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After 11-Month Ordeal, Crew Of Georgian Ship Recalls Harrowing Libyan Escape

For Giorgi Kurashvili, his first shipping tour was a chance to do something difficult and adventurous, and it was an opportunity finally to observe his long-distant father in his element.

Manana Ambalia was a carefree little girl, pampered by loving parents. But even when life was at its sunniest, she was dogged by a feeling that something frightening or sad awaited her months, or even years, in the future.

Even before she had learned about God, she would cross herself and pray to St. George, pleading with him to protect her from whatever was coming. She was just a little girl. There was no way she could know that she would grow up to be the wife of a sea captain, and the mother of a sailor, and that one day her husband and her son would sail away and vanish for more than a year, held against their will, hungry and cold, in a country that would soon erupt into war.

The ship that carried her family away was the "Vasilios N," a sturdy cargo vessel with a bright blue hull and a load capacity of 5,000 tons. The "Vasilios" was one of thousands of cargo vessels shuttling goods between ports of call throughout the Mediterranean. Its captain, Iveri Kurashvili -- the "Sea Lion," as Manana affectionately calls him -- had spent more than 30 years on the water.

Growing up in Georgia's Black Sea port of Poti, nearly every man he knew was a seafarer. Sailor friends of his father and uncles would stop by the house and tell stories of their adventures as Iveri listened, wide-eyed.

"By the time I was in kindergarten," he says, "I knew I was going to be a sailor -- and a captain."

"Vasilios N" captain Iveri Kurashvili, his wife, Manana, and baby Giorgi in a family photo from the 1980s
"Vasilios N" captain Iveri Kurashvili, his wife, Manana, and baby Giorgi in a family photo from the 1980s

At first, it seemed like Giorgi, the older of Manana and Iveri's two sons, had no interest in following suit. He and his father had never been close, and when it came time to go to university, Giorgi steered clear of the naval academy, choosing instead to study international history and diplomacy. But after a few fruitless years of looking for work, sailing began to look more appealing. It paid well, and it was manly work -- something you could be proud of, Giorgi thought.

His mother was reluctant, and begged him to change his mind. But he insisted, and in October 2009, Giorgi signed a year's contract and joined his father on board the "Vasilios."

A Journey Begins

The early months of the tour were uneventful, with routine stops at ports in Turkey, Italy, and France. Occasionally, port inspectors would detain the "Vasilios" because of a broken bilge pump or other mechanical difficulties. The vessel was more than 30 years old and beginning to show her age. But after a few repairs, she would get a nod from inspectors and head out to the next port of call.

The "Vasilios N," anchored in Valetta
The "Vasilios N," anchored in Valetta

The "Vasilios" sailed under the Georgian flag, and most of the 10 men on board were Georgian. But there were also three Ukrainians and an Azerbaijani. Some of the younger men on board spoke English, but as a group, they used Russian to communicate. "I've spent my entire life on a ship," says Valentyn Muzyka, the second mechanic on the "Vasilios," who grew up on in the Ukrainian seaport of Odesa and has spent 43 years as a professional seafarer. "When you're young, there's this romanticism that attracts you. And I was a bit too full of this romanticism. It fades as the years go by."

But for Giorgi, his first shipping tour was exhilarating. It was a chance to do something difficult and adventurous, and it was also a chance to finally observe his long-distant father in his element. He sent exuberant text messages home from his cell phone: "Mother, I've become friends with Dad, I've gotten to know his character. We're buddies now," he wrote. Manana was pleased that her husband and son appeared to be growing closer. "They hardly knew each other," she says. "Iveri was at sea while my children were growing up. He missed out on many things."

Halfway through the tour, the "Vasilios" docked in the Turkish city of Antalya, to pick up a cargo of 4,600 tons of bagged cement powder. The shipment was bound for a client in the Libyan city of Misurata, where a construction boom was fueling a bustling trade in cement and other building materials. The "Vasilios" had already completed one delivery to another Libyan city, Benghazi; the trip had gone off without a hitch. If all things went well, they expected to spend no more than a week or two on the Misurata leg. The crew packed up food and supplies, and on April 10, 2010, they set out.

