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Filipino hostages experience an emotional homecoming

After more than four years of captivity in the hands of Somali pirates, five Filipino fishermen have been reunited with their families. However, their recovery is just beginning. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

Claire Balbero was barely able to contain her excitement as she sat between her two daughters, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippine capital. "He doesn't know that I am here, " she said. "It will be a surprise."

Her husband, Elmer Balbero, was among the 29-man crew onboard the fishing vessel Naham 3 that was hijacked by Somali pirates while traversing the Indian Ocean on March 26, 2012.

Their period of captivity is the second-longest among hostages seized by Somali pirates. One crew member died during the hijacking and two reportedly succumbed to illness while in captivity. The hostages were released after 18 months of negotiations. The crew was made up of Filipino, Chinese, Indonesian, Taiwanese, Cambodian, and Vietnamese nationals.

"My papa is coming! My papa is coming!" chanted 13-year-old Kathleen Balbero, who was recording every minute of her father's return with her cell phone. "We did not think we were ever going to see this day. We are so blessed!” said Claire Balbero.

Reunited after a harrowing ordeal

"He's here!" Claire Balbero screamed when she saw her husband coming out of the arrival gate. Her elder daughter, Eloisa, who had been quietly holding her mother's hand, wiped tears from her eyes with a handkerchief.

Elmer Balbero arrived at the airport along with the other Filipino ex-hostages Antonio Libres Jr., Edwas Tininggal Jr., Ferdinand Dalit and Arnel Balbero. The five men were met by tight embraces and tear-filled kisses by family members who were brought in by different maritime NGOs that had been providing support to the families since the men had been kidnapped.

After arriving at the airport, Elmer Balbero and his cousin Arnel Balbero spoke to reporters from the AFP news agency. Elmer Balbero said that thinking about his family had helped him endure his captivity. "I did not even recognize them," he said of his children. "When I left they were still so small."

Arnel Balbero told reporters that the pirates beat them after they were captured. "In our first week, they called it our introduction," he said. "They used bamboo to beat us."

Elmer Balbero added that the Filipinos would do chores for their hostage-takers, including washing their clothes and cleaning their weapons. "We took it as a chance to also wash," he said. "We couldn't take a bath often because they only gave us a liter of water each day."

NGOs play a deciding role

"We are happy that our fishermen who were kidnapped have been freed and can now be with their families," said Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary.

According to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, efforts for the release of the fishermen began immediately after their capture in 2012. 

Spearheading the negotiations were Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of One Earth Future Foundation and Hostage Support Partners. Security issues and dealing with multiple nations slowed the resolution of the case. 

Healing begins on the first day

"It is very important that they are met by their family members here at the airport," said Rancho Villavicencio, Executive Director of SEACOMS Maritime Development International, one of the organizations that have been supporting the families of the fishermen since the kidnapping.

SEACOMS and other maritime support groups pooled their resources to fund the cost of transporting family members who came from distant provinces to welcome the fishermen back home.

"It would have been traumatizing if he were to come home and there would be no one here. In Elmer's case, the only thing that would have prevented Claire from being here is not having enough money for airfare from Hong Kong so our organization found a way to solve that issue," said Villavicencio. Claire Balbero works as a domestic worker in Hong Kong.

According to Villavicencio, the next month will be critical for the fishermen and they will be closely monitored for any signs of post traumatic stress disorder as they resettle back to normal life with their families.

"While they were held captive, there was no communication with their families," said Renato Pablo Jr., a program administrator with the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), an international organization that provides assistance to families of maritime piracy.

"Except for the few proof of life videos that were released, their loved ones did not know if they were still alive,” said Pablo Jr. 

Piracy: A once-booming industry

The Filipino fishermen and the rest of the crew aboard the Naham 3 were taken hostage in the Indian Ocean south of the Seychelles, but spent most of their time in captivity on land in Somalia at a remote site in the wilderness. 

At their arrival in Manila after their release from captivity, Foreign Affairs Secretary Yasay said that they were among "the last remaining seafarers taken hostage during the height of Somali piracy."  Their ship was one of the last commercial vessels seized by Somali pirates during this period in 2012.

Reports show that the first major commercial vessel was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2005. Suffering from the lasting effect of a civil war in the 1990s, piracy and banditry flourished in a country with few jobs and no central government.

According to estimates from 2012, Somali piracy cost the global economy between $5.7 and $6.1 billion (5.6 million euros). At the height, Somali pirates held 736 hostages and 32 boats.

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