An Indian couple have finally reunited at their home in the southern Indian state of Kerala after experiencing a separate international conflict for the past four months.
Akhil Rigo, 26, was among seven Indian sailors captured after Houthi rebels hijacked a civilian cargo ship in the Red Sea in January.
Then his wife, Jethina Jayakumar, 23, who was studying medicine in Ukraine, began emailing and communicating with government officials to ensure his safe return.
But as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the wife faced another ordeal: leaving the war-torn country safely while continuing her efforts.
Rigo and his colleagues were finally released last week after being held for 112 days in Yemen.
Today, Righu and his wife Jayakumar are back in Kochi, Kerala state, India, where his father is being treated for cancer.
“I don’t know how to put it, these four months have been like a feeling between life and death,” Jayakumar told BBC Hindi.
Hijacking of a ship
Righu and Jayakumar married in Kerala last August, and a month later joined as apprentices aboard Rawabi, a United Arab Emirates-flagged freighter.
Meanwhile, Jayakumar returned to Kyiv Medical University, being a sixth-year student.
On the morning of January 2, 2022, Rawabi’s crew heard gunshots coming from the stern of the ship.
Srijith Sajivan, the oil worker on the ship and one of Righu’s fellow inmates, told BBC Hindi: “About 40 men, who were on small boats, surrounded the ship. Then they all got on board. . That’s when we realized the ship had been hijacked.”
Rigo was so shocked that he didn’t talk about the experience.
Houthi rebels captured Rawabi, believing he was transporting military supplies to Saudi Arabia. Yemen has suffered for more than seven years from an ongoing conflict between a Saudi-backed official government and rebels.
Sajivan said the hijackers shuttled the ship’s 11 crew every 15 days between the ship and a hotel in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
He added: “They put us in a suite with a bathroom and didn’t allow us to go out, but they told us we could order whatever we wanted to eat from the menu.”
They were locked up throughout the captivity, seeing little sunlight even when on the ship.
The hostages were horrified by the shelling of the Houthi-controlled city of Sanaa.
“We saw on television that a school had been bombed just 100 meters from our hotel,” Sajivan said.
For the first two months, inmates were allowed to speak to family by phone once every 25 days, but the period was later reduced to once every two weeks.
Sajivan said the kidnappers were aggressive at first but became calmer when they realized the hostages were “innocent”. One of the rebels spoke English, translating between groups.
He added: “When we asked them when we would be released, they simply answered, God willing.
hidden in a cellar
Jayakumar in Ukraine’s capital kyiv realized something was wrong as her husband hadn’t answered his phone for several days.
I later learned only from his older brother, who worked in the same shipping company, that the ship had been hijacked.
Jayakumar immediately started making efforts, calling for help from Indian government officials, while his friends helped and gave him support.
When war broke out, Jayakumar and his friends were forced into hiding in an underground shelter, and as the Indians initially struggled to leave kyiv, Jayakumar felt his hopes dwindle.
“I felt like no one could get us out of there,” she said.
In Yemen, her husband watched the war news on television and was deeply worried.
“When we spoke to our families, we realized the situation was very difficult,” Sajevan said, “we didn’t know what was going on.”
Finally, Jayakumar was able to leave Ukraine in the second week of March, traveling first by train to Hungary and then to India.
When she arrived home, she continued her efforts to contact the authorities to secure her husband’s release.
She said Ramachandran Chandramoli, India’s ambassador to Djibouti, where the Indian embassy in Sana’a temporarily operates, was a source of support.
“He was communicating with all the families and we could call him anytime. He told us they would be released, but it would take time,” Jayakumar added.
We’re finally back home
The Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels agreed in April to a two-month truce with the start of Ramadan.
The Indian government, with the help of Oman and other countries, was able to secure the sailors’ release.
Jayakumar says she only believed the news when her husband called her from his private phone.
Righu finally arrived in Kerala last week with a necklace and a “janabiya”, a traditional Yemeni dagger, given to him by his captors.
Sajivan said their return felt like a “rebirth”.
His wife said Rigo was deeply affected by the experience.
She added, “He’s lost a lot of weight and there are dark circles around his eyes.”
When asked how she managed to survive the ordeal, Jayakumar said, “Whenever I felt distressed, I prayed. I didn’t allow myself to cry, because our parents would be more sad, so I secretly cried in the bathroom.”
She added: “I don’t know how I did it, but I had an inner belief that he would come back.”