Storm At Sea

Storms are an ordinary workplace hazard for sailors, particularly in the east Mediterranean, where high winds and violent squalls are common in the winter and early spring. One day into the journey, the seas began to act up, with gale-force winds reaching to 70 kilometers per hour and swells as high as seven meters. Heavy sheets of rain pounded the ship as waves crashed over its deck. "Sailors' lives are always in danger, whenever there's a storm," says Iveri Kurashvili. The storm was blowing the ship dangerously close to the shore of the Greek island of Karpathos, so eventually the crew dropped anchor. For the next three days, they waited out the storm.

If a captain's first concern is the safety of his crew and ship, the second thought, never far behind, is the security of his cargo. At the height of the storm off Karpathos, an alarm went off on the "Vasilios," signaling that water had leaked into the cargo hold. A quick examination showed that some of the bags holding the cement powder had gotten wet, and the captain quickly sent a routine protest letter to the ship's operators in Greece, informing them of the mishap. Such damage is to be expected in the uncertain conditions of sea travel, and can normally be compensated by insurance. But the operators refused to notarize the letter, saying they would handle the matter privately. For the sailors on board the "Vasilios," it was to prove a grave omission. On April 16, as the ship arrived in Misurata, dockworkers noticed the damaged cargo. The purchaser refused to take possession of the cargo and -- with no letter guaranteeing restitution for his expenses -- received a court order placing the "Vasilios" under port arrest.

For Giorgi Kurashvili, his first tour on the seas was exhilarating. "Mother, I've become friends with Dad, I've gotten to know his character. We're buddies now," he wrote.
For Giorgi Kurashvili, his first tour on the seas was exhilarating. "Mother, I've become friends with Dad, I've gotten to know his character. We're buddies now," he wrote.
For Giorgi Kurashvili, his first tour on the seas was exhilarating. "Mother, I've become friends with Dad, I've gotten to know his character. We're buddies now," he wrote.

At first, the crew was optimistic the matter could be easily resolved. After all, only a small fraction of the cement had been damaged, and the ship's Greek managers sent frequent assurances they were hard at work on a solution. One crew member, who had been diagnosed with hepatitis upon their arrival, was speedily evacuated home. The rest of the sailors sat back, ready for a tedious but hopefully short-lived wait. They had a month's worth of food, water, and cigarettes.

'Abandoned Like Animals'

There are more than 50,000 trade vessels in international waters sailing under so-called flags of convenience -- which designate not where a ship is from but where it is registered. With piracy cases flooding the headlines, it's common to hear of ships sailing under the flags of Liberia, Panama, or the Marshall Islands.

Sailing under a flag of convenience has proved an attractive option for shipping operators because it is cheaper and less rule-bound. The "Vasilios N," for example, could have been registered in Greece or Italy, where its managing company and owners were based. But by registering in Georgia, it was likely to pay lower taxes and possibly would be held to less discriminating standards of seaworthiness.

The advantage, from the perspective of the ship's owners, was clear. The disadvantage, as the crew of the "Vasilios" soon discovered, was equally so. With an Italian owner, a Greek manager, and a Georgian flag, where, exactly, should they turn for help? Georgian consular officials in Italy offered vague assurances they would intervene. The Greek management company continued to pledge that money was on the way. But the more people who seemed to bear responsibility, the less anyone seemed inclined to step in. "The Greeks and Italians -- they're Europeans," says Giorgi Kurashvili. "We figured the whole thing wouldn't take more than a month."

As food supplies ran low on the "Vasilios," the crew began to worry. They fished from the side of the boat and started accepting handouts from fellow sailors. "Ukrainians, Russians, Italians, Syrians, Turks, Iranians, Bulgarians -- they were all helping us," says Iveri Kurashvili. "But half the time we were hungry. Our owners simply abandoned us, as though we were animals. We sent out an SOS, and the whole world seemed to answer back, asking us what was going on, what was wrong. But our owners had zero reaction."

