Rat droppings cover the final stretch of the Al Mukalla port quay in southeastern Yemen. When the wind picks up, the stool turns into a kind of aerial poison. “It causes irritation in the chest and we have to escape. We are where they put the evicted,” explains Pablo Costas Villar, Galician captain of the fishing vessel Blanket, held in the country for nine months after being accused by Australia of illegal fishing. Despite the fact that a trial has already been held and he has served the three months of arrest to which he was sentenced, the confusing war situation in Yemen and the inaction of the Spanish consular representations in the area prevent them from leaving the place. “I have been a master of sea fishing for 33 years, I have been through everything, and I have never called a consulate. Now that I have done it I have only found ineptitude,” he says.
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Costas Villar, a native of Bueu (Pontevedra), communicates with this newspaper through WhatsApp voice files. At first, it used the ship’s satellite, but it no longer works due to the shipowner’s defaults. That he has abandoned him as a patron and the sailors who accompany him, Peruvians, Senegalese, Indonesians and Namibians. There was also a Russian first officer, but on May 21 he was evacuated by his country’s diplomacy. He got on an oil tanker that was sailing through the area – the Gulf of Aden – and left the Blanket. “The Russian [Andrei Ilin] he got in touch with his consulate, they made a request and they removed him. The rest of us have been here since September. They have immobilized us with deceptions, falsehoods and irregularities. In terrible conditions. “They deny the accusation:” The three months of arrest were illegal, but what are we going to do? “They live on the ship, the temperatures on board reach 50 degrees and the food provided by the Yemeni authorities is rice and some chicken now and then. While the boat was at anchor, they caught some muxo.
The Spanish government does not foresee any specific movement to rescue Costas. Consulted the nearest embassies – Saudi Arabia and Oman, since the diplomatic representation of Yemen has been withdrawn – through the General Directorate of Communication and Public Diplomacy, formerly the Diplomatic Information Office, these are limited to ensuring that they are ” following the case very closely and providing all the usual consular assistance in these cases “. They also claim to be “in permanent contact with the Yemeni authorities.” The Galician captain denies it. Still this Thursday they recommended to find a local lawyer and a specialized translator.
“The consulate does nothing, it just waits. I have lived it and I know it first hand. And I do not mean that they should take risky actions, but calls, simple calls of attention. But they are not interested,” he considers. Indonesian or Senegalese envoys have already traveled to Al Mukalla to take care of its citizens. However, the most determined help that Costas Villar has received has been provided by the Central Unitaria de Traballadores (CUT), a Galician union that has approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other political representatives to demand an exit for the sailor. They have also sought a lawyer for him.
But it is also that “permanent contact” that Spanish diplomacy maintains with the Yemeni authorities is not enough in a scenario like Al Mukalla. Costas says that the echo of gunfire, violence and news of war casualties are constant. “They tell us that it is a quiet place, but they are used to war, to gunfire. The country, halfway to the west, is destroyed,” he explains. During his months of seclusion on board, he has studied the armed conflict that has raged in Yemen since 2014. The port where he is located is under the control of the Southern Transitional Council, an organization that promotes the restoration of the former South Yemen. The government recognized by the international community has been exiled to Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia.
“His relationship with those who rule here is practically nil. If someone who is in the government of Arabia has a relative in the Transitional Council, then he could do him a favor. But in that plan. The country is split,” he says, “and they pass the ball to each other. We are in the middle of that tangle. ” Al Mukalla was even occupied by al Qaeda militias. “Our ship is a few meters from the bridge they used to hang decapitated corpses. We have seen photos. They continue to have a lot of influence in the city.”
From Myanmar to Yemen via Somalia
The Blanket It sets sail from Yangon, in Myanmar, on December 29, 2019. Under a Bolivian flag and owned by a company based in Panama, it is heading to the fishing grounds of the Indian Ocean, some of them in Australian waters. In fact, on June 18, 2020, an Australian Customs launch tackles them, identifies the entire crew and checks their permits. Everything is in order. The Blanket Its tide continues – this is how sailors call their periods of work on the high seas – made difficult, of course, by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic and the mobility obstacles that it entailed.
