Bangladeshi pirates have created a reign of terror in the Bay of Bengal by regularly robbing fishermen, kidnapping them for ransom and even killing them. In a single attack they killed 32 fishermen last month.
After a week-long, deep-sea fishing trip in the Bay of Bengal, a group of 35 Bangladeshi fishermen were bound for home in Chhanua near Chittagong with their catch when they were attacked by pirates.
In that March 27 attack the pirates fired on the fishermen, before taking control of the three trawlers. While three of the fishermen managed to flee by jumping into the water, the pirates held 32 others hostage after looting their catch, the fishing nets, trawler engines and generators.
A week later, the Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guard recovered from the sea 23 victims' bodies with their hands and legs tied.
Like most people in Chhanua, Noor Hossain, one of the three fishermen who escaped, believes none of the 32 fishermen who were held hostage is still alive. His own frantic flight from the pirates left him with a bullet wound. "During the attack three of us jumped into the sea and swam for three hours before we were rescued by other fishing boats. I identified some of the roughly 30 pirates, most of whom were from our neighboring coastal villages," Hossain told DW.
"From the recovered bodies it is clear that, before throwing our men in the sea, the pirates tied up their hands and legs to prevent them from swimming to safety. I am sure they have killed all our brothers in the same way," he said. Hossain added that he believed the nine missing men, or their bodies, may have been eaten by marine animals.
Killed because 'they identified the pirates'
A group of fishermen get ready to launch their boats at Cox's Bazar
Babul Akhtar, from the local police of the Cox's Bazar coastal district, where many sea pirates have their hideouts, said that Bangladesh's security agencies were concerned with the recent spike in crimes in the Bay of Bengal.
"Looting of the fishermen's catch, nets, machinery, and extortion, are sometimes reported from the Bay of Bengal. The pirates also kidnap fishermen to demand ransoms. In rare cases, they also kill the hostages, if their demands are not met by the fishermen's relatives," Akhtar told DW.
"But we have never heard of so many fishermen being killed by pirates in one attack in the past. They killed the fishermen this time in a very cruel way," he said. Most of the pirates live in coastal villages in the guise of fishermen, Akhtar added. "We guess, when the pirate leaders involved in the latest attack found out that many of the hostage fishermen knew them as neighboring villagers, they feared their identities would be revealed once the fishermen returned to their villages. So, the pirates decided to kill all of the hostages," he said.
'Pirate Queen' Rahima
On their return to their village, Hossain and the two other fishermen revealed the identity of the pirates. It became clear to all that Rahima Khatoon, a woman in her 40s from the neighboring Chhanua village of Kudukkhali, had led the latest maritime attack.
Zafar Alam, owner of one of the three trawlers, said that Rahima was from a notorious family of fishermen-turned-robbers. In the region, she has been known for almost a decade as the “dosyuranee,” or Pirate Queen.
"Her brothers and many other relatives are notorious robbers, who operate at sea and on land. After her husband, a known sea pirate, went to jail some years ago on charges of looting and killing, she took over the reins of his gang," Alam told DW. "Recently, she brought two other smaller pirate groups under her wings, spreading a new reign of terror around our routes to the deep sea," he said.
Rahima's gang members also use speedboats and operate along the coastline of Chittagong and Cox's Bazar, extorting money from thousands of fishing trawlers and cargo barges passing through the region.
"They call it a tax. In fact, gang members of the Pirate Queen collect taxes from most boats and barges they come across passing through the area.
If you refuse to pay, they will turn against you," said Faiz Ali, a tourist guide in Teknaf. "Then, you can face many troubles, including death."
Police Accused of Collusion
Pirate attacks have been a recurring problem in the Bay of Bengal for many decades, with criminals looting trawlers and extorting ransom. In the past two years, at least 2,000 incidents have been reported in Bangladeshi waters, according to Yar Ali, a fishermen union executive in Banskhali.
"In most cases, fish, nets and machinery were looted. But in some instances, attacks met a tragic end. In the past two years, before March 27, at least 70 fishermen just from my Chittagong district have been killed by pirates. For the whole country, the figure will surely be at least 150," Ali told DW. "Following the latest attack, as the pirates hid in the Maheshkhali estuary of Cox's Bazar, we informed the police, but they did not take any action," he said.
However, Babul Akhtar, of the Cox's Bazar police, said that catching pirates in the estuary was nearly impossible. "The topography of the estuary is very hostile and not easily accessible. If we begin an operation with a small team we can never catch them in a place which is open on all sides," Akhtar said. "And if we begin an operation with a huge force, they will get the information well in advance and flee to the sea."
But a fishermen's union leader disputed that argument. "When we urge the police to act against the pirates, we have to bribe them. But, from the pirates, they take double that amount in bribes to refrain from taking any action against them," he told DW, adding that he did not want his identity revealed, fearing retribution from the police. "The police and other security agencies definitely take cuts from the pirates. Otherwise, they could never attack so frequently," he said.