The more than 30 bullet holes dotting the super-structure of this Filipino freighter were circled in red today as the crew worked to fashion a United Nations flag in hopes that a U.N.-sponsored truce would allow them to make a dash for freedom.
The Galleon Coral, carrying sacks of rice to Iraq, is one of about 100 ships trapped in the disputed Shatt-al-Arab by 27 days of bitter fighting between Iran and Iraq. Each country controls one of the waterway's banks over a good part of its length.
Some ships were caught in safe waters, beyond the Iranian shore at the entrance to this waterway, which leads from the Persian Gulf to Iraq's major port of Basra and Iran's key port of Khorramshahr.
The Galleon Coral, however, ran an eight-mile gantlet of Iranian shellfire on Sept. 22, the first day of the fighting, before getting into safe waters.
"Some Filipino ships yelled at us, 'Don't go anymore because there is a fight.' We didn't believe it," said first mate Diosdado Belleza, 31.
The Filipino freighter, which was also hit by shrapnel from an Iranian bombing attack on the Mutiyah oil refinery in Basra on Sept. 23, was luckier than many ships caught in the waterway. Seven ships trapped off Khorramshahr, which has been under siege by the Iraqis for more than three weeks, were fired on last week by the Iranians. At least 28 seamen were killed.
Cruising down the Shatt-al-Arab from Basra in a motor-powered water taxi today, one could see signs of damage on a number of ships trapped in its placid waters. One Iraqi tanker, the Al Risana, appeared to be beached in shallow water after having been hit by artillery shells. One crewman was killed in the attack on it, a seaman said.
Most of the ships were of foreign registration, and it was obvious they were hoping to be allowed to make a break out of this waterway.
There was great fear among the crews on the Shatt-al-Arab and the shipowners around the world, however, that the vessels might be stuck here for a long time if there is no truce to let them out. Ships were stranded in the Suez Canal for several years after the Egyptian waterway was closed during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It was not reopened until 1975.
The crew of this ship has petitioned its owners to let them go home, leaving a skeleton crew of eight on board, if U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's plea for a truce is not heeded. Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr has agreed to Waldheim's proposal that the ships be allowed to leave under the U.N. flag, but Iraq has insisted that all ships fly the Iraqi flag to symbolize Baghdad's claim to the waterway.
Nonetheless, the crew of the Galleon Coral was getting ready. Since they had no U.N. flag on board, the crew dyed blue an extra Japanese flag -- a red rising sun on a white field -- used when the ship calls on a Japanese port. They had cut out a stencil of the U.N. symbol from an old chart and were preparing to trace it in white paint on the blue banner.
Other ships were also making preparations to assure their safety. Most of all they wanted any attackers to know they were neutral.
The freighter Camella from Tokyo, which also had been fired on by Iranians as it moved up the Shatt-al-Arab, had a recently painted Japanese flag prominently displayed on its superstructure. Two Indian freighters did the same thing with their national banner, but one wanted to make sure that it would not be mistaken for the Iranian flag, which looks similar. So the crew printed the words "Indian ship" in big letters.
Staying on the ships is considered hazardous duty for the crew, some of whom are making as much as five times their normal pay.
"But you are gambling with your life. I don't like it," said first mate Belleza.
"We all want to go home," added Alex Santos, 28, a steward on board the Galleon Coral.
They feel safer moored in the middle of the Shatt-al-Arab, 10 miles downstream from the port of Basra, an occasional target for U.S. made-Iranian Phantom fighter-bombers, and 10 miles upstream from Khorramshahr, where pitched artillery duels are taking place across the waterway.
Even here, however, the crew can hear the firing in the distance, and Belleza said he can feel the ship vibrate when big shells hit the water.
While the ship was moored in the channel at Basra late last month, Belleza said, some of the crew was caught on painting rafts in the water alongside the hull when the ship was hit with shrapnel from Iranian bombs. But most of the crew hid deep in the bowels of the ship. Some went to the propeller shaft tunnels and others to the hold, Belleza said.
But the worst experience was moving up the Shatt-al-Arab with Iranians aiming at the ship and the Iraqis firing over it at the Iranian gun position. a
To prepare for the insurance adjuster, the crew circled the bullet holes in red paint.