Indian sailors held hostage by Houthis 'treated like animals' in 10-month ordeal

Exclusive: Freed captive sailors tell of threats at gunpoint and months surviving on dry bread

Fourteen Indian sailors who were held captive by Houthi rebels in Yemen have described their harrowing ordeal in interviews with The National.

The sailors survived 10 months of fear and misery, during which bombs exploded near the building where they were being held as prisoners.

The men said they were given only khuboos, the Middle Eastern bread, to eat for months before the intervention of the Indian embassy in Djibouti, who negotiated their release on November 28. The released captives were flown to Dubai on Sunday and then to India to be reunited with their families.

They treated us like animals and threw food at us. We thought we would die there

The crew were detained by the Houthis on February 14 when three ships en route to Saudi Arabia from Oman strayed into Yemeni waters in rough weather.

“They treated us like animals and threw food at us,” said Mohanraj Thanigachalam, a chief engineer who was among the group locked in five rooms in a hotel in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

"They would come into our room with khuboos and guns."

The sailors could hear bombs exploding near the hotel, he said.

"We thought we would die there. Every day we cried and asked them what we had done wrong," he said.

"All of us have families and we worried because we had not sent money home for 10 months.”

The nightmare began for Mr Thanigachalam, when his ship, the Danah-6, sank on February 12 in a storm.

Abdul Musthaba, with his family in Thiruvananthapuram, in southern India’s Kerala state. He is one of 14 Indian sailors released after 10 months in captivity by Houthi rebels. Courtesy: Abdul Musthaba

Two ships, the Al Rahyah and Farida, rescued the men. Some had jumped overboard to survive.

But a few days later, they came under fire from Houthi rebels who boarded the vessels and took the crew to Hodeidah port.

Mr Thanigachalam thought he would never see his wife and young children again.

“I thought I would die. We tried to pump water out of the engine room but it kept gushing in and we had to abandon the ship. I was in the water, there was so much wind and the waves were so high,” said the 36-year-old from his home in Cuddalore, a town in southern Tamil Nadu state in India.

“We were rescued but, after two days, men in boats started shooting at us. It was hundreds of bullets, they kept shouting at us. When we realised they were Houthis, we were very distressed.”

The Iran-backed Houthis – who according to reports are set to be designated a terrorist group by the Trump administration – seized the ships' documents, crew passports and belongings and held them captive.

Guards were stationed outside a barred steel door leading to their rooms at the Sanaa hotel.

The men were not allowed to leave except for questioning by security officials.

They were given their mobile phones after two months but allowed only five-minute calls every two weeks.

Mohanraj Thanigachalam with his family in Cudallore, a town in southern Tamil Nadu state. He is one of 14 Indian sailors released after 10 months in captivity by Houthi rebels. Courtesy: Mohanraj Thanigachalam

The sailors contacted their family, Indian officials and the media in their hometowns over the next few months.

They survived on dry bread until the intervention of Indian officials in Sanaa and Djibouti.

“For seven months we ate khuboos and sometimes beans. Even during Ramadan, they gave us only dry bread,” Mr Thanigachalam said.

“After the Indian embassy visits, they started treating us better and we got some food to eat in the last two months.”

Abdul Musthaba, a chief officer, who was reunited with his family in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, on Monday afternoon, vividly remembers the bombs.

“We were always scared. We could hear and feel the bombs. We worried, ‘What if a bomb hit our building?’ We thought there was no hope," he said.

He used the short phone calls to urge his family to remind people about their situation.

“What can you talk about in five minutes. My family would cry and I would cry,” the 43-year-old said.

The men were taken to a court and told they had been sentenced to one year in prison because they entered Yemeni waters without permission.

Sustained negotiation by Indian government officials with the Houthis, and the efforts of their families and social workers to make their plight known helped secure their release.

A Dubai businessman sent funds to their families in India for daily expenses.

The men travelled from Aden to Djibouti, transited via Dubai and reached India on Monday afternoon.

Mr Thanigachalam was relieved to be home but anxious since the crew were not paid during captivity.

Their employer in Oman has said wages would be paid once the insurance settlement is cleared.

Mr Thanigachalam’s worries have intensified because his five-year-old daughter requires constant medical care after a heart surgery last year.

“I’m very excited to see my children. First, I want to spend some time with my family but then I must look for a job,” he said.

“I don’t even have a passport. I have a bank loan to pay. All of us are in deep trouble without our salaries.”

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