BATUMI, Georgia -- After nearly a year and a half at sea as a hostage held by Somali pirates, Memed Zakaradze is relieved to know his grandchildren in this Georgian port city still recognize him.
"They've grown up in my absence," the 63-year-old Zakaradze says ruefully. "But they still remember me."
In September 2010, Zakaradze was captaining a run-down tanker, the "Olib G," through the perilous Gulf of Aden when his ship was approached by a ship manned by armed Somali pirates.
"We called for patrolling ships," says Zakaradze. "But meanwhile, the vessel approached us and one of the pirates managed to come onboard our ship. As soon as he got on, he started shooting. The others followed suit. They gathered us together on the captain's deck. In five minutes, a military ship and a helicopter arrived, but it was too late already. Nothing could be done."
No Way Out
Held at gunpoint, Zakaradze and his crew members -- 14 Georgians and three Turks -- were forced to turn the "Olib G" around and drop anchor off the Somali coast.
There, the sailors spent the next 16 months enduring searing heat and brutal abuse at the hands of their Somali captors, who demanded $9 million in ransom.
LISTEN as Captain Memed Zakaradze recounts his ordeal:
Zakaradze's experience, recounted to RFE/RL's Georgian Service in its "Liberty Diaries" program
, provides a rare glimpse into what the captain himself calls the "infernal torment" of life on a pirate ship.
"They treated us very mercilessly, extremely mercilessly," he says. "Kept us chained together like dogs, for eight months. We had no food, no water, and no access to the toilet for 56 hours at a time. Some days were even worse. Once they brought in bottles of urine, poured it over us, then coated us with flour. They left us like that for 24 hours."
Stranded At Sea
Zakaradze had nowhere to turn for help. The Greek company that owned the "Olib G" had gone bankrupt. Repeated calls to the owners went unanswered. And the vessel itself was about to be scrapped, so there was no chance of exchanging the ship for their release.
The case is strikingly similar to that of another Georgian cargo ship, the "Vasilios N,"
which was stranded for nearly a year in the Libyan port of Misurata when its Greek and Italian owners abandoned the craft and its debts.
As the months went by, Zakaradze says, life on board the "Olib G" became increasingly desperate.
"The [pirates'] lawyer, or translator, would come on board the ship," he says. "Since our efforts to reach the ship's owner had failed, they started asking us to call home and ask our family members to organize rallies, so that our government would [feel compelled to] pay them."
Piracy has become a growing threat in the Gulf of Aden, which is part of the busy Suez canal shipping route linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
Somali groups account for more than half of all piracy attacks worldwide, particularly in the narrow Gulf corridor, which some 21,000 ships pass through each year.
Hostage-taking has become so profitable that many Somali pirates are eager to publicize the suffering of their captives in order to ensure ransom demands are met.
A blurry video
released to the media a full year after their capture showed the "Olib G" crew looking gaunt and weary. Zakaradze says now there were many occasions when he and his crew were close to death.
"For 16 months, all we ate was pasta and rice, boiled in salted water," he says. "Our families were more or less aware of our condition, but we kept many things secret from them. For instance, I didn't reveal until I got back what they were doing to me. I was stripped from the waist up and tied to the stern of the ship, forced to stay like this for eight hours under open sky, in 100-degree heat."
"I was the eldest on the ship," Zakaradze adds. "So they probably thought I was going to die and that that would speed things up [with the ransom deal]."
Home, But Still Healing
In the end, the Georgian government intervened, finally securing the release of the Georgian and Turkish "Olib B" sailors this month.
Somali media reported that a $3 million ransom was paid for the men's' release, but Georgian officials deny any money changed hands.
Zakaradze himself says he's not sure what finally brought his crew's torment to an end, but credits his men with never losing hope.
But now, back in Batumi, Zakaradze is grappling with the consequences of his ordeal. His eyesight and hearing are failing and his face looks permanently worn.
Even the winter snow has proven hard to take.
"After the heat of Somalia, Batumi's climate is hard for me," the captain says in a tired voice. "I find it difficult to be in cold weather."