Hope Behind Bars

How a Sailors' Society chaplain helped imprisoned seafarers to survive


After being held hostage by pirates for 10 months, taking the helm of an anti-piracy
vessel felt like the perfect job for Captain Dudnik Valentyn.

Little did he know that a worse ordeal was yet to come...

“Seafarers
must
be
protected
and
it’s
an
incredible
shame
that
in
the
21st
Century,
there
is
still
the
threat
of
piracy”

The Ukrainian captain took command of the Seaman Guard Ohio in June 2013. The ship transported security guards – also known as “sea angels” – to ships travelling through dangerous piracy hot-spots.


Having recovered from being shot and kidnapped by Somali pirates, he was eager to start a job that would prevent others from going through a similar trauma.

But the appeal of the new job was sadly short-lived. Just four months after Dudnik joined the crew, things turned sour when the ship entered Indian waters.

“The military coastguard of India approached the ship to check it and we were ordered to proceed to anchorage at the port of Tuticorin,” he says.

“The weather was awful and it wasn’t possible for officers to board the ship and check it. When we arrived at anchorage, we were ordered to go to the port. I asked if we were arrested, I was told we weren’t.

“About 70 people turned up, police and other military types and for six days we were checked but nothing could be found. We were then taken to hospital for check ups.

“That’s
when
they
threw
us
in
prison.
They
didn’t
even
allow
us
to
call
a
lawyer”

All of the ship’s 35-strong crew were arrested on suspicion of transporting arms without the correct paperwork and illegally obtaining fuel – charges they denied.

“We did nothing illegal and I wanted to believe that it would be resolved quickly and we’d be released from jail,” says the captain.

“I was not scared for myself. I had survived piracy, survived being shot many times when they demanded money I didn’t have to give them. But I was afraid for my crew, because I was responsible for their safety, for their lives.”

The ship’s cook, Jagdish Semwal, called his wife, Laxmi, and their four children, when they arrived in port.

The eldest, 15-year-old daughter Suman, says her father initially didn’t appear concerned and was looking forward to coming home to Mumbai.

“He said that we have reached Tuticorin port and within two days I am going to come out,” she says.

Jagdish had taken the job to keep poverty from their door, but the long periods without him were tough and his family was very excited at the thought of seeing him for the first time in eight months.

But their anticipation soon turned to dismay.
“After two days there was no call,” she says.

“We didn’t know what was happening. Then he called and said some police guards have entered the ship.”

Eventually, a strange English-speaking man called the family. Laxmi couldn’t understand him, but Suman spoke enough English to realise that her father was in prison. Desperate to see him, she travelled across the country to visit the prison.

It was a traumatic experience. “When I saw my father, I was just terribly crying,” she says.

“I said, ‘Father don’t worry, we are with you.”

For Captain Dudnik, the situation was to become even worse. He became seriously ill and was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which had spread to his internal organs.

“This was the most horrible period of my life,” he says,
“My health was affected by the prolonged stress, it was the cause of this disease.

“The pain was terrible. I had lost 35kg of weight, I couldn’t eat and could only drink water.”

With the help of a lawyer, his family managed to get him transferred from the jail to a hospital, where he underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“The doctor in charge said: ‘If you can stand it, you will live’.”

“He
prayed
for
me
and
the
crew
and
it
helped
me
to
survive.
My
family
and
I
prayed,
we
asked
God
for
help.”

“Manoj visited me in the prison hospital every week,” says Dudnik.

“He prayed for me and the crew and it helped me to survive. My family and I prayed, we asked God for help.”

Manoj also worked tirelessly as a consultant to the crew’s legal team and acted as their family liaison, relaying the latest developments in the case to the families.

“We used to call the lawyer but every time he would say he was busy,” says Suman. “But Manoj had no issues, he used to receive our call and whatever question I asked he would answer.”

The case limped slowly through the courts. In 2014, the Indian crew were released on bail, but Dudnik had to remain in prison.

More than a year passed, and the men were still in limbo. Then, in January 2016, the case reached court. Suman said the legal team told her family they had high hopes for a positive judgement.

I
thought,
my
family's
destroyed.

Manoj remembers the impact on the crew.

“The men were distraught and often in tears,” he says. “I tried to comfort them and tell them that we would do our best to fight their case.”

The appeal progressed unbearably slowly for the families, many of whom were too poor to travel to the prison and relied heavily on Manoj for updates.

“The families would call me regularly and break down on the phone,” he remembers.

“I told them not to lose hope.”

It was to be another 22 months until the appeal was finally heard. In November 2017, the Chennai Appeal Court acquitted the crew of all charges.

Manoj called the families to tell them the news they had been waiting to hear for more than four years – their men were coming home.

“It was a very emotional day,” he says.

“I
was
dosed
up
with
medicine
but
was
incredibly
sick.
I
was
healthier
after
being
held
captive
by
pirates,
even
they
didn’t
humiliate
me
as
much
as
I
was
in
prison.”

“Truth triumphed,” remembers Dudnik.

“I was glad but I was weak, everything was as if it was in a fog.

“The doctor wanted to put me in hospital but I refused. I told him ‘I’m flying home, God will help me, I’ll reach home.’”

Getting home wasn’t easy for him, especially being so ill.

“I was dosed up with medicine but was incredibly sick. I was healthier after being held captive by pirates, even they didn’t humiliate me as much as I was in prison.”

Dudnik has regular health checks and has to take a variety of medicine, but he’s still too ill to work.

“I continue to fight for life,” he said.

“Three months after returning home I gradually began to walk, but the nightmares continue.”


Seafarers and their families, like Dudnik and the Semwals, need your help.

Our Crisis Response Network relies on voluntary donations. Give today, and you could provide a lifeline when crisis hits.

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Crisis Response Network

Sailors’ Society’s Crisis Response Network provides a rapid response trauma care and counselling service for survivors of piracy attacks as well as various disasters at sea.

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