Bound To The Ship

The crew, arguably, could have left the "Vasilios" and found another way home. The port arrest was directed at their ship, not at them. But from a negotiation standpoint, a sailor is at his strongest while he's occupying his vessel. The "Vasilios" crew had gone unpaid for months -- collectively, they were owed tens of thousands of dollars. If they walked away from their ship, they might never see their money. If they stayed, they had a chance.

In January, with the "Vasilios N" already entering its ninth month of port arrest, a distraught crew member set fire to the captain's bridge. The fire was put out before causing any extensive damage to the vessel or putting the crew at risk. But the ship's navigational equipment was destroyed.
In January, with the "Vasilios N" already entering its ninth month of port arrest, a distraught crew member set fire to the captain's bridge. The fire was put out before causing any extensive damage to the vessel or putting the crew at risk. But the ship's navigational equipment was destroyed.

By August, with little evident movement on the cargo dispute, Iveri Kurashvili contacted the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), a leading advocate of seafarers' rights. The ITF cannot directly intervene in a case or even ensure a renewed stream of supplies to abandoned sailors. But it can track down errant owners or press countries to play a more active role in ensuring their ship's safe passage to a home port. Even with the support, however, the sailors' plight remained unchanged.

The Georgians, in particular, were disappointed. Few officials came to their aid, and even the media seemed uninterested. Gradually, all of the crew members grew ill. Two men on board had chronic back problems. Another suffered from terrible toothaches. And the mood had long since turned black. The sailors still had their daily chores to keep them busy, but the isolation and uncertainty were like torture. "I can't even tell you how we passed the time," says Giorgi Kurashvili. "We tried to be considerate with each other. But a day would pass and it would feel like an entire month. It was awful. Even now, it's difficult to think about."

Occasionally, the sailors would go ashore to look for food or a free Internet café so they could write to their relatives back home. The port was some 10 kilometers outside Misurata, so they rarely made it to the city. But what they saw impressed them. There was a constant whirl of construction, and the people seemed prosperous and happy. "They were very warm people," says Giorgi. "Very sweet."

A New Year, But No Change

As the world rang in 2011, the "Vasilios N" continued to sit in the port at Misurata. There was no food, and there had been no celebrations. The sailors had been in Libya for nearly nine months, and they were giving up hope. Giorgi Kurashvili left the ship and walked to a nearby computer café, where he posted a comment on the website of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, which had begun covering the story a few months earlier.

"Our conditions are unbearable," he wrote. "We have nothing to eat. We are forced to ask other ships for food, water, and cigarettes. Some of the crew need urgent medical assistance. One of the crew members has threatened suicide. We told the [shipping] company, but they didn't even respond. We have no electricity or water. We're cold. Nobody has even wished us a happy new year."

"We still hope someone will help us," added Giorgi, who as a young soldier helped protect the Poti railway from aerial bombardments during Georgia's 2008 war with Russia. "During the August war, I defended my country. I hope now that my country will defend me."

But things were to get even worse. The ship's chief officer was growing increasingly distraught. Most sailors around the world work on a three-month-on, three-month-off system, which is meant to guarantee at modicum of stability for them and their families back on land. At worst, seafarers might expect to spend up to six months aboard a vessel. But the crew of the "Vasilios N" had now been penned together for more than a year, most of it spent at Misurata. They had almost no contact with their relatives back home, and no way of knowing when their ordeal would end.

The strain had proved too much for the chief officer, who had threatened to kill himself. The crew members understood his stress but had no way to help him or get him off the boat. On the night of January 15, with nearly everyone asleep, he set fire to the ship's operation equipment with the apparent aim of burning down the entire vessel. But as the equipment in the captain's bridge burned, the sailor was suddenly filled with remorse and woke a fellow crew member. The blaze was put out, but not before it had destroyed the vessel's navigational system and reduced the operation room to an ashen mess.

For the crew, it seemed like the last straw. And when the news reached Manana back in Poti, she was despondent. "I'm going crazy, I don't want to talk to anybody," she remembers thinking at the time. "I'm so angry at that sailor. But I also understand that he's just human. He couldn't handle all of this."

