Families of abandoned sailors in Umm Al Quwain plead for financial help

Children at risk of being excluded from school and seafarer's sick wife needs funds for emergency cancer surgery in Pakistan

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The families of abandoned sailors marooned off the Umm Al Quwain coast hope their desperate pleas will help bring an end to their 43-month ordeal at sea.

The Mt Iba  drifted ashore in January from its anchorage three miles from Ajman.

The 100-metre tanker, owned by Alco Shipping of Sharjah, had been abandoned since 2017 after its proprietors encountered financial problems.

Its crew of five have not been paid since.

If I don't submit my remaining fees and pay what I owe, the university will remove my name from the course

Rough seas and strong winds ripped the Iba free of its anchors and the 5,000-tonne vessel drifted out of control before hitting land 100 metres off a public beach.

It remains there, as the complicated legal process of finding a buyer for the vessel drags on.

The crew anxiously await news of a buyer. Only when the Iba finds a new owner can the issue of their unpaid wages be resolved, which would allow them to return home.

Pawan Kumar, the older brother of Vinay Kumar, 32, the ship’s second engineer, said his family was in desperate need of financial support.

They took out a loan of about $8,000 to secure Vinay's place on board the Iba, using the money to pay agency fees.

While a financial settlement for Vinay’s wages is yet to be agreed on, the loan is increasing by the day as interest piles on.

“Our economic situation has got really bad and we were relying on Vinay earning money and sending it home to his family,” said Pawan, who lives in Himachal Pradesh state, in northern India.

“We are finding it really hard to manage the everyday household costs of living. It is very tough for all of us, and especially his young children,” Pawan said.

Vinay has not seen his wife Pushpa, or his children Mukund, 3, and Navya, 6, since joining the Iba in 2017.

He has missed Mukund taking his first steps and Navya’s first day at school.

“As coronavirus is not as bad now, the schools are beginning to reopen,” said Pawan, who supports his brother’s family as much as he can.

“That means we need to find school fees to pay for the children very soon but we don’t have the money.

“All the crew are in trouble and face the same problems. All we can do is live each day as it comes and pray.”

A glimmer of hope emerged this week, as a potential buyer came forward to offer to meet the $1.9 million valuation of the Iba.

Financial records seen by The National  show an outstanding mortgage of $1.35m remains on the tanker, along with fees and fines in the UAE and Panama of more than $41,000.

Other debts include towing the ship for salvage for $150,000, agent fees of $12,000 for supplying crew, and outstanding port fees of $192,000.

The crew said they were collectively owed more than $200,000, but may have to settle for substantially less to resolve their situation and return home.

Second engineer Riasect Ali, 52, is a senior figure on the vessel and speaks to his wife and three sons twice a day.

The eldest, Husnain, is in his third year at the International University of Kyrgyzstan’s school of medicine, in Kyrgyzstan.

Husnain's dreams of becoming a doctor in the family’s home city of Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab area are in jeopardy because of his father's plight.

He may have to drop out of university if he fails to pay thousands of dollars he owes in outstanding tuition fees.

“I still owe money to the university for my fees from last year as I can’t afford to pay them,” said Husnain, whose fees are $4,000 a year.

“If I don’t submit my remaining fees and pay what I owe, the university will remove my name from the course.

“They have already given me so many warnings about missing payments.

"The university is starting up again on February 22, and if I can’t pay before then, I’m off the course. I’ve no idea what I can do instead.”

At 21, Husnain has faced the heavy burden of caring for his sick mother and supporting his two younger brothers, Saqlain, 18, and Sarmad, 14, during his father’s absence.

On board Mt Iba that ran aground in Umm Al Quwain on January 22. Nick Webster/The National
On board Mt Iba that ran aground in Umm Al Quwain on January 22. Nick Webster/The National

Their mother, Roubina Kousar, was admitted to Aziz Fatimah Hospital in Faisalabad on September 28, 2020 for an urgent medical procedure and a six-day stay for ovarian cancer treatment.

The costs were paid for by a relative, as Mr Ali's salary has not been paid for more than three years.

“My husband asked to be signed off on June 28, 2018, on expiry of his contract,” Ms Kousar said.

“Neither his sign-off nor his salary was cleared, despite us getting repeated false promises from the owner.

“You can easily imagine the misery and hurdles we face due to the non-payment of his salary. All three of my children are students with meritorious academic records.

“Now my family is on the verge of destruction because I am unable to manage their lives and academic needs.

“I have been given small loans by relatives and neighbours but they now demand to be repaid. I have no idea what to do next, and I’m kept completely in the dark.”

The crew’s case was taken up by the Federal Transport Authority in the UAE, which has since merged into a new government department, the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure.

Department representatives told The National  they hoped for a resolution by the end of the month.

"The Iba is a notorious case as it has been ongoing for more than 40 months," said Mohamed Arrachedi, co-ordinator of the International Transport Workers Federation Arab World and Iran Network.

“After so many months of suffering, crew expect a guarantee of their wages and the vessel is the only leverage they have.”

Sailors on board ‘MT Iba’ stuck at sea - in pictures