Strange fate: Father of Malayali woman cadet released by Iranian commandos also faced attack on ship 16 years ago

Ann Tessa Joseph with her family. Photo: Manorama Online.

Ann Tessa Joseph (21), a cadet on the Israel-linked ship captured by the Iranian commandos, is now safely back home in Kottayam, Kerala. Her father Biju Abraham also worked on another ship and in sheer coincidence, he too had escaped from an attack on the vessel back in 2008.
As a five-year-old child, Ann had heard from Biju about the attempt by Somalian pirates to board his vessel and how he faced the situation. Sixteen years later, it was Ann’s turn to describe her own experience of the seizure of the ship to her father.

As a youngster, Ann had decided that a marine career would be her sole goal, following in the footsteps of Biju. When she joined her first job barely nine months ago, Ann never thought that such an incident would take place so soon. Now relaxing at their house, Puthumana, at Kottukapally in Vazhoor in Kottayam, Ann and Biju explained their adventures to Malayala Manorama.

Ann’s courage
Ann’s ship MSC Aries had loaded cargo from Abu Dhabi and was heading to Nhava Sheva port in Mumbai. After reaching Mumbai, Ann had planned to sign off from duty and travel to Kerala. She hoped to reach home in Kottayam on Monday or Tuesday. However, unexpected developments took place on April 13.

“That day, our ship was passing through the Strait of Hormuz. I worked as a deck cadet and my officer had asked me to reach the bridge of the ship that morning. While walking from my cabin to the lift leading to the bridge, I saw a masked man who held a gun and looked like a soldier there. I was shocked and ran back to my cabin and locked the door,” said Ann.

For a moment, Ann was frightened. She had heard a commotion on the ship early that morning but had not expected any untoward incident. A little while later, Ann received a message from the captain of the ship, instructing all crew members to reach the bridge. “All 25 persons who worked on the vessel assembled there soon,” said Ann.

On the bridge, the captain informed the crew that Iranian forces had seized the ship and that nobody should resist or make any such attempt. “Only then did I realise that there were around 20 Iranian commandos on the ship. They had boarded the ship from two helicopters. But the commandos did not speak to us much. They told everything to the captain,” recalled Ann.

“The first thing the commandos did after occupying the vessel was to disconnect its communication systems. We were dejected as we couldn’t contact anyone. However, the commandos later restored the communication. They also told us not to worry and that everyone would be safe. The commandos also said that they would not harm us,” said Ann.

The commandos spoke to each other in a language that Ann did not understand. “Maybe it was Arabic. Only a few of them knew English. Two days after the ship was seized - last Monday – the Iranians allowed the crew to contact home. That was a big relief as I was really concerned about my family,” said Ann.

Ann Tessa. Photo: Special arrangement.

Ann added that there was sufficient food on the ship and the Iranian soldiers also took the same meals. “The Iranian commandos were polite to the crew,” she said.

On the afternoon of April 17, Ann was in for a surprise. “I was suddenly asked to get ready to leave the ship. I was the only woman on the vessel. There were 17 Indian crew members, including three Malayalis. Two persons were Russian citizens, two hailed from Pakistan and four others belonged to the Philippines,” said Ann.

Ann was initially taken to the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas and from there to Tehran. She subsequently flew to Kochi via Doha. Ann reached her house in Kottayam by 7.30 pm on Thursday, the same day she landed in Kochi.

Ann said that she was grateful to everyone who worked for her release. She also felt that all other crew members would reach home safely.

The ship Aries, on which Ann worked was operated by MSC, an Italian Swiss firm. However, the vessel was owned by Zodiac Maritime Company, which was a part of Zodiac Group under the Israeli tycoon Eyal Ofer.

Ann’s father Biju Abraham worked as an officer on an oil tanker. “We heard that Ann’s ship was captured by Iran on the day we shifted from Thrissur to our newly built house in Kottayam,” he said. “But, we knew that Ann would not be harmed as the ship was seized by the Iranian armed forces,” said Biju.

Meanwhile, Ann said that she would rejoin duty after two months. “It was my dream job, which I received through campus selection immediately after completing my BSc Nautical Science in Kochi,” she said.

Ann started working on the ship from Singapore a mere nine months ago. “My duties as a deck cadet included assisting the chief officer with paperwork and also helping him in balancing the ship,” said Ann.

“Even though Ann spoke pleasantly from the ship, I was a bit concerned,” said Biju. At the same time, Ann’s mother Beena said she knew her daughter would remain calm and composed during any crisis.

Biju’s encounter with pirates
With the anxiety over Ann’s safety having been eased, Biju remembered his own encounter with Somalian pirates 16 years ago in 2008. Curiously, that incident took place on Biju’s birthday December 4. 

“My ship was taking goods to Saudi Arabia and had reached the Gulf of Aden. On reaching my office on the ship that morning, I felt that something was amiss. Subconsciously thought that the ship would be attacked that day. I called my father and wife Beena and shared my concerns. Soon, I looked outside the ship and noticed several small boats approaching it. Immediately, I alerted my junior officers,” said Biju.

A little while later, some more small boats could be seen and Biju wasted no time in informing the captain about the matter. “The captain was from Mumbai and he panicked. Within 15 minutes, helicopters belonging to armed forces of various countries reached the ship,” said Biju.

He explained the modus operandi of the Somalian pirates. “They would use ropes with hooks on one end to board ships from their small boats and seize control of the vessel. They would then demand a huge sum as ransom to release the ship,” he said.

The armed forces personnel in helicopters contacted Biju’s ship over wireless and asked whether the pirates had fired at the vessel. “I replied that no shots were fired,” said Biju. “If I had said that there was gunfire, the soldiers would have targeted the pirates and there could have been big trouble,” he explained.

When the helicopters reached the place, the pirates pretended to be fisherfolk and cast nets from their boats. “The attire of the pirates did not reveal whether they were men or women. I noticed guns with them. But the helicopters chased all the boats away and also accompanied our ship for around 15 nautical miles; till we were safe,” said Biju.

Ann with her family. Photo: Manorama.

A supportive family
Ann Tessa has announced that she would resume duties on the ship and has received the full support of her family. Her elder sister Ann Mary and younger brother Alex are not at all worried about the decision of their sibling.

Ann and Biju are leading a career in the ocean. But neither knows how to swim. "Neither Ann not I can swim. I’ve told Beena that if I somehow fall into the sea, you can expect me home within three days,” said Biju with an ironic smile.

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