Trauma at sea
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Trauma at sea

How a maritime charity is supporting the world’s seafarers through crises

Being kidnapped is not something most people think about when they go about their daily work, but for seafarers, the recent upward trend of kidnap for ransom is a very real concern. Earlier this year, ten seafarers were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf terrorists. After five weeks in captivity, facing fears of never seeing their loved ones again, the terrorists released the men.

Chaplains from international Christian maritime charity, Sailors’ Society have been able to provide emotional and welfare support to the seafarers and their families during this difficult time.

Sailors’ Society chaplain Muhartono Tito is based in the Indonesian port of Banjarmasin and acted as a liaison between the ship owner and the families while the seafarers were held captive.

Muhartono said: “The families were incredibly worried about the safety of their loved ones. When news broke that the terrorists had freed the men, I called the seafarers’ families; they were incredibly grateful.”

One of the seafarers’ wives said: “My husband is finally reunited with his family.”

Their release came a week after Abu Sayyaf beheaded Canadian businessman John Ridsdel and, according to authorities, the terrorists still have at least 11 people hostage.

Although the seafarers are in good physical health despite their ordeal, the mental strain of such a traumatic experience can have long-lasting effects.

One of the seafarers said: “We were very stressed because they frequently threatened to slit our throats.”

Muhartono Tito is also supporting a seafarer who was shot by terrorists.

Lambas Simanungkalit was working on board a tugboat when it was hijacked between Malaysian and Filipino waters.

Four of the ten crew were kidnapped by the armed men and later released.

“The hijackers came on board and threatened the men with their guns. Lambas saw four of his friends taken away and feared for the others who were being fired at,” added Muhartono.

In the confusion, Lambas was shot and fell to the ground. “He told me that the sound of gunfire was deafening.”

Still conscious, Lambas was helped by a friend, who covered his wound with a cloth and radioed for help.

Malaysian armed forces transferred Lambas to a bigger boat, where he received medical assistance.

He was taken to hospital in a grave condition.

“The doctor was amazed he was still conscious.”

But, following two days of operations, Lambas’ condition deteriorated.

“The doctors told his wife to expect the worst; he was weak and they gave him only a 20% chance of surviving his injuries.”

Amazingly, though, Lambas has recovered.

“His recovery is a miracle. We will hold a thanksgiving service in their home and invite seafarers and the local congregation to attend.

“Although all the men are … home safely, it is a real possibility that the seafarers and their families will suffer from stress. I have offered them counselling to help deal with their emotions.”

There are 1.5 million merchant seafarers across the globe, transporting more than 90% of the world’s goods and services.

Away from family and friends for months on end – typically 270 consecutive days at a time – many seafarers battle loneliness and isolation.

Founded in 1818, Sailors’ Society aims to transform the lives of seafarers and their families at home, in port and at sea through the delivery of chaplaincy, education and the relief of poverty and distress.

The charity works internationally to provide practical, emotional and spiritual welfare support, regardless of background or faith. The Society has a presence in 87 global ports across 26 countries.

Last year, Sailors’ Society chaplains and ship visitors reached almost 340,000 seafarers, extending a hand of friendship, hospitality and pastoral care to men and women who are often thousands of miles from home.

Although piracy and terrorism at sea may make the news, the human cost can be more hidden.

Jasper del Rosario, one of the charity’s chaplains in the Philippines, was able to comfort the wife of a seafarer who died in a tragic encounter between Somali pirates and authorities. As gunfire erupted between the two forces, the seafarer sought refuge in his vessel’s engine room, where he tragically suffocated and died.

A year after her husband’s death, a powerful earthquake struck the Philippines, destroying their house and leaving the family homeless.

Once again, Jasper was able to step in. Thanks to donations, the society gave financial aid needed to rebuild their home, as well as the emotional care to help her rebuild her life.

Jasper’s colleague in Ukraine, Eduard Myrmyr, has also been supporting the wife and sons of a seafarer who was shot and killed by pirates.

“The boys’ mother is worried about them; they are growing and obviously miss their father. I talked to the eldest boy and he agreed to meet me regularly and share the difficulties he has to face,” said Eduard.

Seafaring frequently makes it onto lists of the world’s most dangerous jobs.

Coping with a colleague’s death is difficult at the best of times, but when you lose someone you have spent months in close quarters with, the loss is arguably even harder to accept.

In Scotland, Sailors’ Society’s auxiliary port chaplain Drew Anderson and ship visitor Murdo MacLeod were on hand to administer spiritual and emotional support to the friends of a Filipino seafarer killed while working in Scotland.

“When I went on board there were a lot of visibly upset people. Working together at sea for many months, the seafarers are close, and to them it was like losing a brother,” said Drew.

Drew contacted his colleague, Nic Tuban in the Philippines, who was able to comfort the seafarer’s widow and children in Manila.

Nic said: “His wife is devastated; she didn’t expect him to die so young. His job was the family’s main source of income and his wife said that he had recently spoken about retiring.”

Nic was able to pray with the family and comfort them; he was also able to give them financial assistance in the form of a Sailors’ Society welfare grant.

Travelling the world and visiting unfamiliar cities, seafarers can find themselves in challenging situations.

Chaplain Nikolay Yablunovsky, in the Ukrainian port of Kherson, helped a group of seafarers robbed at knifepoint on a trip into the city.

Nikolay helped them get new phones and provided emotional care for them: “I hadn’t heard of a situation like this in years and had thought these times had passed. I now warn seafarers of the dangers and offer them help travelling around the city,” he said.

Post-trauma care is just one way Sailors’ Society helps support seafarers and their families.

Last year, the charity launched a Crisis Response Centre in Durban. The centre provides a rapid response trauma care and counselling service for survivors of piracy attacks as well as other disasters at sea.

A second Crisis Response Centre in Ukraine opened in April. The new centre has already offered support to a crew released after two weeks of captivity at the hands of pirates off the Nigerian coast.

Crews can also find themselves imprisoned in foreign jails.

The MT Maro’s 11 Indian crew have been in a Nigerian prison since 2014.

Rev Boet van Schalkwyk, who heads up Sailors’ Society’s Crisis Response Centre in South Africa said: “Our role is to support the imprisoned seafarers in their spiritual, physical, social and mental states and provide critical incident counselling.”

When Boet arrived at the prison to help the crew, he said: “We were introduced to not just the Maro crew, but to 38 seafarers of all ranks and ratings. Most were awaiting trial and some had been there for years. One seafarer had served half of his eight-year sentence and another two were serving sentences of 14 years.”

Sandra Welch, deputy chief executive and director of programme at Sailors’ Society, said: “Our Crisis Response Centres provide rapid response trauma care and counselling service[s] for survivors of disasters at sea, such as accidents or piracy attacks. Sailors’ Society transforms lives at home, in port and at sea, and it is important that we are able to help not just those directly affected, but also their families.”