Manila, Philippines – HE’S only 31 years old and single. On April 7, 2010, Gerald Gonzales boarded the Iceberg 1 as its engine cadet, a position that comes with a monthly salary of US 180 or the equivalent of roughly P7, 000. This amount is way below today’s minimum wage. But this story is not about wages. It’s about freedom. It’s about an OFW held captive in Somalia by pirates for two years now.
Gerald’s mother recalled how a phone call disrupted her sleep and the family’s life at 2 o’clock in the morning on March 29, 2010. It was Gerald’s frantic voice, telling her that his ship had been hijacked. The briefest of phone calls ended abruptly with a million unanswered questions. From that time on until today, Aurora Gonzales, has been waging a lonely battle to secure her eldest son’s freedom.
Based in Jaro, Iloilo City, Aurora has been following up on her son’s case through the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Regional Consular Office. She keeps in touch with Gerald’s manning agency, InterWorld Shipping Corporation. However, the answers she received from both ends were terse and unsatisfying. The Dubai-based shipping company is doing its best to negotiate with the pirates in Somalia, they said.
Tired of waiting, Aurora decided to proceed to Manila. Since the start of 2012, she has yet to receive a text message from her son. The last message he sent was about being hungry. Aurora received this message around June of last year. According to Azal Shipping & Cargo, the company that owns Iceberg 1, the pirates assured them of the crew’s good health. There is no way for Nanay Aurora to verify this claim.
In response to Ryan dela Calzada’s query about Gerald’s physical conditions, the operations manager of Azal Shipping & Cargo replied: “The crew are onboard the vessel and are well as can be expected.“ Ryan dela Calzada owns the manning agency that recruited and deployed Gerald Gonzales. Ryan has shared his ongoing e-mail exchanges with M. Umar, the operations manager of Azal shipping company with Aurora. These have not comforted her. It’s been two years after all.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, they are relying on the shipping company to successfully resolve the hostage-taking incident. This formula has worked quite well in the past, although in some cases, the negotiations really did take time. But two years that must be a record in itself. Added to that, the shipping company has not released any of Gerald’s wages to his family. It seems that Gerald did not issue any authorization for a beneficiary of allotment other than himself. I guess Gerald never thought he’d be held captive in Somalia one day.
The Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-government organization, which I founded that assists distressed Filipino migrant worker, has responded to Aurora’s call for help. We have met with the DFA and reiterated the mother’s request for help.
By the time this column comes out, we shall have met with Ryan dela Calzada of InterWorld Shipping Corporation as well as the appropriate DFA officer, to gain a clearer perspective on how best to bring Gerald home.
Meanwhile, Aurora Gonzales and her husband, Santiago, as well as Gerald’s siblings, call on all our readers for prayers and support. If you have the time, please express your concern over Gerald’s situation and your request for action on his case by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ph. You can also read more about this case and listen to Nanay Aurora’s appeal for Gerald’s safety on my blog: http://www.susanople.com. The title of my blog entry is “A Mother’s Appeal: “Gerald, come home.“
I have had other encounters with families of Filipino seafarers held hostage in Somalia. One of the problems they sought help for was the lack of information shared by both the manning agency and the government itself. The same imposing wall is now before Gerald’s mother. The difference is that Gerald is the only Filipino left aboard Iceberg 1. The rest of the Filipino crew had been sent home after their contracts ended before Somali pirates seized the ship.
The vessel is said to contain chemicals that may be harmful to the crew’s health. Considering that it has been two years since the ship was seized, the shipping company’s terse assurance that the crew are still onboard the ship is not an absolute source of solace. Gerald’s mother longs to hear the sound of his voice. She is weary of trite replies. It’s been two years.
All that she wants, all that she needs, is for her eldest boy to be back in her arms again. “Gerald, come home.“ That is the mother’s plea, and we have it in our power to make sure that this plea is heard.
(Send comments to email@example.com. Visit my blog at http://www.susanople.com. Follow me on Twitter via http://www.twitter.com/susanople. Listen to our daily radio program on DZXL 558, from Monday to Friday, 12.30 to 2 pm, “Bantay OFW“, also streamed online via http://www.rmnnews.com/TV.)