Back in Philippines, hostages held for nearly five years by Somali pirates recount beatings, abuse

Arnel Pregillana Balbero, one of the Filipino seafarers released from the captivity of Somali pirates after nearly five years, is hugged by his loved ones at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Oct 28, 2016.
Arnel Pregillana Balbero, one of the Filipino seafarers released from the captivity of Somali pirates after nearly five years, is hugged by his loved ones at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Oct 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay (right) welcomes three of the Filipino seafarers who were released from captivity of Somali pirates at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Oct 28, 2016.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay (right) welcomes three of the Filipino seafarers who were released from captivity of Somali pirates at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Oct 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS
Five Filipino seafarers were released from the captivity of Somali pirates after nearly five years and reunited with their families at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Oct 28, 2016.
Five Filipino seafarers were released from the captivity of Somali pirates after nearly five years and reunited with their families at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Oct 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - Five Filipino fishermen released after being held hostage by Somali pirates for nearly five years broke down as they were reunited with their families on Friday (Oct 28), recounting beatings and abuse.

The seafarers, among 26 hostages freed from the crew of Naham 3 seized south of the Seychelles in March 2012, alternated between tears and laughter as they embraced their loved ones on arrival back in Manila.

"I am so happy. This is what I had been praying for every night: to be with my family this Christmas," Mr Arnel Balbero, 33, told Agence France-Presse, surrounded by his four siblings at the airport. "Just to be with my family, even if we have nothing, even if we have only little to eat, I am already happy."

His sister, Lilia, trembled at the sight of her brother. "It's like a miracle. We never lost hope he would be freed," she said.

The Naham 3's crew, which also included seafarers from China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan, endured the second-longest hostage-taking ever by Somali pirates.

The Filipinos, most of them from poor farming families, arrived back on a flight from Kenya along with four Cambodian seafarers.

The captain of their Omani-flagged vessel died during the hijacking and two other crew members succumbed to illess in captivity.

Mr Balbero's cousin and fellow ex-hostage, Elmer, said the Somali pirates had cared little about the health of their captives.

"We asked the pirates for medicine but they did not give us any. Instead they said, 'Where is your money?'"

The captives also said they suffered beatings at the hands of the pirates. "In our first week, they called it our introduction. They used bamboo to beat us", said Mr Arnel Balbero.

To survive, the Filipinos did chores for their captors, washing their clothes and even their weapons.

"We took it as a chance to also wash. We couldn't take a bath often because they only gave us a litre of water each day," Mr Elmer Balbero, 37, said.

Hugging his two teenage daughters, Mr Elmer Balbero said it was thoughts of seeing his family again that kept him going throughout the ordeal.

"I did not even recognise them," he said of his children. "When I left they were still so small."