A Dutch negotiator's 71 days of talking to Somali pirates

A photo released by the Belgian government shows the Pompei with a smaller vessel belonging to the pirates in tow on April 19, one day into the hijacking.
By Mark Schenkel

Dutchman Hans Slaman negotiated the return of the Belgian ship Pompei after it was hijacked in April. "There is only one way to stop piracy, and that's a stable Somalia."

31 hours and 36 minutes, or 171 conversations in 71 days, is how long Hans Slaman spent on the phone with the Somali pirates who hijacked the Belgian dredging vessel Pompei on April 18.

The Pompei had a crew of ten, including a Dutch captain, Hendrik Toxopeus, when it was seized some 150 kilometres north of the Seychelles. Last Monday, the Pompei's crew arrived safely in Belgium. The pirates released the ship on June 28 after the ship's owner, the dredging company Jan De Nul, paid a reported ransom of 2.8 million euros.

"Of course we recorded all those conversations. Everything is on the record," Slaman said about the negotiations.

Slaman (50) is the manager of International Security Partners, a private security firm in Lelystad in the Netherlands, which specialises in assisting companies with hostage and extortion negotiations. A former policeman, Slaman was part of a special anti-terror unit of the Dutch police that protected visiting dignitaries like US president Jimmy Carter or the former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres.

How did you establish contact with the pirates?

"It was pretty mundane. Four days into the hijacking, on April 22, the owners of the Pompei received an email from the ship. It had been sent from the account of captain Toxopeus and it was a request to contact a certain Abdi. He was the negotiator. There was a telephone number in the email.

"At the time, I was at Jan De Nul's headquarters in Belgium. The company contacted me on April 18 when it was first suspected that the Pompei might have been hijacked. This is my first day back in the Netherlands since April 18."

What's it like: negotiating with pirates?

"Abdi presented himself as an experienced, professional negotiator - his words. He had been chosen to speak for the other pirates - ten to twelve of them were on the ship at any given time. Abdi also said he was a member of the elders council of Harardheere [a pirate haven in Somalia].

"We had two priorities: we wanted the crew back safely, and we wanted the ship back. But during the negotiations I never once said: how it the crew doing? Or: I want the ship back. Psychologically, that would have put the trump card in the hands of the pirates. Of course, they were holding all the cards already, but there was no need for us to add to that.

"I noticed that Abdi was easiest to talk to in the morning. I think that was because of the high temperatures, and because of the pirates habit of chewing qat [a popular drug in Somalia] every afternoon."

"I spoke to Abdi at least once a day, sometimes at the craziest times. He told me he has five daughters and three sons. He was a football fan, and he knew Enzo Scifo [a former Belgian football player]. We talked about the weather, and how different it was between Belgium and Somalia. Bizarre, I know, but you try everything to keep the conversation going."

Did you speak to captain Toxopeus directly?

"Yes, at least fifteen times. The pirates insisted that we speak English because obviously they didn't understand Dutch. Once in a while I managed to slip in a word of Dutch, to let them know we were taking care of the crew's families, for instance. It was moral support.

"The crew was threatened and intimidated many times. The pirates were hyperactive because of the qat. They didn't allow the crew to talk among themselves. It was all very scary."

You were in touch with the crew's families as well?

"I tried not to. I try to avoid emotional connections. That sounds cold, but when you're negotiating, these ten human lives are simply merchandise. Of course, Jan De Nul was in daily contact with the families."

Unconfirmed reports say a 2.8 million euro ransom was paid. Is that correct?

"We are not talking about the amount of the ransom. Money changed hands, yes. The ransom was not paid by the Belgian government; it was gathered by the companies concerned. The money was delivered through the usual method: it was dropped in the water near the ship from a plane.

Doesn't paying the ransom encourage more piracy?

"Seen from a distance? Definitely. But it's a whole different thing if it's your child. In the end there is only one way to stop piracy, and that's a stable Somalia.

"That's what so terrible about what I saw on board the Pompei after the ship had been released. I flew to Oman to assist the crew, and I saw that the Pompei was full of rice bags marked UNHCR [the UN's refugee assistance programme]. Apparently, the pirates had been feeding themselves and their hostages with food aid that was originally destined for the population of Somalia."

The Dutch government has ruled out putting Dutch navy soldiers on Dutch ships, as some shipping companies had asked. The defence ministers fears an escalation of violence. What is your take?

"It's a dilemma. I understand the government position. There are many legal obstacles. And a ship's crew is not used to working side by side with navy soldiers. The best thing for the ships is good escorts. A number of additional measures can be taken: training the crew, better preparations, additional guard duty, sound guns, water canons and the like. That should suffice as a package. The problem is that we're dealing with an area that's so large it's almost impossible to secure."

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71 scary days

The crew of the Pompei was threatened with death on a daily basis, its Dutch captain Hendrik Toxopeus told ANP after he and two Belgian crew members arrived at Brussels airport on Monday. "We spent entire nights without sleep. It wasn't fun."

The Somali pirates were constantly arguing among themselves, sometimes wounding each other or themselves with their weapons. It was especially dangerous after the pirates had chewed their daily dose of qat, a drug typical to Somalia. "At those times, we tried to stay out of their way as much as possible, by reading a book or doing a crossword.

Toxopeus said the crew had many ups and downs but, thanks in part to the Philippine cook, they managed to keep up morale. "We pulled each other through."

The hardest part, the captain said, was being without news about his family back in the Netherlands. The pirates didn't allow personal phone calls. They took away the crew's cell phones, laptops, clothes and personal possessions.

The Pompei's crew consisted of four Croats, three Philippines and two Belgians. It was hijacked on April 18 off the coast of the Seychelles. The Belgian owner, dredging company Jan De Nul, had requested protection from the Nato naval force patrolling in the area, but had been turned down because Nato considered the Pompei a low risk.

On the morning of April 18, captain Toxopeus saw two small boats full of armed Somalis approach the vessel. During the hijacking the pirates fired a shot that narrowly missed the Belgian first mate. Apart from the daily death threats, the crew was well-treated. They always had food: goat meat, rice, potatoes and onions.

After weeks of negotiations, the ransom money was dropped in the water near the ship from a plane. But that wasn't the end of things: the pirates started fighting among themselves about how to split the money. Toxopeus: "They came aboard very quickly but they were very slow to leave. The remaining days and nights were terrible."