A couple who lived through two separate conflicts have finally been reunited after four incredibly tense months apart.
Akhil Reghu, 26, was among seven Indian sailors aboard a UAE flagged cargo ship hijacked by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea on January 2.
They spent 112 days in detention in Yemen and were finally released on Sunday, April 24, after India, with the help of Oman, managed to negotiate their freedom.
While Akhil was locked up, his wife Jithina Jayakumar, 23, was desperately emailing and calling government officials demanding his safe return.
She realised something was wrong when her husband didn’t answer his phone for days.
Eventually she learned from his brother, who works for the same company, that the ship had been hijacked.
She was studying medicine in Ukraine at the time, and suddenly found herself having to flee when Russia invaded the country in late February.
Indians were struggling to leave at first due to an apparent lack of assistance from Delhi, and Jithina was starting to lose hope.
She and her friends had to hide in an underground bunker, but in the second week of Mach, she finally managed to get a train to Hungary before flying to India.
Her husband, who she married in Kerala last August, was worried sick after seeing news of the war on TV.
Now the couple are finally back together in Kerala’s Kochi district, where Jithina’s dad is being treated for cancer.
‘I don’t know how to express it. These four months felt like they were between life and death,’ she told BBC Hindi.
The couple had only been married one month when Akhil joined Rwabee, a United Arab Emirates-flagged cargo ship, as a deck cadet.
Meanwhile Jithina returned to Kyiv Medical University, where she is a sixth year student.
On the morning of January 2, Akhil’s crew heard firing from the stern of their ship and were suddenly surrounded by 40 men in small boats.
They clambered aboard and hijacked the vessel, which they thought was carrying military supplies to Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi-backed coalition is backing up Yemen’s government in its war with Houthi rebels, which has been dragging on for more than seven years.
The ship, which also had people from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Ethiopia among its crew, was actually transporting medical equipment, from a hospital on Yemen’s Socotra Island to the Saudi Arabian city of Jazan.
Every 15 days, the hijackers moved the crew of 11 back and forth between the vessel and a hotel in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.
The city is under the control of Houthi rebels, and crew members were scared they would get caught up in bombings.
They were kept in a suite with one bathroom and weren’t allowed to step outside, although they could order whatever they wanted to eat from the menu, one captive said.
For the first two months, they were allowed to speak to their families on the phone once every 25 days.
This was later reduced to once a fortnight, as rebels became less aggressive when they release their hostages were ‘innocent’, said oiler Sreejit Sajeevan.
He said that whenever they asked when they’d be freed, all the rebels would say was ‘inshallah’ – meaning ‘if God wills it’.
The crew member said one of the rebels who spoke English translated between everyone.
Akhil, who lost a noticeable amount of weight during his ordeal, was too traumatised to talk about his own experience.
In April, the two sides in Yemen’s war struck a two-month truce as the holy month of Ramadan began.
This was a perfect opportunity for India to negotiate the sailors’ release with the assistance of Oman – where Akhil flew on a chartered flight before travelling to his home country.
Jithina said she couldn’t believe it until her husband called him from his own phone.
When he arrived in Kerala last week, he presented his wife with a necklace and a jambiya – a Yemeni traditional dagger given to him by his captors.
When asked how she got through her husband’s absence, Jithina said she would pray whenever she was upset.
She added: ‘I did not allow myself to cry because our parents would have been even more distressed. Instead, I cried in secret in the bathroom. I don’t know how I managed. But I had an inner belief that he would come back.’
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