from the ship’s bridge, but got caught in the act, pathetically – this whole farce lasted six days. On the evening of the sixth day, we were again asked for identity documents (they had checked them about seven times by then).
They now asked for the documents to be surrendered to them, which we refused. The Indian authorities threatened force if we didn’t give up the documents. At that point I called the Estonian Foreign Ministry and asked for advice and assistance.
We were taken by an escort […] to the police station instead, where 21 of us (the captain and senior mechanic remained on ship) were put into a 5x5 meter room, which was hot. We spent about 12 hours there, and were summoned one at a time to sign documents that they refused to translate for us.
We were fingerprinted and handprinted. All this took place with hectoring and shouting. When we asked what was going on, the reply was that we would soon be taken to the hospital. We were loaded on to buses again and taken to a courthouse, where some sort of judge remanded us to jail without asking us any questions. We were totally beside ourselves.
Our personal effects (money, valuables, devices) are on the ship. We are going to prison and the Indian authorities are doing what they like in our cabins where all our worldly belongings are?!
We were taken to Tuticorin prison. Thirty-three men, Hindus, us whites and security guards. We were placed in a room, which measured 20x10 with a hole in the floor for doing one’s business, personal hygiene and washing dishes. We were fed three times a day. In the morning; egg and tea, for lunch; bread and tea. And bread and tea again in the evening.
There in prison, we saw Margus (the Estonian consul) for the first time, who instilled optimism in us. The next day the captain and senior mechanic joined us, which meant our ship and personal belongings were now completely in the hands of the Indian authorities to do what they liked with them. The senior mechanic was in a state of nervous shock and had tried to commit suicide aboard ship.
On the morning of October 24, the 22 of us – one white guy was left in prison – were crammed on to a bus, which started for Chennai prison, about 600 km away. It took over 12 hours. Upon arriving in Chennai, we were handed sheets, a drinking cup and plate and forced in threes or fours into cages measuring 3x4, about a third of which was taken up by the familiar hole, the parasha [Russian slang for "latrine bucket"]. We were brought some indescribable red slop to eat - which was many times hotter than Tabasco - some chapattis and tea.
We decided we would prepare our own food as no one was able to eat what was offered (you know how I like spicy food but too much is too much). So basically, we now get one boiled egg each and some slop made of root vegetables, tomato and cabbage. There’s no meat. We started getting clean drinking water only on November 20. You have to buy it for your own money, which our employer transferred to the prison.
There are about 3,000 prisoners in this prison. We are mixed in with murderers, rapists, thieves and other scum. The kitchen is about 1 km from us, we go there with Team IV to prepare food. To do this, we have to pass through many prison blocks, where the local prisoners provoke us every chance they get. The kitchen is like a 1980s Soviet pig sty. Smells, maggots, flies, crows. A total nightmare.
It has ceased to amaze me to see the guards beating people with bamboo canes or someone escorted to the hospital with their throat slashed.
The Foreign Ministry is doing good work. Margus visits us as often as he is allowed to. He’s quite a good chap. He lets us weep it out on his shoulder, offers candy, smokes, black bread and when he leaves, he wrings out his tear-stained jacket, waves to us, sniffling himself and crying through the bars and little by little disappears into the setting sun.
But of course his visits also give us motivation and cover our bodies with clothing, which we weren’t allowed to take with us. My thanks go out to the Foreign Ministry. Good job!
19 December 2013
This time I decided to write about things that we do in our free time – meaning, basically, things we do here all the time.
At 6:30am, our cages are opened. We snap awake, and everybody turns to the left in sync (the cage is small and you can’t turn over by yourself. Then we send off the kitchen detail to get the eggs. After that, head count. We count the dead and living. Then hygiene, cleaning and the egg and bread...mmm.
We are put in the cages at 18:30. We fall asleep between 22:00-24:00, or as the concrete lets us.
21 December 2013
Hi - friends, family, acquaintances,
Life is the usual drill here, the prison routine. Cage opens at 6:30, closes at 18:30. We make the egg run in the morning. For lunch, we eat some kind of slop we fix ourselves.
There’s a sport area where we can get rid of pent-up energy. It’s possible to work out, if you can call it that, using what equipment there is, but the food is quite meager and you doesn’t have the energy to do much. The guys have lost as much as 15 kg. I have lost around 7 kg.
There’s four of us in my cage. What’s positive is that we’ll be excellent synchronized swimmers after prison, because when we turn over at night we have to turn at the same time. We’ve got to be professionals in this field. There’s English-language literature here, a library. We get along more or less normally with the prisoners in our block, but there are constant problems with the others and we’ve needed to get rough with them a couple times. The guards haven’t used violence against us, but their nerves are shot and knowing ex-soldiers and ex-policemen, it could happen.
We lack any and all information on the course of the investigation of our case. The only information we get is from Margus. We’re afraid that the company we work for will desert us. We don’t basically get any kind of info from them. Margus should come by on December 22, but maybe we’ll hear some good news then. We get cigarettes here very rarely. The local substitute is something called bidis, which costs 20 rupees outside but 100 inside. We should be living in A-Block, where there’s beds and mattresses, but the privileged Hindu prisoners are put up there. Not knowing what is happening is a source of great stress. There’s no flow of information and that makes me mad.
I hope our families and children don’t consider us criminals. The reality is that most of us have been fighting crime for half of our lives and taken part in anti-terrorism operations. The Estonians among us include six war veterans. So what's going on? Does India support terrorism and piracy?
(Part 2 coming on Friday)