A former captive reminisces with his fellow freed prisoners about how they dug a grave for one of their own
Late one morning on the Naham 3, a fishing vessel off the coast of Somalia, an argument erupted among the hostage crew. The ship had an old TV with a DVD player, and some Cambodians were sick of watching Chinese karaoke videos. Four or five men began to scuffle. We heard thumping fists and feet. Someone said, “Shhhhhhhh,” but the Somali pirates noticed and waded through the mass of men to haul two Cambodians—Koem Hen Kim and Ngem Sosan—into the sunshine. Somali guards shouted from the upper deck. Two Chinese men were also produced, including one last, reluctant fistfighter.
They had to lie on their stomachs. The second Chinese man didn’t. A pirate aimed his rifle; another pulled down on the recalcitrant fighter’s shirt. When he submitted, the Somalis bound his hands and feet. All four hostages were soon in the same stress position, belly-down, struggling to raise their faces off the sun-beaten deck while a Filipino crewman, a fellow hostage, translated orders. A Chinese chief mate, Qiong Kuan, walked around them all with a bamboo fishing gaff, like an executioner.
A group of seafarers who should have been cohesive and strong against the pirates—who in fact needed one another—were tribalized by fear. Qiong Kuan would have to beat them, I thought. He and the Filipino both hated the Somalis, but with Kalashnikovs aimed at their heads they had roles to play, like concentration-camp guards. We heard more yelling. The punished men looked uncomfortable on the hot deck. But soon Qiong Kuan returned the gaff to its stand near the ship’s railing, and the scene fizzled into pirate theater. Somalis untied the men. A vision of punishment had been orchestrated to keep the rest of us in line. The fistfighters stood around with scowling faces, then returned to the work area and lit cigarettes.
I wound up on this ship by accident. I had been reporting a book in Somalia about a pirate trial in Germany when a gang of pirates on a dusty road halted my car and ripped me out of the rear seat. A columnist for Slate wrote at the time—Jan. 30, 2012—that the men with Kalashnikovs who had kidnapped Michael Scott Moore were not pirates, technically, because it all went down on land. If Slate ran a correction after three months—when the pirates placed me on this tuna long-liner off the coast of Hobyo, in central Somalia, hijacked by members of the same extended gang—I’m unaware of it.
The pirates probably wanted to consolidate us: one less location to guard. They paired me with another hostage held on land, a Seychellois named Rolly Tambara, but even after we were all jumbled together on the ship, our cases remained separate. Mine was expected to drum up a great deal of cash. So the pirates favored me with occasional treats—cardboard cases of mango juice, vanilla biscuits or instant coffee—which came bouncing across the water on a wooden skiff from Hobyo.
Rolly and I sat with the Filipinos, since they spoke English, but coffee and other rations were divided on the Naham 3 by nationality. The ship was an Asian melting pot with an improvised pidgin for a common language—Cambodians, Filipinos, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Chinese. The Chinese speakers were dominant, and they treated the others like junior distant cousins. They cut in line, helped themselves to food and never seemed to mind if another crewman felt disrespected. So when provisions for me started moving toward the Filipino corner, there was a simmering, nationalistic resentment. I noticed the tension and tried to hand around the spoils, but anger and frustration were endemic on the Naham 3, and one morning a Cambodian, Ngem Sosan, lost his temper. Somehow I thought I might be spared this breakdown in hostage brotherhood, but in a sarcastic, reedy-voiced and somehow comical diatribe the wiry Cambodian complained about the Filipinos and the Chinese and the Somalis and the food and the American and the lack of mango juice for Sosan. I handed him my last bottle, but he shook his head, electrically aware that I wanted him to shut up. Instead he made fun of my pale skin and my pointy nose. It wasn’t a totally new experience—I had traveled enough to be laughed at for my pallor, my accent and a number of my presidents—but “pointy nose” was a new one, and I had never been handled with so much fierce and taunting mistrust by someone who ought to have been my friend.
He continued in a mixture of Khmer and ship’s pidgin until I shouted, “Cambodia, sai-tei! Cambodia, loco-loco!”
That Cambodian’s crazy!
The joke worked. Everyone laughed, Sosan included. It was a sort of initiation. I had learned enough pidgin to hold my own. But now I also belonged to this complicated maritime world, which was more than just a society of tense and angry fishermen. It was a prison culture. There were resources to compete for, and I would be judged through lenses of race and class, like anyone else in prison.
