Trapped Aboard an Abandoned Cargo Ship: One Sailor’s Four-Year Ordeal The MV Aman was seized near the Suez Canal in 2017. Years later, its chief mate was still on board, all alone. SUEZ, Egypt—Chief Mate Mohammad Aisha awoke to the groans and tremors of a cavernous cargo ship listing hard to starboard. He staggered through the darkness up five flights of stairs to the bridge and shined his phone’s flashlight on the navigation dials.
The MV Aman was tilting 10 degrees, its 330-foot-long hull taking on more than 6 feet of water. Three miles from the nearest ship, Mr. Aisha knew that if the 3,000-ton boat went under, it would suck him, the only person on board, into the Red Sea.
This was a crisis. It was also Mr. Aisha’s best chance to escape.
For months, the 29-year-old Syrian had been the last sailor still living on a cargo ship, abandoned two years earlier near the mouth of the Suez Canal and being detained by the Egyptian government. They had refused to let him disembark but couldn’t keep him on the ship if it was sinking, he reasoned.
He activated an emergency beacon and shouted “Mayday! Mayday!” into the radio. Hours crawled by before a military patrol arrived to whisk him to land.
Ten days of interrogations in military and police stations later, Mr. Mohammad was right back where he started, returned to a deserted ship whose hull had been repaired. It was Oct. 27, 2019, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
The young Syrian was 400 miles from home and trapped in a labyrinth of Egyptian bureaucracy and maritime law. He started to think: Will I ever get off this boat?
Mr. Aisha had boarded the MV Aman in May 2017, but the ship was soon detained because of unsettled debts. One by one, crew members quit, some slipping home without a word.
Mr. Aisha couldn’t leave. As chief mate, the ship’s second in command, he had signed a letter, on the advice of the captain, designating himself the legal guardian of a multimillion-dollar ship that owed mounting debts that the owner couldn’t, or wouldn’t, honor.
To the Egyptian court, Mr. Aisha was the crew member responsible for manning a vessel that couldn’t budge until all claims against it were settled. To the immigration office, he lacked the paperwork to come ashore. To his own government, he was another among the millions of Syrians stuck outside their country’s borders.
“I don’t know how this happened to me,” he said in a recent interview. “The world has been isolating, but I have been abandoned.”
Nearly 1,000 sailors were abandoned at sea last year, according to the International Maritime Organization, which tracks such data. The true toll is likely much higher, said Jan de Boer, a senior IMO legal officer. “We only see the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “And we see a lot.”
When a ship’s owner runs out of money, crew members often wind up unpaid and unable to get home or feed themselves. Ports, insurers, officials from the vessel’s flag state and embassies representing the various nationalities on board often shrug off responsibility for resolving the impasse. Some governments require the crew to remain aboard. Other sailors stay voluntarily, hoping to recoup wages after the ship is sold.
In the port of Suez, just a short distance from the MV Aman, the Egyptian government has detained a Turkish captain, Vehbi Kara, in a hotel room, as the legal guardian of another container ship, infested with rats and abandoned in January 2020. The crew of the famous Ever Given is being held aboard their massive cargo ship, which clogged the canal for six days in March, while a court decides whether its owner should compensate Egypt for the lost revenue.
A slew of treaties, conventions and regulations require container-ship owners to obtain insurance to care for their crews in the event of abandonment. The most important, the Maritime Labour Convention, a United Nations-backed treaty, became effective in 2013. Many Middle Eastern nations never signed, including Egypt and Bahrain, the flag country of the MV Aman. Since 2017, the number of abandonment cases in the region reported to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global trade union, has risen every year.
The MV Aman’s crew and agent said the ship was owned by Youssif bin Sanad. Reached by phone in Bahrain, Mr. 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. He declined to discuss the specifics of Mr. Aisha’s case.
“It’s taken a personal toll on me as well,” he said, adding that Mr. Aisha shouldn’t have signed the letter designating himself as the legal guardian. Later, Mr. bin Sanad sent a WhatsApp message saying he wouldn’t comment further.
The Egyptian port authorities, police and military didn’t respond to repeated calls, emails and texts requesting comment.
Two months after Mr. Aisha boarded the MV Aman in May 2017, the ship was stopped at the port of Adabiya, Egypt, near the mouth of the Suez Canal. Its captain was running errands on shore, and Mr. Aisha was working on repairs when an Egyptian court courier boarded with a letter. The boat would be detained until its owner paid a $21,500 invoice for a three-ton anchor purchased the previous year, the letter said.
On the captain’s advice, Mr. Aisha said, he signed the letter, designating himself the ship’s legal guardian.
“I had no idea it was the biggest mistake of my life,” he said.
The ship was his 11th in a seafaring career that began when he was 19. Born in Syria’s naval capital, Tartus, he had climbed the ranks working cargo vessels that plied seas as far as Hong Kong, his favorite port.
His mother, Majd Al-Khaiat, would call daily with updates on Syria’s war. “Keep your phone with you all the time,” he recalled her saying. “It was her way of showing me I was never alone.”