Iveri Kurashvili, who had marked his 48th birthday just after the new year, was beginning to understand there was only one way out of their plight: he had to get the Vasilios out of Misurata. It was only a question of when.

Rumblings Of War

As life on the ship grew more difficult, the world outside was becoming more tumultuous as well.

Ripples of the antigovernment revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were spreading throughout the Middle East. By March, protests in Libya against longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi had escalated into armed conflict, as government forces squared off against rebels in opposition strongholds like Benghazi and Misurata.

The "Vasilios" crew had erected a small antenna on top of the vessel and watched the events unfold on Russian television. "I couldn't understand it," says Giorgi. "People there were earning more than $15,000 a year -- more than a sailor's salary. And everyone we asked about Qaddafi would say he was in their heart. People loved him."

Manana Ambalia: "I catch myself thinking whose life I want more, my husband's or my son's," she remembers thinking at the time.
Manana Ambalia: "I catch myself thinking whose life I want more, my husband's or my son's," she remembers thinking at the time.

But not everyone had as much faith in Libyans' love for Qaddafi. Back in Poti, Manana watched the news of the simmering civil war with a mounting sense of dread. She had already lived through a harrowing year, uncertain when the ship would come home or if her husband and son would survive the ordeal. She had tried to be strong for the sake of her elderly mother and her younger son, Irakli, a student. But the threat of war made the stress even more unbearable.

Manana remained glued to the television, watching Euronews for the latest developments in Libya. The news, she says, was "unimaginable." She traced her finger over a map, memorizing names, following the fighting in Benghazi and Ras Lanuf, still a comfortable distance from Misurata. "And then I hear that Misurata too is getting bombed," she wrote in her journal. "It's as if I am paralyzed. I lock myself in my room and think what awaits me."

Her phone rings constantly, with calls from journalists. "Can you tell us what's going on in Libya?" one man asks. "You're asking me about Libya?" she screams, nearly hysterical. "I don't even know what's happening to my husband and my son!" She calls and calls, but gets only a voice-mail message when she reaches their phones.

As she waits, an appalling image crosses her mind. "I catch myself thinking whose life I want more, my husband's or my son's," she remembers thinking at the time. "Saying this makes me sick even now."

'We're One Family'

Even as the fighting intensified in Misurata, the crew of the "Vasilios" tried to keep the ship in good condition, shuttling mechanically through their daily routines. Even when a vessel is standing idle, its engine is typically turned on every 10 days, to keep it tuned and functioning normally.

The crew had followed the procedure throughout their detention in Libya; normally, the Misurata port authorities took little notice. But in February, one start-up had raised worries among port security officers, who promptly sent divers to wrap a metal clamp over the ship's propellers to prevent a flight risk. From then on, the "Vasilios" crew was more circumspect in its maintenance work, even as the captain sent one of his own men to dive down and loosen the clamp -- just in case the opportunity to escape presented itself.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian diplomats in Misurata had learned of the ship's predicament. Knowing there were Ukrainian nationals on board, they offered to evacuate all the sailors on board before the fighting got any worse. The men on board were elated. But suddenly the authorities scaled back their offer, saying they could take only their own citizens. The Ukrainian sailors refused.

"We're all sailors, one crew on one ship, so we're one family," says Artyom Slabospitsky, the ship's motorist. "If someone were to leave the ship, it would be wrong as a human being and wrong as a sailor. It's a long-standing law of the sea: It's everyone or no one. And purely in terms of the human factor, how could we do that? Get off and leave our friends and colleagues behind to be bombed? That's not right."

So the crew stayed on. The fighting in Misurata began to intensify, with shelling targeting the port and even hitting some of the boats. Until then, authorities had kept a watchful eye on the boats in the port, especially the "Vasilios N," which was racking up thousands of dollars in unpaid port fees while it waited out its endless court-ordered detention. But as the fighting worsened, the port authorities seemed to vanish. The crew members began to sense that their chance for freedom was nearing.

