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The sad tale of 18 Syrian sailors abandoned at sea

By Philip Mwakio | May 13th 2021
MV Jihan anchored at the Port of Mombasa [Courtesy]

Sometime in October 2019, MV Jihan, a Zanzibar-flagged ship carrying a crew of 18 Syrians, dropped anchor at the Port of Mombasa.

The merchant ship had called at the port to offload steel from Salalah Port in Oman. What was supposed to be a short stay offloading the steel, turned into a two-year painful sojourn.

The entire crew was taken aback when the owner of the ship, for some strange unscrupulous reason, abandoned them. Apparently, he faced imminent arrest from Kenyan authorities once he appeared at the port. 

The ship’s local shipping agent, Seaforth Shipping Company, said the owner cut off all communication.

He took off not to be seen again. What followed was agony and trauma for the crew from the Orient who were abandoned without basic things like food and water.

According to Betty Makena, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) ship inspector in Mombasa, the ship was in a poor state. The accommodation chambers were dilapidated while garbage spilled everywhere on the ship.

“As per port state control measures, we conducted mandatory checks on the vessel and found that it had lots of deficiencies,” she said in an interview.

“We boarded the vessel in the company of officials from the Mission to Seafarers and encountered first hand the suffering of the crew who are all from Syria. They have inadequate food provisions, no clean drinking water, and the general cleanliness of the vessel was wanting.”

The sailors’ contracts had also expired and they all scraped around with unpaid wages. 

Interviews with a section of the crew revealed that they had been harvesting rain water for drinking. Mission to Seafarers, a Christian organisation that provides help to seamen who are always facing dangers on the global waters, came to the rescue of the Syrians.

The organisation, after hearing the sad plight of the crew, started providing them with food and water.

The body’s chaplain, Rev Moses Muli, said they received a call that one of the crew was unwell and needed medical care ashore.

“We visited the ship and found the crew in a poor state. There was acute shortage of food, cooking gas, fresh drinking water and fuel to power the ship generators,” he said.

Makena noted that the ship was yet to pay an unknown amount of port dues to the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA). “It is against the required statutes to keep crew onboard even after their contracts have expired and without pay,” she said.

With time, concerted efforts by ITF, Mission to Seafarers and Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) saw the matter enter Kenyan courts.

The Admiralty Court in Mombasa gave orders for the vessel to be sold and proceeds used to pay off outstanding crew salaries and all dues payable to KPA for port related charges including all suppliers to the vessel.

Other costs to be paid include air tickets for the crew and medical costs, including Covid-19 tests.

“We are happy to report that the ship went through the court process and was bought by a Kenyan businessman at $581,000 (Sh58,100,00),” Makena disclosed.

She added that the money will be put into a kitty set up by the court to offset the expenses. Maritime expert Andrew Mwangura said most ship owners abandon crew for fear of creditors or fear of detention by port authorities for infringing international laws. 


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