His contract identified his employer on the MV Aman as Tylos Shipping & Marine Services, from the Gulf Emirate of Bahrain. At the time, it owned several general cargo ships, including the MV Aman.
When the MV Aman was detained, its Egyptian, Indian and Syrian crew, 16 men, played chess, cards or backgammon to pass the time. With each idle day, the ship’s debts were piling up. On land, the ship’s agent, Baha Fadel El Alla, who represents the vessel before local authorities, fielded invoices for food, fuel, maintenance and other port charges.
Mr. El Alla said in an interview that he would phone the man he said was listed on legal documents as the owner of the boat, Mr. bin Sanad. He said Mr. bin Sanad appeared unflustered by the mounting debts, which he promised to resolve. At times, Mr. bin Sanad would text pictures of cash he said he was heading to Western Union to send, Mr. El Alla recalled, but no money would appear and Mr. bin Sanad would stop responding for weeks before re-emerging with fresh assurances.
Owed wages and impatient, the MV Aman’s crew began to quit, signing off one by one and collecting their passports from port authorities. In November 2017, Mr. Aisha called the agent to leave.
Mr. Aisha said a port official told him that wasn’t allowed. As the ship’s legal guardian, Mr. Aisha was required to stay on board.
The crew was down to eight. The longer they stayed, the more money they were owed. Leaving could mean walking away empty-handed.
Conditions deteriorated. Sailors quarreled. One day, Mr. Aisha caught the end of a fistfight in the engine room.
During the summer of 2018, four more of the crew quit, including the chef. Mr. Aisha volunteered to cook. He found Jamie Oliver videos on his phone and baked bread that came out burned or gooey. He improvised pasta dishes with whatever his mother recommended rummaging from a dwindling pantry.
Mr. Aisha was firing off emails to anyone he thought could help. The International Transport Workers’ Federation office in London said it would look into his case and help him find a lawyer, but to see a lawyer he needed shore leave from immigration officials who had to consult the port and courts on Mr. Aisha’s status.
He called Syria’s embassy in Egypt, but no one answered the phone, he said, and when his mother traveled to Damascus to petition the Foreign Affairs Ministry, nobody would hear her out. An acquaintance dug up a number for a Syrian diplomat, who told Mr. Aisha his case was a sovereign matter for Egypt.
By that September, his mother wasn’t calling as often. She was ailing with cancer. On Sept. 10, a relative called, asked if he was seated, and said that she had died.
Days later, the ITF seafarers union called to say the court had rejected a petition to replace Mr. Aisha as the guardian of the ship. Amin Al Dashour, the lawyer hired by the union, said the court never understood Mr. Aisha’s case and ignored his request for an explanation.
Mr. Aisha said he emailed Mr. bin Sanad, who told him the ship would be sold and he would soon be paid.
On New Year’s Eve, Mr. Aisha and the two other remaining crew members shared dinner and a few words of hope for 2019. By that summer, just one other remained. That August, the other man aboard ran errands ashore, then phoned to say he wasn’t coming back.
That left Mr. Aisha entirely alone on a cavernous ship. It was the absence of the sounds of human life that disturbed him. The ship’s creaks and shudders, which he had heard for years, became frightening.
He spent hours on the bridge, scanning the horizon and watching massive ships move by, looking for other humans. To escape the daytime heat, he would descend into the bowels of the ship, then emerge at sunset to walk the decks. At night, he said, the ship was as dark and silent as a grave.
He downloaded books onto his phone—Dostoevsky, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens.”
The agent, Mr. El Alla, was still supplying food and fuel, but deliveries were smaller, less frequent. Some days, Mr. Aisha said, he had no more than a few chunks of dried bread to eat. The ship’s diesel supply was running low, jeopardizing his ability to keep its lights on. If fuel ran out, he wouldn’t be able to charge his phone.
Mr. El Alla said he has spent more than $100,000 on provisions and maintenance for the MV Aman, but that Mr. bin Sanad shrugged off his invoices and requests for help. “The owner was always relaxed,” Mr. El Alla recalled, assuring him that he would pay.
Mr. El Alla, an agent for 20 years, said he never understood why the owner of several multimillion-dollar ships would abandon one over such relatively small debts. He said Mr. bin Sanad hasn’t returned his calls since late 2019. “He vanished,” Mr. El Alla said.
Mr. Aisha decided that to escape the ship, he would have to act on his own. Twice in September 2019 he radioed distress alerts, claiming the ship was no longer supporting life, then piloted a lifeboat to shore, hoping to unlock the bureaucratic logjam. Each time, the police escorted him back.
Mr. Aisha pleaded with them to put him into one of their jails—anything to be off the MV Aman—but they said they couldn’t because he had done nothing wrong. And because he was Syrian without the necessary visa, he wasn’t allowed to enter Egypt.
Back on the ship, Mr. Aisha noticed it was beginning to list. That’s when he radioed his mayday alert.
The first boat that arrived was labeled “Search and Rescue.” When Mr. Aisha asked for help, an officer on board shouted: “I am not a rescue boat.” He filmed Mr. Aisha with his phone, then sailed off.
Hours later, a military patrol arrived and carried him to a base. “What do you mean you are alone on board the ship?” he recalled one official saying. “Who left you alone?”