A long-liner is an industrial vessel designed to catch a few tons of tuna per day and keep it flash-frozen for months in the massive hold. It’s not a trawler, but the business model is exploitative, of both fish and men. The plump yellowfin and bigeye in the Naham 3’s rusting hull were destined for Japanese markets and sushi restaurants.
Pirates hunted these vessels because there were so many of them off Somalia. Since the country’s government had collapsed, in 1991, international conglomerates had helped themselves to a rich assortment of marine life off the Somali coast. This outright theft encouraged Somali pirates to start attacking ships in the first place. By the time the rest of the world started to read headlines about Somali pirates, though—in the early 2000s—larger and more violent gangs had learned to hijack oil tankers and cargo ships and other maritime traffic that had nothing to do with fishing. They even captured wayward journalists, like me. And the Naham 3 had been hijacked by murderous gunmen somewhere near the Seychelles, hundreds of miles from the African coast, not even close to Somali waters. The pirates had shot the captain dead. His body was in the freezer hold.
Sosan complained almost every day in blaring Khmer, which made the rest of us laugh, whether we understood him or not. He refused to work on the pirates’ orders. He was a loudmouth and a clown. Koem Hen, the other Cambodian fistfighter, was the ship’s strongman—handsome as a movie star, muscled and compact, with a constant cigarette pinched between his lips. He looked so impervious to trouble that a Westerner would have called him “stoic,” but of course Cambodians have different sources of ancient philosophy, which have nothing to do with Greece or Rome. The pirates found him hard to provoke. The fistfight over karaoke was a rare outburst: He’d been trying to sleep when someone put on the Chinese DVD. “My father gave me advice,” he told me later. “‘Learn how to be calm, to withdraw, how to step back from violence [...]. No matter who is right or wrong, step back, and check on yourself.’”
A third Cambodian, named Em Phumanny, was a cheerful, broad-smiling Buddhist with religious tattoos across his chest and back, including a stylized image of Angkor Wat, the famous temple in northern Cambodia. Before he became a seafarer he had spent three years as a monk. We saw his tattoos every evening, when it was time for showers and we stripped naked to rinse off under saltwater hoses. Afterward, while the sun set over Hobyo, Phumanny sat cross-legged in a forward corner of the deck, turned his face toward the thin steel wall of the ship and performed a Sanskrit chant for protection, to commit his soul to heaven in case he died.
Currents of rage and friendship changed like the weather on the ship, and after a while Sosan stopped insulting me. He even gave me a nickname—“Number One”—which would be rude to explain in print. I traded biscuits or mango juice for the loan of his razor. He pointed across the water at the Somali shore and said he missed his home. On some cardboard from a cigarette carton, he drew a banana tree and an elephant.
I couldn’t speak Khmer, or Chinese, or Vietnamese, and it was a constant source of frustration during my summer on the ship that I had to guess about the men’s beliefs and backgrounds, their experiences of the world. How much did they know about the Somali hostage business? What did they rely on to cope? Suffering can fracture a group of people or weld them together, and after a while most of us got to be friends; we just couldn’t have real conversations. After we split up, I still wanted to know more, and the mass of unanswered questions would motivate me later—years later, after we all walked free—to find some of the men. So late in 2021 I made my way to Sosan and Koem Hen’s combined property in Cambodia, with a Khmer translator. Phumanny was there too, and a great deal of this article is based on what they said.
None of them had seen black skin before. That was one surprise. The poverty of Somalia shocked them, too. Cambodia itself is one of the poorest nations on earth, but in Somalia there was a near-total lack of pavement beyond the capital, Mogadishu, and some of the people were broomstick-thin. What hostages tended to see of the country was also just a distant shoreline—or, later, miles of sun-blasted savannah, punctuated by camels and huts. Phumanny told me, “You could see they were poor. You could see there was a reason they were pirates.”
Had they encountered Muslims before? Yes, Cambodia has a minority called the Cham, who build mosques in certain districts and form fishing slums along the Mekong River. Koem Hen Kim was friends with a Cham kid at school named Amat. As 14-year-olds in the Cambodian countryside, they used to ditch class and drink palm wine—which, for Amat, was “haram” (forbidden).
The Somalis solved this intoxication problem by chewing a narcotic leaf called khat. It kept them awake during their nervous guard vigils, then sent them crashing into a depressive sleep. The stuff arrived on the Naham 3 in a massive bundle each afternoon by skiff, and some pirates found it hilarious to watch foreigners get high. One of them passed a daily handful to the Cambodians and a few other men, including the Taiwanese second engineer, and they formed a quiet, reclusive khat-chewing circle in one corner of the deck.
