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A Syrian sailor spent a frightening four years trapped aboard a cargo ship off the Egyptian coast – two of them alone — before he was finally allowed to go home earlier this month, according to reports.
Mohammad Aisha’s nightmarish ordeal on the 330-foot-long MV Aman container ship began over a legal dispute with Egyptian authorities, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
“I don’t know how this happened to me,” he told the newspaper in a recent interview. “The world has been isolating, but I have been abandoned.”
The vessel was detained at the port of Adabiya, Egypt, near the mouth of the Suez Canal, not long after 29-year-old Aisha had boarded in May 2017.
The ship’s captain was out running errands on shore and Aisha was working on repairs when an Egyptian court courier boarded with a letter declaring the boat would be held until its owner paid a $21,500 invoice for a three-ton anchor bought the year before.
Aisha, as chief mate, the ship’s second-in-command, signed the letter designating himself as the legal guardian of the vessel on the advice of the captain, the report said.
“I had no idea it was the biggest mistake of my life,” Aisha told the newspaper.
In November 2017, Aisha called the ship’s agent, Baha Fadel El Alla, to leave — but a port official told him that, as the ship’s legal guardian, he was required to stay on board, the report said.
Aisha got word in September 2018 that his mother had died – and by August 2019, he had been left entirely alone aboard the vessel as the more than a dozen crew members called it quits one by one and went home.
At night, Aisha told the news outlet, that the ship was as dark and silent as a grave.
The ship’s agent supplied food and fuel, but as time went on the deliveries got smaller and less frequent.
Aisha had no more than a few pieces of dried bread to eat some days.
Two different times in September 2019, Aisha radioed distress alerts, claiming the ship was no longer supporting life, and then took a lifeboat to shore hoping to cut through the bureaucratic red tape.
Police escorted him back each time.
Aisha even pleaded with the authorities to put him in jail, but they said they couldn’t because he had done nothing wrong, the Journal reported, noting that because Aisha was Syrian without the proper visa, he was not allowed to enter Egypt.
During one particularly scary episode in October 2019, the ship began to take on more than six-feet of water in and a panicked Aisha shouted, “Mayday! Mayday!” into the radio. It took hours before military patrol arrived and took him to shore.
Aisha was returned to the ghost ship – which had its hull repaired – following ten days of interrogations in military and police stations.
Mohamed Kamel, a retired sailor hired by the ship’s agent to guard the MV Aman, was aboard the ship this time and instructed to keep Aisha out of trouble, the news outlet said.
“At the beginning I was sharp with him, professional,” Kamel told the Journal. “But when I saw what he was going through, he only had my sympathy.”
Aisha developed scurvy-like symptoms, and was beginning to lose three teeth after months of poor nutrition. In order to fall asleep, he took up to 12 painkillers a night.
In March 2021, a storm blew the vessel off its anchorage, causing it to run aground near the mouth of Suez Canal – where the massive container ship, the Ever Given, got stuck and blocked the canal for nearly a week last month.
Aisha described the storm as “divine intervention” to Kamel, who eventually swam ashore and left the ship.
Aisha also swam ashore and port police – who called him “Castaway” — told him they would not arrest him as long as he returned to the ship by sunset.
Ultimately, Aisha was freed after International Transport Workers’ Federation “offered to have one of its union representatives in Egypt take Mr. Aisha’s place and become the legal guardian of the vessel,” the organization said.
According to the union, the ship had no power and was covered in insects and rodents.
Days before Aisha got a call from an immigration officer telling him to pack his bags on April 20, he learned his grandmother had died, according to the Journal.
“I will never forgive the people who kept me here while I lost my family, one by one,” Aisha said.
As Aisha readied to leave the ship for good this month, he said he thought to himself, “I never want to see this damn ship again.”
Crew members and the ship’s agent said the vessel was owned by Youssif bin Sanad.
When reached by phone in Bahrain by the Journal, bin Sanad said he isn’t the owner, but the former commercial manager for a now-bankrupt company, Tylos Shipping & Marine Services, whose owners he declined to identify.
El Alla, the ship’s agent, told the Wall Street Journal he never understood why the owner of several multimillion-dollar ships would abandon one over such a relatively small debt.
He said bin Sanad has not returned his calls since late 2019.
“He vanished,” said El Alla.
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