Twenty-two crew of a Bangladeshi cargo vessel remain stranded in the African country of Guinea for more than seven months, as the authorities there seized the ship upon filing of compensation lawsuits by importers.
The stranded crew say they are passing days in hardship due to inadequate supply of food, drinking water, medicine and electricity.
Their plight is likely to prolong, as the ship owner appears unwilling to bring them back anytime soon.
Under the Maritime Labour Convention, it is the ship owner's responsibility to have the crew repatriated to their home country if his ship is seized or stranded abroad.
The stranded crew alleged that though they repeatedly appealed to both the ship owner and the Bangladesh government to take steps for their repatriation, neither made any effort to that end.
Commercial vessel MV Dahiatul Kalbi, owned by Bangladeshi private company Continental Traders, was loaded with rice from Kakinada port and steel coils from Paradip port in India between mid-June and mid-July last year.
It sailed out of India on July 22 and reached Lomé port of Togo on August 27. But the vessel remained stuck there for 41 days, as it had problems unloading cargo for congestion of vessels.
It reached Conakry port in Guinea on October 28 and finished unloading rice on November 21.
After receiving the goods, the importers there filed a $400,000 compensation lawsuit with a local court against the ship, saying the rice got damaged due to late arrival of the vessel.
As the court ordered the seizure of the ship, all of its 28 crew members got stranded at Conakry port. The ship owner then brought back six senior crew of the vessel.
Asked why the rest of the crew have not been repatriated, Matiul Islam, manager of the ship, said, "If we want to bring them home, we have to send new crew to replace them. But no sailor is willing to work for the seized ship."
"We have already brought back several of the crew who had fallen sick. But some crew must stay at the ship until its release because we cannot leave the vessel abandoned," Matiul told The Daily Star recently.
But it remains uncertain when the ship will be released, as the importers in Guinea filed seven cases against the vessel, and it might take long for those to be settled.
Matiul said court order in five of the cases went in favour of the ship owner while that in the other two went against. Later, the importers challenged the verdicts of the five cases with the higher court.
He said his company was unwilling to continue the legal battle, as it saw no hope of having the vessel released that way. It now wants the government to take up the matter and get the ship released through diplomatic channels.
Over the last six months, the stranded crew sent several letters to the director general of the Department of Shipping (DoS), describing their plight and requesting him to take measures to bring them home. But the DoS is yet to take any step.
Contacted, DG of the DoS Zakiur Rahman Bhuiyan said, "We have summoned the representatives of the owner and asked them repeatedly to take necessary measures for repatriation of the crew."
The DoS also wrote to the shipping secretary on May 26, asking him to request the foreign ministry to take initiative for the ship's release.
Shipping Secretary Shafique Alam Mehdi, however, said he was unaware of it.
The delay in repatriation is causing a great deal of sufferings to the crew.
Sharing his experience at the seized vessel, its Chief Engineer Tajul Islam, one of the six returnees, told The Daily Star that the vessel's generator was kept switched off all day to minimise the owner's expenditure.
"The crew had been provided with sub-standard food. Almost all the crew were suffering from health problems, and treatment facilities were very limited," said Tajul who returned home from Guinea on June 28.
He said the crew members were free to get down from the ship and move inside the port on permission from the ship's captain.
Another returnee, ship's Second Engineer Mashrurul Hasan, said, "We were given only a few litres of water which was inadequate to meet all our daily needs."
The owner also didn't pay the crew their salaries for several months, leaving their families in financial crisis, alleged Mashrurul.
"The company owes me salaries for six month. It has been giving excuses to delay the payment," he said.
About the allegation, Matiul said they owe salaries to the crew for a maximum of two months.