In the West we think of individualism and free choice as signifiers of liberty, and one basic freedom is always the leeway to leave, hoof it, hit the road. But there’s an inner freedom, if we can find it, in families and social networks. Asians in particular are raised to find it in groups (or keep quiet if they can’t). On the Naham 3 our social cohesion swayed between these poles like a ship in a storm. But the khat-chewing guys had established a beachhead of international friendship.
One member of the khat club was a Muslim from Indonesia named Nasurin. He was short and shy, with a wispy mustache, a fisherman from West Java. I know Indonesia a little and I tried some words of Bahasa on him but got nowhere. His crew mates—even other Indonesians—had a similar experience. But the pirates knew he was Muslim. During Ramadan that summer, the pirates fasted, and in the hour between sundown and bedtime they delivered pasta and rice from the upper deck so Nasurin and two other Muslim hostages could participate in an iftar meal. Nasurin wasn’t a practicing Muslim, so for him it just meant that he got more food. Most of the pirates, on the other hand, used to bow toward Mecca, in the ocean wind, five times a day.
One afternoon the crew made a series of proof-of-life calls to ask for ridiculous amounts of ransom cash from their bewildered families back home. I asked Nasurin how it felt to speak with his parents. He shrugged and shook his head. “No money,” he said with resignation. The people who catch fish for the rest of the world on vessels like the Naham 3 tend to leave home because they have no money, no prospects, nothing to keep them rooted. Even on this unlucky ship, Nasurin was a shadow and a stranger.
The pirates moved me ashore in the fall of 2012. Rolly left a month later. The Naham 3 hostages remained on the water until the summer of 2013, when their ship gave out. The generator rumbled to a stop, water purifiers and shower hoses quit, there was no electricity for cooking food, and, worst of all, the hundred tons of frozen tuna began to melt.
A young Chinese man had died in the meantime, so his body had joined the captain’s in the freezer. Feeling a sense of urgency, the Somalis ran hostages ashore by skiff until the whole crew had gathered in a makeshift camp.
Pirates broke them up by nation: Cambodians went under one thorn bush, Filipinos under another, etc. Most of central Somalia is a sun-blasted plain with low, white, evenly spaced thorn bushes and dusty green acacias. (The wind seems to discipline the vegetation, keeping it down to a certain height.) Pirates worried about secrecy rather than comfort, and because of real or imagined aerial surveillance they shifted the camp’s location at night, like soldiers, on foot. “We walked in the dark,” Koem Hen told me. “The pirates asked us to cover the flashlights—not to show anything bright.”
The men received exactly one small plastic bottle of water per day. Water from wells in Somalia can be dangerous to foreigners, because of bacteria content, so hydration was a constant problem. “The Taiwanese guy did not care about well water, or anything—he didn’t even care about boiling it, sometimes he drank raw water and he got sick,” Koem Hen said. Most of the men, including Phumanny, learned to ration their water, but Sosan drank his too fast, and by the end of the day, sometimes, he felt the need to recycle.
“Sosan drank his own urine,” Phumanny said.
Nasurin the quiet Indonesian died in the bush after a rain storm in 2014. He complained that the inside of his body felt hot. Some of his shipmates suspected malaria, but the pirates offered nothing besides antibiotic capsules in blister packs or whatever cheap pharmaceuticals they had lying around. “He swelled up,” Koem Hen said. “And he couldn’t breathe.” Without having shown any particular respect for Nasurin’s life, the pirates considered him a Muslim brother in death. They insisted on a proper burial.
Koem Hen, as the strongest crew member and a friend of Nasurin’s from the khat-chewing circle, was ordered to help. “I am the one who carried the body,” he said. “Wrapped in white sheet. Clothes were taken off—all the clothes—and [the pirates] wrapped him nicely. They wrapped like grilled sticky rice.” A street food in Cambodia, ansom, consists of sticky rice tied in banana leaf. “They tied the end and the base of the white shroud with seven lumps of soil in it.”
“Yes. They squeezed the soil into small rounded lumps.”
Koem Hen and a few other hostages then had to tilt the body towards the west, using more lumps of soil for support. Why? North or northwest from central Somalia would have been an approximation of qibla, the direction of Mecca. But the pirates said nothing about wanting Nasurin’s body to face toward or away from Mecca: “I asked them why we had to face the body in that direction, and they said, so he could see the sunset.”
