As It Happens

After nearly 4 years stranded on cargo ship in Egypt, a Syrian crew member finally goes home

Due to a legal dispute, Mohammad Aisha spent almost four years stuck aboard a cargo ship in Egypt. Now he's finally been allowed to fly home to Syria.

Legal dispute left Mohammad Aisha stuck aboard the MV Aman; his crewmates were allowed to leave in 2019

Mohammad Aisha is seen at an airport in Cairo shortly before returning to his home in Syria. Thanks to a legal dispute, he was stuck aboard the cargo ship MV Aman in the Gulf of Suez for nearly four years. (International Transport Workers Federation)

Story Transcript

After spending four years marooned aboard a cargo ship in Egypt — two of those years alone — Mohammad Aisha has finally been allowed to fly home to Syria.

"I was in a solitary prison and now I'm free," Aisha told As it Happens guest host Nil Köksal, from his home in Tartus, Syria, where he arrived last week.

Aisha was trapped aboard the MV Aman, a cargo ship locked in a legal dispute with Egyptian authorities. According to BBC News, the ship was detained at the Egyptian port of Adabiya near the Suez Gulf in 2017, because of expired safety equipment and classification certificates.

The crew members were repatriated and left the ship in August 2019. But since Aisha had received the MV Aman's detention order while the ship's captain was away from the vessel, he was designated the ship's legal guardian and was told he could not leave.

Aisha said this designation happened "without my understanding at that time and without my consent." He spent the last two years as the ship's sole crew member.

"This is the same thing that happened to the infamous Ever Given now ... You have to pay the due bills before you are allowed to leave," he said.

It's not only loneliness, it's mandatory loneliness combined with desperation ... It will make you suicidal. So I don't wish that on anyone.- Mohammad Aisha

In a press release, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) said they were in contact with Egyptian port and immigration authorities "on an almost daily basis." They secured his release after agreeing to have a union rep in Egypt take Aisha's place as the ship's legal guardian from the mainland, but the rep would not be required to stay on board the ship to do so.

"We were then able to advance the necessary immigration processes and arrange the COVID PCR tests to start to get him home," said Mohamed Arrachedi, the ITF's Arab World and Iran network co-ordinator.

According to the ITF, the ship was without power and covered in insects and rodents. They said Aisha had to swim ashore to charge his phone and get groceries before returning to the ship.

In order to get food and water and charge his phone, Aisha had to swim ashore. He was stranded aboard the ship due to a court order by Egyptian authorities. (International Transport Workers Federation)

"That time alone on board the ship had caused me permanent ... psychological and mental damage that I don't think it will ever be repaired. We are not meant to be alone, [and] spend that much time in solitary. That's how you drive people crazy."

He says the worst parts were the nights spent in complete darkness and silence.

"If you, let's say, tripped and fell, if you had some incident, no one would know. You will die all alone, and maybe it will take them months to realize that you're dead or injured there," he said.

"It's not only loneliness, it's mandatory loneliness combined with desperation ... It will make you suicidal. So I don't wish that on anyone."

Aisha told Köksal one of the worst parts of his seaborne exile was knowing that a boat carrying his brother, who also works in the industry, passed by multiple times.

"It was heartbreaking, because he was two or three miles away ... and I couldn't see him," he said.

Ever Given could face similar fate

Not far away, a similar fate has befallen the Ever Given, the ship that stole the world's attention when it ran aground in the Suez Canal, halting billions of dollars a day in maritime commerce.

It was dislodged with the help of tugboats on March 29, but has since been impounded after Egyptian authorities demanded payment of at least $900 million US, taking into account salvage operation costs among other expenses.

According to Jalopnik, as a result of those expenses, the Ever Given's crew could end up stranded aboard the ship, just like Aisha.

This satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows the cargo ship MV Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal near Suez, Egypt, on March 28, 2020. Though the ship is no longer stuck, the crew of the Ever Given could find themselves stranded just like Aisha. (©Maxar Technologies/The Associated Press)

Aisha credits the ITF's efforts for his eventual release — especially the support and advocacy of Arrachedi, who took on the case last December. Aisha says worldwide media coverage also helped spread awareness about his plight on board the MV Aman.

Despite everything he's been through, Aisha still wants to go back to sea after spending some time with his family in Syria.

"This was a legal problem, [because of] a lot of — forgive me — stupid laws in Egypt and maybe in a few other places," he said.

"The problem wasn't in my profession. I love my job and I'm good at it. And I've been doing this since I was 19 years old."


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview with Mohammed Aisha produced by Rachel Adams.

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify that a union representative will replace Mohammed Aisha as the MV Aman's legal guardian, but is not required to stay on board the ship to do so.
    Apr 27, 2021 1:02 PM ET

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