PoWs in narrow shave after Tiger hijacking of ferry

by Amal Jayasinghe
— When Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels hijacked a ferry nearly five years ago they blasted it within minutes, but the story of how crew were saved from being roasted alive is emerging only now.

Tamil rebels boats surrounded the passenger ferry, the MV Misen, off the north-western coast and seized the Indonesian captain Nang Hadi and compatriot Imam Wahyudi. Mines were attached to the hull even as six crew were onboard.

Chief engineer Sunil Perera was in a rebel speed boat held by armed Tiger guards and thought the six crewmen hiding in the ferry were lucky as they could possibly escape unlike him.

But he was horrified when he saw Tiger frogmen emerge from near the hull. He immediately sensed danger and knew the Tigers were about to blow up the vessel with the six crewmen hiding inside.

"I pleaded with the Tigers to return to the ship and take those who were still inside and unaware what was about to happen to them," Perera said, three days after he was freed from Tiger custody.

"The Tigers had no idea of the number of crew aboard. Finally they agreed to go back to the ship and get the others out. As we left the ship, there were three powerful blasts and the ship went down (in flames)."

The Misen had just begun a ferry service between Sri Lanka’s north-western town of Mannar and the northern port of Kankesanthurai when the Tigers attacked it.

The two Indonesian crewmen were freed three days later, but the remaining eight crewmen — all Sri Lankans — were held by the Tigers. The Sri Lankans included six members of the majority Sinhalese community, and one each from the Muslim and Tamil minorities.

The Tamil crewman was freed by the Tamil Tigers earlier and the others were released on Tuesday by the Tigers as a goodwill gesture to boost Norway’s attempts to broker peace in the island.

Skipper Nang Hadi, 40 at the time told reporters shortly after his release in 1997 that his abductors told him that the reason for the blasting of the 500-seater ferry was because it allegedly transported security personnel.

"I told them that we were only taking civilians and refugees at that. No soldiers," Hadi said after he was freed by the LTTE to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

He said armed guerrillas of the LTTE were constantly guarding him and the other crew members who were abducted from the ferry on July 1 while it was anchored two and a half kilometres off the coast of Pesalai.

Chief Engineer Perera, who is a member of the majority Sinhalese community, said he believed that the Tigers would not harm them because they had been helping Tamil civilians and were not involved in combat.

Purser M. H. R. Pushpakumara, who was also freed Tuesday spending nearly five years in captivity, said the crew were initially separated but later united and held at an LTTE camp in the north of the island.

"We were treated well and the ICRC regularly visited us and gave us pocket radios and newspapers so we knew what was going on in the country," Pushpakumara said.

They were held together with crewmembers of another merchant vessel, the MV Princess Kash, which was seized by the Tigers in August 1998.

Dharmapriya Banda had been a sailor only for five months when the Princess Kash was taken by the Tigers. He did not expect to return alive and was stunned when he was told last week by his captors that he will be freed.

The joy of freedom is marred by bad news for Banda. "I discovered that my shipping company had folded up because they went bankrupt after the Tigers took Princess Kash. Now I have a bigger problem finding a way to live."