Final hours: ship protectors’ road to Estonia

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Tuesday. It’s nearly 3 p.m. in Chennai, India when Estonian ship protectors staying at the YWCA hostel board tuk-tuks and head out. The men hope to finally get their departure papers stamped at the local foreigners’ office but have no idea they will be touching down in Tallinn in just 36 hours.

The sun is shining and its 30 degrees outside. Necessary signatures are given at the foreigners’ office, followed by a wait of several hours before local officials stamp the papers. It is certain – the trip home can begin.

The men are accompanied by Estonian Consul Mats Kuuskemaa and Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry Annely Kolk. The latter tells the ship protectors to go to the hotel, grab their things, and head straight to the airport as the flight will be leaving at 1.50 a.m.

It is already dark out when the first men make it back to the guesthouse at around 6.45 p.m. Roman Obeltšak is smiling and says he’s happy, even though the situation feels surreal. He cannot believe he can finally go home.

The ship’s Ukrainian mechanic arrives at the same time as Estonians but cannot share in their joy. While Estonians and six Brits got their departure permits, two Ukrainians who were also on board Seaman Guard Ohio must stay in India because the Ukrainian embassy did not manage to sort out their paperwork in time.

The Ukrainian captain had better luck: he got to go home first on Saturday. The captain, who had been held hostage by pirates in the past, was allowed to leave India when his health deteriorated.

The Estonians arrive at the guesthouse one after another and start packing the last of their belongings. The bulk of the packing was done the day before as Kolk told the men to be ready by Tuesday. The men pack the essentials: the Estonian embassy promises to deliver possessions that cannot fit in suitcases later.

The flight leaves in a little more than six hours, and the Estonians head for the airport soon after arriving at the hostel.

The ship protectors reach the airport with time to spare, Kolk and Kuuskemaa with them. The men queue in front of the Lufthansa ticket office, but things are not going too smoothly. Temporary passports confuse Indian employees, and the secretary general is even forced to call the pilot to tell them everything is in order. Some of the men worry that the situation might not be resolved in time, and that it could be the end of the trip home. The confusion takes more than three hours; however, the men finally make it to the secure area and pass security checks.

“Where is the smoking lounge?” Vladislav Koršunov asks as one of the first to make it through security. The last nervous moment is behind them. The flight leaves in less than an hour.

Kolk and Kuuskemaa walk the ship protectors to their plane. The men hug Kolk one after another and thank her for the work she’s done over the past week.

The men board the plane with the other passengers and settle in for a ten-hour flight. The relief is almost tangible; ship protectors spend most of the flight sleeping. The joy of leaving India is so great

that Lauri Ader and Vladislav Koršunov, who are normally afraid to fly, admit they had no fear this time.

The plane touches down in Frankfurt, Germany a little after eight local time. The temperature is a few degrees above freezing. “There’s steam coming from my mouth,” Ader says, smiling into the cool morning. “I had forgotten this happens when it’s cold.”

If things took several hours at the Chennai airport, passport checks take but a moment in Frankfurt. The men will have to wait for a connecting flight to Estonia for some time, however, as the ministry did not manage to book tickets for the 2 p.m. flight. The men will have to wait until evening.

The former mercenaries split into smaller groups, looking for areas where they can spend the day. “It still hasn’t hit me that I made it out,” Ader describes his emotions. He is spending time with Renee Tõnissaar and Vladislav Koršunov.

Koršunov says that he will be met at the airport by his partner of six years. “I’ll drive to visit my mother and brother tomorrow (Thursday – ed.). I’ll see whether things are still the same in Türi, meet with some friends. We’ll see what will happen next. I must get a medical examination. After that, it’s job hunting,” he says.

The flight that takes the ship protectors to Tallinn leaves a little after 8 p.m. It touches down quarter to midnight. The foreign ministry organized the men to be reunited with their loved ones in the airport’s VIP area to restrict media access.

The 14 men are welcomed by some 50 family members and friends, with a crowd of journalists unsuccessfully hunting for interviews behind the door. Lauri Ader is the only one to stop and reply when asked about initial emotions: “That’s a pointless question. Ask something specific if you want to know.”

The men are back on Estonian soil after four years. Of that four years, they spent two and a half in prison and the rest at liberty, attending dozens of court sessions.

Four days before leaving India, Ader said that while the years spent in India constitute lost time, they did hold something positive.

“I’ve been given the chance to start my life anew. I’m 40 today, and I plan to live at least until I’m 86. I can take my 40 years of experience and start over,” he says. “I’ve gained quite a lot. Friends in Estonia and India. I have a lot of acquaintances in Scotland now. I adore Scotland, and I will definitely visit one day. I cannot say it has been time stolen. While it has in a sense, it has given me something in return.”