Five Filipino fishermen released after being held hostage by Somali pirates for nearly five years broke down as they were reunited with their families Friday, recounting beatings and abuse.
The seafarers, among 26 hostages freed from the crew of Naham 3 seized south of the Seychelles in March 2012, alternated between tears and laughter as they embraced their loved ones on arrival back in Manila.
"I am so happy. This is what I had been praying for every night: to be with my family this Christmas," Arnel Balbero, 33, told AFP surrounded by his four siblings at the airport.
"Just to be with my family, even if we have nothing, even if we have only little to eat, I am already happy."
His sister, Lilia, trembled at the sight of her brother. "It's like a miracle. We never lost hope he would be freed," she said.
The Naham 3's crew, which also included seafarers from China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan, endured the second longest hostage-taking ever by Somali pirates.
The Filipinos, most of them from poor farming families, arrived back on a flight from Kenya along with four Cambodian seafarers.
The captain of their Omani-flagged vessel died during the hijacking and two other crew members succumbed to illess in captivity.
Balbero's cousin and fellow ex-hostage, Elmer, said the Somali pirates had cared little about the health of their captives.
"We asked the pirates for medicine but they did not give us any. Instead they said, 'Where is your money?'"
The captives also said they suffered beatings at the hands of the pirates.
"In our first week, they called it our introduction. They used bamboo to beat us," said Arnel Balbero.
To survive, the Filipinos did chores for their captors, washing their clothes and even their weapons.
"We took it as a chance to also wash. We couldn't take a bath often because they only gave us a liter of water each day," Elmer Balbero, 37, said.
Hugging his two teenage daughters, Elmer said it was thoughts of seeing his family again that kept him going throughout the ordeal.
"I did not even recognise them," he said of his children. "When I left they were still so small."