A crew of 19 seafarers who were on a hunger strike for months in protest over unpaid wages are finally back on dry land and home with their families after two years onboard an abandoned cargo ship in Kuwait.
The sailors – many of whom were onboard the vessel M/V Ula since 2018 – agreed to a settlement for part of the monies collectively owed to them. The crew will get about eight months’ pay, despite many being owed more than 20 months of wages.
For the crew, who have spent years isolated at sea, going home is bittersweet.
Many have missed the deaths of loves-ones, marriages and births among family members and returned home to countries marred by COVID-19 – a pandemic the sailors had easily avoided.
One sailor, Akash Kumar, told Al Arabiya English how he wept as he was reunited with his family upon return to India on June 4. He had spent 28 months onboard M/V Ula despite only initially signing a nine-month contract.
“I had missed my mother, my father, my two brothers, my nephew, my niece – everyone – so much,” the 25-year-old from New Delhi said. “They were very excited and came to meet me at the airport – they all hugged me and cried. I was also on my knees crying.”
“For anyone, 28 months is a very long time,” he added.
Kumar said he is desperately waiting now for the payment. The deal will see his wage backdated from September. He is hoping to fight for his other money owed with the help of a lawyer, alongside his other crew members.
The crew made headlines after beginning a hunger strike on January 7 over unpaid wages. The sailors vowed not to eat solid food until their ordeal was addressed, and they were given their outstanding wages – which for many ran into tens of thousands of dollars.
The vessel spent months docked at Kuwait’s Shuaiba Port, but the sailors remained onboard for fear that if they left, they would never receive their unpaid salaries.
They finally reached a deal earlier this month. Cargo on board the M/V Ula has been sold at auction, which has raised some income, with the vessel also due to go to auction.
The sailors have yet to receive any money owed to them, but have been promised some payment in the coming days.
The sailors are predominately from India, and some crew members hail from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Most of their families were dependent on their salaries to live, but many have run into debt.
A bittersweet homecoming
Kumar said the sailors are now desperately looking for new employment and to rebuild their lives.
For now, he said he will take two positives from his ordeal.
“It was a safe place for us (away from the COVID-19 pandemic). So we were not exposed to the virus. It has been off to come – to see the (face) masks, the social distancing.”
The sailor said that he has also built lifelong relationships with his fellow crew members.
“We are lifelong friends now,” he said. “If anyone ever needs something one of us will be there. We have been bonded forever.”
Another crew member, Yusuf Sencer Sotan, is home back with family in Turkey.
“They were delighted to see me,” he told Al Arabiya English. “Family is everything. Thankfully, I am now home, although unfortunately without salary. In the court we will fight for our pending salaries.”
“But thankfully it is over and this part of our life in Kuwait is finished.”
Human rights activist Shaheen Sayyed works to help stranded Indians in foreign countries.
She has been working with authorities to pursue the monies owed to the sailors for more than a year.
She told Al Arabiya English she was delighted to see the sailors back home.
“It took almost more than 16 months to get them back home. Of course, it is sad they didn’t get the salary they were owed, but they are all very excited about being back home,” Sayyed said.
“They sent pictures of them smiling. But their smiles would have been bigger if they had been paid what they had been owed.”She also said that during the time the sailors were stuck onboard, they lost family members to COVID-19, they have missed marriages and births.
“It is time they cannot get back… But they have the most important things at the moment – their family and peace of mind.”