It is not uncommon for seafarers to be away from their families for Christmas and other holidays.
But this festive season is particularly tough for the families of 16 Indian sailors who have been under arrest in Nigeria since November when their vessel was taken into custody by local authorities.
The men are part of a crew of 26 who were aboard a cargo vessel called the MT Heroic Idun. The rest of the sailors are from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Poland.
The vessel, owned by Norway’s OSM Maritime Group, was initially detained by Equatorial Guinea in mid-August based on an alert from Nigeria that the crew could be stealing crude oil from its terminal.
This week, Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar told parliament that, according to a charge sheet filed by Nigerian authorities, the crew members were charged with “conspiracy, evasion of lawful wiretapping and illegal export of crude oil”. Their case will be heard in a Nigerian court on January 10 and 11.
“We are providing them with legal support, we are giving them consular support and we will do everything we can to help them in the circumstances,” the minister added. Nigeria has yet to officially comment on the minister’s statement.
After four months of anxiety, the sailors’ families say they are somehow holding on to hope.
“My husband has also been away before during Christmas but never in this kind of situation,” Sheethal Milton told the BBC. Her husband Milton Deoth has been a sailor for over two decades and works as a machinist on MT Heroic Idun.
In August, the ship’s crew was on its way to pick up crude from Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria before heading for delivery in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
According to Sapna Trehan, wife of the vessel’s master Tanuj Mehta, the vessel was asked to leave Nigeria’s AKPO terminal after officials said they had no information on its arrival.
As the vessel headed for Equatorial Guinea, it was followed by a vessel claiming to be from the Nigerian Navy, Ms Trehan’s husband told her, adding that the vessel was detained upon its arrival.
Ms. Trehan added that the Heroin Idun was unable to identify the naval vessel in the dark and thought it was a pirate ship.
In a Nov. 15 news conference, a Nigerian navy official said that “in addition to refusing lawful arrest, the ship’s captain has forwarded a false piracy attack call to the International Maritime Bureau,” adding that Nigeria has not has recorded no piracy attacks in its waters for more than a year.
The official also said the ship’s crew may have committed crimes, including breaking customs and immigration laws.
Documents filed with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea say Equatorial Guinea’s navy followed a maritime code of conduct and detained the vessel on a notice sent by the Nigerian warship.
The ship’s management later said it paid 2 million euros ($2.12 million; £1.76 million) to Equatorial Guinea authorities for failing to display the West African country’s flag on the ship while was in its waters.
When the ship was detained in Equatorial Guinea, several crew members had recorded videos and made phone calls to their families asking for help. They had also expressed apprehension at being taken to Nigeria, citing the country’s previous dealings with sailors as the reason for their fears.
In 2021, Nigeria released a Swiss tanker three years after the first arrest.
On Nov. 12, the Nigerian navy formally impounded the vessel and parked it about “three to four hours from its port,” Ms. Trehan said. The crew members are still on the ship.
Ms Trehan said the Nigerian navy was very attentive to the medical needs of the crew and provided assistance to two officers who had developed malaria on the ship.
But family members of the crew say the only connection they have with their family members are brief “two- to three-minute phone calls once every 12 or 15 days.”
“We are specifically asked to converse in English so the guards can understand,” said Matilda Sanu, wife of chief officer Sanu Jose.
Ms Trehan says she has only spoken to her husband three times since November.
“We know the supplies were supplied to the vessel by company officials,” he said.
“Days are turning into weeks and months. We don’t know what to do,” Sneha Harshvardhan, wife of Harshvardhan Shouche, an engineer on the vessel, told the BBC.
“No fault of the crew members, we are all in pain. I have no words to express our trauma,” he said.