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June 29, 2011

Rescuing goodwill

Instep Today

June 29, 2011

Sachin Pandurang cannot contain his huge grin as he walks down the gangway at the Pakistan Navy dockyard. All around him, people are celebrating the safe arrival of the rescued MV Suez crew.
At one end, a navy band plays national songs. Jubilant spectators carry banners welcoming the sailors. Media personnel rush to interview the freed men as balloons are released in the air and they are showered with rose petals. There are tears of joy and smiles on every face. It is indeed an emotional and well-deserved reception. The 22-year old Pandurang is among the multi-national crew of sailors from MV Suez, rescued from Somali pirates after a ten-month ordeal that ended after the payment of a hefty ransom.
This is the first time he has set foot in Karachi, and is thrilled not only to be here, but knowing that he’s just a short while away from heading home to India.
“It is a good feeling to be here. The way the Pakistan Navy treated us was very generous. They gave us food and medicines, and provided us security. Not once did we feel that we weren’t one of their own,” he told Aman ki Asha.
Pandurang was amongst the six Indians, besides 11 Egyptians, four Pakistanis and one Sri Lankan, that formed the Egyptian-owned MV Suez’s crew. They were rescued from Somali pirates on June 13, 2011, reportedly after a ransom payment of 2.1 million dollars (brought down from the original demand of 20 million thanks to negotiations by Ansar Burney who raised the final amount with donations from Pakistanis).
The Pakistani Navy warship PNS Babur, on patrol in the pirate-infested area, escorted the rescued ship amid renewed attacks by pirates to safe waters. Another Pakistan Navy ship, the PNS Zulfiqar took the 22-member crew onboard as the MV Suez, its condition dilapidated after ten months in captivity, began to sink due to technical difficulties. The warship with the vastly relieved, rescued sailors finally reached Pakistan on June 23.
The story of the

crew’s release, negotiated and paid for by Pakistanis, particularly caught the imagination of the Indian and Pakistani public. It illustrated once more the contrast between tensions at the official level and the warmth and goodwill at the people-to-people level that becomes evident at every opportunity. Indian parliamentarian K.D. Singh had pledged part of the ransom money but could not come through at the last minute.
At the dockyard, the Sindh governor Ishrat ul Ibad, advocate Ansar Burney (also United Nations Expert Advisor on Human Rights), and Fleet Commander Abbas Raza welcomed the rescued crew including the Indians.
A beaming, jubilant Pandurang, tasting freedom after ten months, said that there was a time when he had lost hope and believed that they could never walk free from the pirates. Garlanded with roses, he was all praise for the Pakistani government. “They were our saviours.”
The sailor, who worked as an oiler on the MV Suez, is determined to go on the waters again. “Life is full of such experiences, and the solution is to deal with it is with a smile. I will return to the seas again.”
Standing beside him, the middle-aged Infant Viju from South India, also thanked the Pakistani government and the social activist Ansar Burney.
Another Indian, N. K. Sharma told reporters that that this was the beginning of his new life “This is my rebirth, my second janum. Though I was born in India, but I will always remain grateful to the Pakistani government for saving us... I have no words to express my thanks to Pakistanis.”
He added that the bitter ties at official levels should not come between the masses of the two countries who are brothers at heart.
The Indians were given a glittering reception on Thursday evening at the Governor House, which was also attended by Indian High Commission officials. They were presented shields that they took back, along with warm memories, as they flew back to India via Dubai the same night.
One of the rescued Indian sailors, Chauhan Prashant, the chief cook on MV Suez, told the media that he was utterly disappointed with his own government. “They ditched us when we needed them the most. This was an international matter; the lives of six Indians were at stake. But our government, our politicians did not care for us.”
Talking about his experience with the pirates who held the crew hostage for ten months, he said, “They did not give us anything to eat except potatoes, rice and sometimes pasta. There was no protein in our diet; we have became weak as we were surviving on very little food.”
For four to five months, they had no contact with their families and were not allowed to talk to them. “Initially, we thought that it would take one to two years for our release. But when Ansar Burney sprang into action, things began to look positive.”
Prashant said he was relieved when the Pakistan Navy came to their rescue. “I spent a lot of time talking to the Navy commandoes and admired them no end. When we were on the ship, we talked about visiting the landmarks in Karachi. We wanted to enjoy the city and spend a day or two here.”
His father, Amar Singh Chauhan, told reporters in India that he would like to invite the Governor of Sindh and Ansar Burney to India for playing a vital role in the release of his son.
Sampa Arya, wife of another Indian crew member Ravinder, was so touched by the Pakistanis that she says she is willing to give her life for them if needed. “I have embarked on a true friendship with that country. They have done what my homeland could not.”
She added that no words can express her joy at seeing her husband safe and sound. “There is no such thing as Muslims or Hindus, or Indians or Pakistani. We are all the same.”
Ansar Burney said that the Pakistanis’ goodwill gesture to help the Indians is a boost to Aman ki Asha.
“When I was colleting the money, I did not think that I was raising it for Indians or Pakistanis. We are all the same. I hope that whatever little effort we make to bring peace between our two counties bears fruitful results, and that there will be one day peace and love amongst us.”

Rabia Ali is a reporter for the City pages, The News International, Karachi

Caption: Happy ending: Human rights advocate Ansar Burney with MV Suez’s Captain Wasi and his daughter Laila Wasi; Governor Sindh, Dr. Ishrat-ul-Ibad Khan and MV Suez crew members at Governor House Karachi; (Above right) Emotional arrival: Rescued sailors fall to the ground in prayers and thanks, accompanied by Ansar Burney, as PNS Zulfiqar reaches Karachi; (Below) Indian crew member Ravinder Singh addresses the media; another Indian crew member embraces Governor Sindh. Photos: News agencies

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