“The tide was very long for many reasons. The issue of COVID, port entries that were not accepted, logistics issues,” says Costas Villar, who has not seen his family in Galicia for almost two years. And for a fact that, nothing strange in the world of the sea, would be key to explain the current situation: on June 25 of last year, the Panamanian firm sold the ship to a Somali businessman, who flagged it in his country. It is the new owner who orders Costas Villar, after a stopover in Bussaso (Somalia) to check the new documentation, to set sail for the port of Al Mukalla. There, with authorization from the Yemeni government of Riyadh, they anchor on September 26. Until today.
The day after anchoring, Australia sent an email demanding that Yemen retain and control the boat for alleged illegal fishing in its waters. The inspection that, a few months earlier, had carried out Customs of that country in the Blanket, 500 nautical miles off the Australian coast, and that he had found everything in order. And the next, the Yemeni authorities get on the ship to investigate for themselves. At that point, the nightmare of Costas Villar and his crew begins, leading the captain to testify before a judge while Yemeni workers unload the ship’s freezers. The Yemeni authorities do not heed his explanations and the shipowner ignores him.
“We are left in a legal situation of abandonment, in which no one is responsible for either the boat or the crew,” explains the Galician skipper. The Somali owner used to work at the Al Mukalla port but something happened with his contacts there, Costas Villar suspects, that dragged the workers into current limbo. “In a normal country, abandonment would not be such a tragedy. You go to auction, civil responsibilities are covered and that’s it. But here, in the middle of a war, with the broken country, all the responsibility of the owner was thrown on me” , he laments. They did not hear from the businessman again. They also received little information about the judicial process that sentenced him to a more than completed arrest. “They broke all international and procedural law, custody, stay, detention …”, complaint. And with the passivity of Spanish diplomacy.
The Blanket It has remained at anchor off Al Mukalla since last September until this week. This Wednesday they finally docked at the unhealthy dock described at the beginning of this report. And they were forced by the monsoon season. A storm caused the anchoring chain to break and the ship had almost gone to the rocks. Only the skill of the captain – 33 years of experience as a skipper and previously as a sailor – and his crew managed to avoid what could have ended in tragedy. “The propeller was full of barnacles, after so long standing in hot waters. We opened engines, but the ship was not ahead. We were all on the verge of dying,” he says. By forcing the engine into the maneuver, it suffered damage. And the Blanket He was down the drain until, finally, he received permission to dock this Wednesday. Now he fears that the port authority will force them to return to anchor. “To the embassy in Riyadh”, to which they have transferred all the details of what happened, “is not interested in our problems.”
Pablo Costas Villar believes that the Spanish embassies are failing in their duty. His speech is harsh, on the verge of despair after practically 10 months in detention and while he sees how the diplomacy of the countries of his crew does move to solve the situation of its citizens. “I never set foot in a consulate, I had never needed it. But in Yemen all these setbacks happened, in matters that would not even be under its jurisdiction. So I decided to call the consulate and request repatriation,” he says, “I thought it would be a simple procedure. Because I was legally ready. But at the Riyadh consulate I found that they didn’t want me to bother them. ” The Galician sailor asks that they help him to expedite, “not that they bribe anyone or anything like that. They even suggested to me if I was not trying to send the cavalry to get me out of here.”
“A bloody chaos”
His situation leads him to a broader reflection on his profession and the state of world geopolitics. “Fishing is now a high-risk trade. Those who traffic in drugs or arms are considered better than fishing boats,” he says angrily, “we have always respected the law of the sea, norms and international laws. Now it is a total and utter savagery, bloody chaos. ” Veteran sailor, coming from a country, Galicia, with a powerful maritime tradition, understands that the world has changed, “but a lot.” “Walking around brings them to them. We were caught by a cyclone, a perfect storm. This earning a living away from home I think is over. Because you are totally defenseless.”