Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Perils of Sea: What happens when ships reach war-zone ports?

For the purposes of this article, “civilians” means people not officially wearing Armed Forces Uniforms and does not include the sub-set of direct war support services, irregular soldiers, spies and similar.

Where did we as merchant seafarers fit into these categories?

In a grey area. Often flying a Flag of Convenience, wearing uniforms with ranks similar to Armed Forces protocols and most of all – hugely involved in the movement of the essentials of war. Fuel, replenishments, arms, ammunition, and all the other tools of battle – we carried them all, mostly declared in the manifests as machinery, agricultural implements, steel or similar. From origin to destination, everybody knew what was in the holds of our ships and everybody winked as we steamed past.

Now and then, when the relevant deals were not made, or alignments changed – some senior crew members would find themselves incarcerated and sometimes forgotten to rot in jails globally, while the cargo in most cases sailed on; sometimes now destined to other buyers, including possibly the enemy. What did it matter to merchant seafarers, if the cargo went to Basrah or Abadan, for example, both pretty much on the same river but divided by war?

What happens when ships reach war zone ports? Discharging of cargo happens even faster. In the National Interest of that seaport’ country. Wisdom as well as common sense dictates that merchant seafarers seamlessly merge with the National Interest of whichever country they are in for the duration of their stay. And wear civilian clothes as they go about the daily activities of life in ports. Which includes scoping out the fun parts. And let me assure you, Odessa as well as Mariopol were amongst the best fun spots in Europe for seafarers.

Sometimes it happens that the regime changes whilst the cargo is being discharged. Or the regimes get confusing to follow. Alliances are made and broken, often depending on who has more guns at a particular time, or some random reasons. At other times, the same ship is carrying cargo for multiple warring factions, could be new Nations in the making. Now and then the ship gets hit and people die. But all said and done, life goes on, the fleshpots continue to function, as does normal life.

On a ship in one of the worst war zones known in the last few decades, the cargo supervisor called as many of the ship’s crew who could make it, to help make a good collection of young men to act as the bride’s brothers for an important ceremony. The young men who would otherwise have been the wife’s symbolic brothers, bidding her farewell, were out on an assortment of fronts, fighting the enemy – some of the enemy were also from the clan of extended brothers. Not surprisingly, some of the warring “brothers” also landed up, and there was a very civilised farewell to the bride, before the “brothers” went back to fight each other somewhere else.

The internet era picks on the worst moments of war, and brings them to the screens of people who have seldom taken part in any wars beyond RWA wars, so the reality that the fun parts of life are also underway are lost on them. Actual street-by-street fighting does happen, locations can be predicted as those where live, mostly, the powerful. Seldom does street-by-street fighting happen within inner cities and ghettos, for example.

Seaports are certainly a great prize in all wars. Securing and controlling the cargo, especially the fossil fuels, is in every factions interest. Merchant ships are sitting ducks – but the cargo is needed, so the target is often the accommodation area, and not the holds. Scuttling the ship so that the cargo is secured is another tactic – making life onboard impossible for the seafarers. At that juncture, the seafarers decide that it is time to abandon the ship, and go somewhere safer. I have personally walked from Khorramshahr to Basrah and can assure you that there is a much shorter route than what is shown on this map. Despite parts of the route being mined.

Is war fun for civilians? Depends on your outlook towards life. It is certainly an opportunity to earn much higher wages. Whether you went there by sea or by air. Nobody in Ukraine, for example, can deny that the present war has been coming for years now. In a way, then, those stuck in Ukraine are people who went there by choice for a better life. Like seafarers.

Which is why the eldest brother or only son traditionally never went out to sea, incidentally, and those who did go, knowing fully well the risks inherent. “Perils of the Seas” meant basically the risks taken in trying to improve your life, your family’s life and maybe even the lives of your extended families. There is even a legal definition for this quaint phrase. 

The “perils of the sea” concept extends in this day and age to modern day travellers of all sorts. Which is why this hullabaloo being made for people who opted to stay back till the last minute, and then figured out that their family and extended family should make all the efforts to get them back, appears mystifying to those of us who have been civilians in war zones.

Like those in Ukraine, I may add, in our full senses and as a conscious choice.

There are fortunes to be made in war zones. And there are also fun times, especially for neutral type foreigners, depends on what you want in life. If people wanted to return to MummyJi and PaPaJi at the smallest turbulence, why go out to sea, go paddling in the Boat Club instead.

The perils of going to an area of turbulence was known to all who went there.

(Veeresh Malik was a seafarer. And a lot more besides. A decade in facial biometrics, which took him into the world of finance, gaming, preventive defence and money laundering before the subliminal mind management technology blew his brains out. His romance with the media endures since 1994, duly responded by Outlook, among others.)

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