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Ukrainian sailors use Telegram to avoid being deceived into smuggling oil to Russia

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Ukrainian sailors use Telegram to avoid being deceived into smuggling oil to Russia

This story originally appeared in Hakai Magazine and is part of Climatic desk collaboration.

A new video appears on the social network Telegram: images of the smoking area on board a large ship. The curtains are torn, the lights are broken, and the floor is covered in ashes and glass. “This is how they drink on our ship,” says the young Ukrainian deck worker filming the scene, turning to show the furniture thrown into the corner of the room. “I am scared”.

A Telegram admin asks the deck worker if he can share the ship’s name. They change the name of the ship several times a year, responds Feliks Bondar, whose own name has been changed for this story. “I don’t even know what name to tell you,” he writes in Ukrainian. “Our ship was originally called Eaglebut in Venezuela we were Bullfighter and then Shoyo Maru.”

A chorus of similar messages had flooded the chat in recent months: stories of ships in dangerous disrepair, operators withholding payments, abandoned crew members, and ship owners changing ship names or tampering with their automatic identification systems (AIS), the global network aimed at helping ships. recognize each other.

The Telegram group hosts more than 8,000 sailors. Some are fresh out of maritime school, others are experienced captains. Everyone is drawn to the group out of a desire to stay safe on the high seas. By telling their stories and naming names (when they can), these sailors have been collecting information on problem vessels, detailing everything from those with low-quality food to ships where crews often experience late payments.

But in recent years, as more sailors are be involved without knowing it In the so-called shadow fleet (which smuggles oil for Iran, Russia or other customers that have been hit by strict sanctions to restrict their oil sales), the social media whisper network has evolved. In addition to being a place to find a reputable employer, it has become something else: a way for sailors to avoid helping the other side of a war.

Life as a Becoming a contract seaman has never been easy. Workers frequently jump from ship to ship, contract to contract, and country to country. But the rise of the shadow fleet (along with Russia’s war in Ukraine) poses a new kind of risk.

About a year and a half ago, in early 2023, Bondar sought out the sailors’ Telegram network after some particularly worrying work. Hired for the job by a Ukraine-based crewing agency, Bondar discovered that the name of his assigned vessel had been painted over and the AIS, once again, was offline. A note on the top of the device warned sailors not to turn it on.

After a six-month voyage smuggling sanctioned oil to China, Bondar says the crew was told their next operation would begin in Koz’mino, Russia. Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine had begun while he was at sea and had already been underway for more than four months. Bondar and the other Ukrainians on board refused to work smuggling Russian oil. The ship’s operator allegedly fired them all and abandoned them at the nearest port in China.

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