Even seasoned sailors cried

Mr Lister James and a friend (left) who were recently in Malaysia. Mr James was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2008.

Horror of a pirate hostage:

He was staring at the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle as gunmen forced him to his knees.

They angrily demanded: "Ash hadu Allah? Ash hadu Allah?"

To any Muslim, these words are the start of a phrase frequently recited during prayers and it means: "I testify there is no God other than Allah and that Muhammad is his Prophet".

Malaysian Lister James couldn't recite the Islamic creed - he didn't know the words.

Mr James, then a 26-year-old second officer on board the Malaysia-flagged MT Bunga Melati 5, a petrochemical tanker, tried to explain to his increasingly impatient Somali captors that he was not a Muslim.

Brandishing their weapons, they pressed him again: "You Malaysian? How come you don't know Ash hadu Allah?"

This was just one of many close calls that forced Mr James and his shipmates to think about death almost daily as the hostage of Somali pirates.

The ship's crew of 41 - 36 Malaysians and five Filipinos - were held captive for a month after pirates stormed the Bunga Melati 5 off the coast of Yemen, near the Gulf of Aden, on Aug 29, 2008.

This is the first time Mr James, now 30, is sharing his harrowing story.

The Sarawakian tells The New Paper on Sunday: "If you look at piracy in the Gulf (of Aden) now, nothing has changed - ships still get hijacked."

For this reason, governments, including Singapore's, want to protect one of the busiest shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.

Earlier this month, on the same day the Singapore Armed Forces sent a group on a three-month patrol to the Gulf of Aden, a Singapore-owned oil tanker was hijacked by pirates off the Nigerian coast.

Trouble started on the Bunga Melati when crew members mistook skiffs (small boats) that were nearby for fishing vessels.

The "fishermen" answered the crew's friendly waves with a barrage of automatic gunfire.

Six pirates boarded the ship and rounded up the crew, herding them into the ship's recreation room.

They were told to "head to Somali waters" by their captors in a mix of broken English and hand gestures.

Says Mr James, a Christian: "They thought I was lying (about my nationality). They were convinced I was Filipino and because of that, that I was also hiding gold chains from them."

The captives stayed on board the ship, which was anchored close to shore, but any option of escaping by jumping into the sea was quickly dismissed because the waters were infested with sharks.

Plans to overpower the pirates were also aborted because they had weapons, says Mr James.

Nevertheless, he remembers what one pirate - who constantly harassed him during the first two weeks of captivity - had said to him.

Mr James explains that only the pirates were allowed to eat the goats brought from ashore for food.

The pirate's words were chilling.

"He said: 'Tomorrow we eat two goats. You will be goat number three'.

"I couldn't sleep thinking of what he had said, even if it was meant as a joke."

Mr James prayed that if he was going to die, that it would be swift.

The next day, he saw the pirate leader - a one-eyed man - shoot at point-blank range the Somali who had threatened him.

Says Mr James, whose average voyage lasts between six and nine months: "I didn't know which was worse - being threatened or watching the man be shot in the stomach.

"The pirate leader said: 'This is normal in Somalia. Life (is) cheap'. If the leader thought nothing about shooting his own men, what about us?"

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