The pirates untied part of the shroud to reveal Nasurin’s face, chanted a prayer and walked around his grave sprinkling water and throwing handfuls of soil on the body. I could imagine his young, wasted features, his wispy facial hair, and I could imagine Koem Hen’s grief. By then the whole crew had been deprived of freedom and food and hope for two years, ever since their aggressive early weeks in the spring of 2012; the suffering would have been like the weight of the ocean on a sunken ship.
“Then we started to bury him.”
“Why did they reveal the face?” I asked.
“They said if the sheet was not opened to disclose the face of the body, the ghost will come to haunt the person who dug the grave,” said Koem Hen.
Koem Hen was not a Buddhist. He believed in guardian spirits, called “neak ta,” associated with local animist beliefs far older than Buddhism in Cambodia. So the threat of a ghost wasn’t trivial.
“When I came home, I asked my friend Amat if that was right. He said yes—otherwise, if we didn’t show the face, the ghost would come haunt me for all time, like forever.”
He related this story one night while we sat around a table on the ground floor of his wood-stilted home, drinking palm wine and beer. Wives and children and former hostages had all feasted around the table, and afterward we spent hours rehashing events in Somalia, with a background resonance of Cambodian insects and frogs.
“Was it your first Muslim funeral?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Koem Hen. “It was a hard process.”
When the crew walked free in 2016, the pirate problem off Somalia had subsided. Bosses and financiers had figured out after years of senseless destruction that hijacking ships was not, in fact, a very profitable enterprise. A group of volunteer negotiators in London and Nairobi convinced the pirate gang to let the men go for a relatively thin ransom of $1.5 million.
On their last day in the bush, pirates loaded the 26 surviving crew into a single, small bus. Koem Hen said two men had to sit on his lap. “When I got out of the bus, I fell over,” he said. “No circulation!”
They spent a night in the central Somali town of Galkayo, then flew in a twin-engine plane to Nairobi. I flew from Berlin to meet them. They weren’t expecting to see anyone they knew: I remember dazed looks on their faces as they wandered out of the terminal, surrounded by negotiators and diplomats and TV reporters and other strangers. Sosan walked right past me, hollow-eyed and gaunt. I tapped his shoulder. His slow eyes moved; his face brightened. “NUMBER ONE!” he hollered, and there was a great deal of shouting and joy.
One effect the years of suffering had on the seafarers was a dissolution of nationalistic resentments. The Chinese embassy in Nairobi managed to spirit the ten Chinese and the single Taiwanese seafarer from the airfield in a separate bus, so I never saw them, but from the way the Filipinos and the Cambodians talked about them (and one another), I could tell the crew had dismantled most of their old defenses. Koem Hen said the Chinese crew had suffered a loss of influence after they left the ship: on the hot savannah their cultural dominance was pointless. From the Filipinos Koem Hen had learned to speak English phrases with a certain lilt. “I got some language to communicate with the pirates,” he said. “The Chinese men could not understand them as well, so they didn’t have as much power. They had to put down their ego.”
The 16 sailors spent three nights in a Nairobi hotel before their embassies organized flights home to the villages and towns where they’d been recruited. Freedom was a surprising occasion for grief: the men had spent almost six years together, about five of them as hostages, enduring far more than your average underpaid seafarer, even in the great global scam known as industrial fishing. As a group they started to realize that they might not see each other again, at least not in the same configuration.
In the years that followed I think we all recovered in some uneven way, and memories of the experience became a source of strength as well as horror. The suffering welded and changed us. Now we were scattered around the world in an intensely remembered network, like a platoon or a graduating class, and even if there would be no grand reunion, cohesion wasn’t totally lost. It was the 21st century, after all. Most of us had Facebook accounts. So we posted a picture from a meal in Cambodia.
Ex-hostages chimed in from around the world:
“Hey yeoooh,” wrote Arnel from the northern Philippines.
“Greetings from Papa Rolly,” wrote a relative in the Seychelles of Rolly Tambara, who has recently died.
“Come find me in Taiwan,” wrote Shen Jui-chang, the second engineer from Taiwan.
“What’s going on, guys?” wrote Anton from the southern Philippines.
“We had dinner,” I wrote.
“Wow can I join,” wrote Anton.
“Come on over! Lol.”
This playfulness was a long way from the fistfight on the Naham 3.
“OK I’ll buy ticket right now.”