High and dry

How three Pakistanis stranded at an Egyptian port for two years got back home two days before Eid

Gazing at the sea from the Safaga Port, the view is enchanting. The turquoise waters of Red Sea stretch from the shore to the horizon; the seagulls glide effortlessly; the clear waters lap the black sand beaches. In the distance, mountains shimmer under clear skies. The view could fill any heart with joy.

But for three sailors on Sea Horse II, it held no appeal. They were unable to find any pleasure in the sight of the sea, or the fish jumping out of the water around their vessel. Nor were they excited to see the beauty of the sunset that lit the evening sky with a bright orange blaze. A perpetual sadness had set in and their heart seemed to grow heavier with each passing day.

All they wanted was to get off the ship and out of the port so that they could reach their homes in Pakistan. They were under detention for 24 months. The owners of the ship had long disappeared and abandoned the crew to their fate.

There was around $100,000 to be paid to the port authorities in berthing charges. The port authorities were not letting the crew or the ship go without the money. It was a seemingly impossible situation with no end to their ordeal in sight.

It had all started in May 2018 when Capt Fazal Rehman, a 55-year-old master navy sailor, chief engineer Mushtaq Ahmed, and chief officer Sabir Hussain were recruited as crew members on a merchant ship, Sea Horse II, which was anchored on the Egyptian industrial port of Safaga on the Red Sea. Their instructions were clear; get the ship repaired and set sail for Dubai as early as possible. They reached the ship and Capt Fazal Rehman took over. They got the repair work done in a few weeks and approached the port authorities to get permission for setting sail. That was when they were told that the ship owed a large amount of money which had to be paid before it could be allowed to leave. The captain contacted the owners and informed them of the situation but did not receive the amount. The ship was then denied permission to leave the port. The crew members were detained and their travel documents were confiscated by the port and naval authorities.

Soon afterwards, both the owners disconnected their phones and disappeared for good. They were not heard from again. The situation started looking grim. The sailors were not allowed to leave the ship and there was no hope of any money coming their way.

Capt Fazal Rehman contacted the Pakistan Embassy in Cairo and requested for help. The embassy tried to sort things out with the navy and port authorities, but without much success. Meanwhile, the dues were piling up.

After much efforts, the port authorities agreed to let half the crew leave. Capt Fazal Rehman, Sabir Hussain and Mushtaq Ahmed decided to stay and let the three younger crew members leave. It was decided that the vessel be taken over by Egyptian authorities and sold to settle the dues. The rest of the crew would be allowed to leave after that. Only it did not happen that way.

Someone else made a claim on the ship in the meanwhile and the case went to the court. It then became impossible for the embassy to do anything. It was anybody’s guess as to how long it would take before the case was decided.

The embassy provided the stranded sailors with food and some money but they remained under detention. Their families were informed that they would not be coming back any time soon. As months passed, the case made no tangible progress.

The sailors were under constant stress. Sabir Hussain had three daughters back home and his wife was expecting their fourth child when he took the job. In December, he learned that his wife had given birth to a son. He was desperate to reach home and join his family. Mushtaq Ahmed was also worried about his children. His two sons had to drop out of school because his wife could no longer pay the fees. Capt Fazal Rehman’s brothers were looking after his children but he was not sure for how long they would be able to do that.

By mid-March 2020, the world was in the grip of a pandemic and flight operations everywhere were shut down. To the sailors, home had never looked more distant.

In February, someone contacted me with this story and asked if I could do anything to help raise the issue. The situation looked very difficult, but I contacted the embassy and Capt Fazal Rehman to get the details. For several weeks I tried contacting the ports and shipping minister to request him for help. He, however, did not take real interest in the matter. After many phone calls and long discussions with the ambassador, I realized that other than what had already been done, there was little else the embassy could do. The government seemed to have given up on the case.

I decided then to contact Egyptian philanthropist Naguib Sawiris, chairman and CEO of Orascom Telecom Holdings and one of the most influential businesspeople of his generation.

Sawiris is also the CEO and chairman of Ora Developers, running a luxury housing project in Pakistan. I was aware that a few years ago Naguib Sawiris had gained international fame by offering to buy an island for Syrian refugees. I thought if anybody could do something about the sailors, it was him.

I contacted and talked to Naguib Sawiris. He promised to do something about it.

On May 20, I got a call from Capt Fazal Rehman who told me, apparently speaking through tears, that he and his mates had been released and were in Cairo, being hosted by the embassy and would soon be leaving for Pakistan.

The release involved a lot of tough negotiations as well as a great deal of money. Finally, the sailors were informed on May 19 that the dues had been settled. The ship was to be disposed of and they would be handed over their travel documents.

The men were picked up by the embassy staff. A lawyer accompanied them on their way to get their release orders and passports. After two years on Sea Horse II, they were finally free to go home.

The story does not end there. Not only did Naguib Sawiris manage to obtain their release, he also arranged for a chartered plane to get the three men along with 50 other Pakistanis stranded in Egypt to fly back to Pakistan, two days before Eid.

The writer is a social development professional and a freelance journalist

High and dry: How three Pakistanis stranded at an Egyptian port for two years got back home two days before Eid