Over 10 days, the military handed him over to Homeland Security, which handed him off to a district attorney’s office, which returned him to the police station he had visited weeks earlier.
Mr. Aisha was becoming a nuisance for the port police, who handcuffed him to a couch, he said, and warned “we can make things a lot less comfortable for you.” Mr. Aisha said he barely protested when they returned him to the ship.
This time, a retired sailor was on board, hired by the agent to guard the MV Aman. Mohamed Kamel, a chain-smoking 65-year-old, was instructed to keep Mr. Aisha out of trouble. “At the beginning I was sharp with him, professional,” Mr. Kamel said. “But when I saw what he was going through, he only had my sympathy.”
Mr. Aisha and his minder quickly became companions, dependent on the same loaves of homemade bread and stale halvah. They traded scrap metal from the ship to passing fishing and commercial vessels for cheese or fish.
Mr. Kamel said he could see Mr. Aisha was struggling, physically and psychologically, and tried to lift his spirits. He told Mr. Aisha nokta jokes—Egyptian witticisms that helped ease the hardship. The two would laugh at what bad cooks they were. “God is testing you,” the old sailor told him.
Mr. Aisha buried himself in the news and YouTube, where he liked watching the climax of the film “Shawshank Redemption,” in which the hero escapes after spending 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
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After months of poor nutrition, he had scurvy-like symptoms and was beginning to lose three teeth. With Mr. Kamel’s help, he tried remedies such as rinsing with saltwater and drinking tea made from dried carnations. He began swallowing 10 to 12 painkillers a night to fall asleep.
In March 2020, he woke to the sounds of a storm. The ship, dragging its anchor in the wind and high seas, was headed directly for an oil tanker and didn’t have enough fuel to correct course. The two ships narrowly avoided a collision, but the MV Aman was heading toward an oil platform, which it also missed.
By morning, the MV Aman had run aground near the mouth of the Suez Canal, about 300 yards from a small village. Emerging onto the deck, Mr. Aisha could see life. Squat apartment buildings overlooked a palm-lined beach.
The storm, he decided, was a lucky turn of events—“divine intervention,” he told Mr. Kamel.
Sailors he knew who lived in Suez could now swim to him with cooked meals wrapped in plastic bags, and could take his phone to shore to charge it. Mr. Kamel swam ashore, leaving the ship for good.
That May, Mr. Aisha, too, swam to shore for the first time. In one of his first outings, the military stopped him. A colonel arrived. Mr. Aisha’s left cheek was swollen, his eyes bruised. The military escorted him to a dentist, who extracted three teeth.
Sympathetic to his plight, the port police extended new terms: They wouldn’t arrest Mr. Aisha if he swam to shore, so long as he returned to the ship by sunset. When winter arrived, he built a raft from a shipping pallet and rigged up a pull-rope system to reach shore. The police officers began to call him Castaway.
By December, Mr. Aisha’s case landed on the screen of Mohamad Arrachedi, the regional director for the Arab world and Iran for the ITF, the seafarers union. His phone constantly pinged with messages from abandoned sailors: Iranians stuck in Indonesia, Indians in Oman, a Georgian-Indian-Turkish crew of 19 hunger-striking on a Palau-flagged bulk carrier abandoned in Kuwait.
To Mr. Arrachedi, the case of the Syrian was extreme. Yet one detail was familiar. In 2017, he had dealt with Mr. bin Sanad and Tylos Shipping and Marine Services, when a crew on one of its ships complained they had been abandoned in Oman on an unseaworthy vessel, with more than six months of wages unpaid. The crew was only disembarked eight months later to avoid an impending cyclone.
All told, an International Labour Organization database recorded four ships owned by Tylos whose crews had been abandoned.
Mr. Arrachedi persuaded a member of the local union to volunteer to replace Mr. Aisha as legal guardian, and had a lawyer petition a court to accept the proposal. By February, fed up with the slow-moving process, Mr. Arrachedi encouraged Mr. Aisha to speak with the BBC to try to unblock it. A video call with the news agency was broadcast on its Arabic service.
In April, Ramadan began, and Mr. Aisha decided to risk spending the holy month on dry land. At the home of a union rep, he broke fast over grilled chicken with another sailor just beginning his own ordeal.
Vehbi Kara, the Turkish captain of the abandoned MV Kenan Mete, had lived alone for 12 days before authorities allowed him to be detained in a hotel room, where he had been for 11 months, because the ship was infested with rats. “What you have been through I cannot imagine. I would not have survived,” Mr. Aisha recalled Mr. Kara saying.
The court said it would issue a judgment on Mr. Aisha’s case by April 11, his lawyers assured him, and if it ruled favorably, he could fly home immediately. On April 15, news reached Mr. Aisha that his grandmother, Badriah Otham, had died.
“I will never forgive the people who kept me here while I lost my family, one by one,” he said.
On April 20, Mr. Aisha got a call from an immigration officer telling him to pack his bags. Swimming out to the MV Aman, he began to gather his things. Walking a final circuit of the vessel that had been his home for four years, he thought: “I never want to see this damn ship again.”