On the night of March 8, Giorgi Kurashvili was standing watch in the burned-out captain's bridge when he noticed something astonishing: another ship quietly pulling anchor and heading out to sea. Normally a lot of activity and paperwork precedes a ship's departure; it's clear to nearly everyone in the port when a vessel is set to embark. But in this case, the ship appeared to be slipping out of the port not only unannounced, but undetected. "It was 3 o'clock in the morning," says Giorgi. "I ran downstairs and told the captain. He woke everybody up right away."

Should the "Vasilios N" attempt a similar departure? It was an enormous risk, Iveri told the crew. Port authorities could force us to turn around. Someone could even open fire. But the sailors were in agreement: It was now or never.

"We stayed until the fighting broke out, and then it became impossible to stay," says the second mechanic Muzyka. "There were fires burning around the port, explosions. Ships were getting attacked. We had to support our captain and get out of there -- to save our lives, and most importantly, to save the ship."

The most immediate concern was fuel. After 11 months standing idle, the ship still carried some reserves, but the pump to release it into the main fuel tank had stalled. Grabbing buckets, the sailors steadily scooped up supplies from the reserves and poured them by hand into the tank. They started the main engine gently, allowing the propeller to break free from the loosened clamp. A crew member slipped ashore and removed the mooring lines attaching the ship to the dock. Normally, a vessel would use a tugboat to help pull it away from the port, but under the circumstances, this was hardly an option. The "Vasilios N" glided quietly through the port gates, the sailors on board anxiously scanning the darkness for any sign their retreat had been noticed on shore. The ship stalled out and was noisily restarted. But the port remained quiet. The sailors held their breath, disbelieving.

"Of course it was frightening," says Iveri. "If they had seen us, they would have shot us, and that would have been it. But what can you do? Fear can't stop death." A good sailor, he adds, has to be brave. "You can't have a coward at sea."

Sailing By The Stars

The next challenge for the "Vasilios N": where to go and how to get there. Iveri set his sights on the nearest Western port in Valetta, the capital of the tiny island nation of Malta, some 218 nautical miles from Misurata. Under favorable conditions, the trip would take a relatively brisk 16 hours. But with the vessel's operation system destroyed in the fire, Iveri was forced to fall back on more traditional forms of navigation -- using a sextant and the stars to chart his course.

Given the sophistication of modern sailing equipment, the notion of celestial navigation can seem imprecise and almost quaint. But in the hands of a competent sailor, a sextant and a watch are still enough to navigate a vessel in clear weather to within a mile of its destination. "I know my job and I know what has to be done," says Iveri. "All it takes is a magnetic compass, a sextant, and calculations. And a little bit of luck."

By the following evening, the "Vasilios N" had dropped anchor outside Valetta. Manana's phone lit up with a text message from Giorgi: "Mama, we've escaped from Libya with our ship. We are well. I love you."

Answered Prayers

The ship is now safely docked 50 meters offshore from Valetta -- far from Misurata, where the violence has intensified as Qaddafi's forces defy Western-led air strikes aimed at weakening his battle against the opposition. It still may be months before the "Vasilios" crew is able to return home. But Valetta's Georgian and Russian residents, as well as members of the Catholic Church, have rallied around the ship, delivering food and water and other supplies. "It's the first time I've laughed or cracked a joke in months," says Giorgi.

The sailors are determined to be paid, and until they are, they will remain with their ship. The ITF has helped hire a lawyer for the crew, and the "Vasilios N" is likely to be sold to a new owner, either for scrap or for sailing, to earn revenue to pay off the sailors' unpaid wages, a debt that's estimated to be at least a quarter of a million dollars, if not more for extra time served. "Romanticism is one thing," says Valentyn Muzyka, the ship's elder statesman. "But a sailor still has to be paid for his work."

Back in Poti, Manana believes her anxious prayers as a little girl have finally been answered, and that a nightmarish year of uncertainty and tears is now behind her. Many weeks may remain before she sees her husband and her son, but now it's easy to get in touch. "I keep asking Iveri the same question over and over," she says. "How did he manage to leave Libya? How did he escape? And he tells me, 'God gave me a chance, and I used it.'"

She adds, "God, thank you for giving my Sea Lion an opportunity to prove his bravery."

Salome Asatiani of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report