Friday, November 14, 2008

Off the coast of Somalia: 'We're not pirates. These are our waters, not theirs'


Medeshi 14 Nov, 2008

Off the coast of Somalia: 'We're not pirates. These are our waters, not theirs'

When Bile Wadani is not counting his money, he counts his wives. So far he has three – but he promises there will be more to come. "I didn't ever dream I would marry three wives but I have that dream now because I can get as much money as I want."
(Photo: Two boats from HMS Cumberland intercept a suspected pirate vessel in the Gulf of Aden after Russian and British forces repelled an attack on a cargo ship)
As he speaks, waves can be heard crashing in the background. Bile is speaking by mobile telephone from the deck of a captured ship somewhere off the mountainous coast of northern Somalia, near the tip of the Horn of Africa. His words are interrupted by the crackle of gunfire.
Bile will not reveal his exact location or identify the captured vessel as he claims he is being hunted by foreign warships.
He is one of the new generation of pirates who have turned the Gulf of Aden into the most dangerous shipping lane in the world. The success of their rough and ready tactics has been such that insurers are warning that shipowners may have to use alternative routes, which would have tremendous ramifications for global trade and commodity prices.
International governments are committing millions of pounds to fighting the pirates. The Royal Navy's HMS Cumberland joined forces with a Russian frigate to kill three pirates as they attempted to seize a Danish vessel in the latest incident on Tuesday.
Despite the fact that warships from Denmark, France, Russia, Japan and the US have joined the Royal Navy in patrolling the gulf, little attention has been paid to the roots of the problem.
Both the risks and the rewards of Bile's chosen career are colossal. And along with an increasing number of his compatriots in the anarchy of Somalia, he has chosen to embrace them. The lure of vast sums of money is transforming the coast of this country and turning the pirates into the heroes of a shattered land.
Millions of dollars in ransoms are being paid by desperate ship owners – an estimated $30m (£20.5m) so far this year. That is one and a half times the annual budget for authorities in the northern region of Puntland. One captured vessel can fetch up to $2m.
The epicentre of this piracy is the port town of Eyl, in the Nugal region. It is off limits to the outside world, a safe haven for the pirates and a base for their attacks. It now functions, according to residents, almost completely on the proceeds from piracy.
Much of the rest of Somalia has been destroyed by the seemingly endless wars that have washed across the country in the two decades since it last had a functioning government. The capital, Mogadishu, lies mostly in ruins.
In Eyl, the streets are lined with new buildings and awash with Landcruisers, laptops, satellite phones and global positioning systems.
Almost everyone in Eyl has a relative or husband among the pirates. Fatima Yusuf, who has lived her whole life in Eyl, describes the intense involvement of the whole community in the fortunes of the young men who set out in crews of seven or eight armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers to take on the tankers on the high seas.
The planning is rigorous, Bile insists: "When we want to kidnap a ship, we go with not more than six or seven men because we don't want to be a mob, this is a military tactic."
Fatima says the people will gather to pray for the pirates and that when they set sail sacrifices are made in traditional ceremonies where a goat will be slaughtered, its throat cut."
An industry has grown up around the pirates, with restaurants to feed the kidnapped crews who as potentially tradable assets must be looked after. The pirates have become glamorous figures. Like most of the girls in Eyl, Sadiya Samatar Haji wants to marry a pirate. "I'm not taking no for an answer," she says. "I'll tie the knot with a pirate man because I'll get to live in a good house with good money."
Twelve-year-old Mohamed Bishar Adle, in nearby Garowe, the regional capital of Puntland, knows what he wants to do with his education. "When I finish high school, I will be a pirate man, I will work for my family and will get more money."
Beyond the bravado, Bile acknowledges that the danger is increasing. He will not say how many attacks he has participated in but he does claim to have been one of the pirates who clashed with French forces in April this year after the capture and ransom of a luxury yacht. French commandoes pursued a band of Somali pirates en route to Eyl after a ransom had been paid. Bile says nine of his compatriots were taken and that only he and one other friend were able to escape. Six of those caught face prosecution in Paris after being transferred to France.
He also remembers the terror of his first mission. "You don't know if it's a warship. You have to open fire and if it doesn't respond you know."
Bile did not grow up dreaming of being a pirate. He comes from a family of fishermen whose livelihood was destroyed, he says, by the arrival of industrial trawlers from Europe.
At some 3,300 kilometres, Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa. With a fertile upswelling where the ocean reaches Africa's Horn, the seas are rich in tuna, swordfish and shark, as well as coastal beds of lobster and valuable shrimp.
With the overthrow of Siad Barre's government in 1991, the territorial waters off Somalia became a free-for-all. Trawlers from more than 16 different nations were recorded within its waters – many of them armed. EU vessels flying flags of convenience cut deals with the illegitimate authorities in Somalia, according to UN investigators.
Clashes between large, foreign fishing interests and Somali fishermen in the late 1990s were the prelude to the upsurge in piracy.
Bile, like many of the pirates, calls himself a "coastguard" and insists he has more right to these contested seas than the foreign forces now patrolling them. He says many of his friends' boats were destroyed in these battles and stocks of a fish known locally as "yumbi" have all but disappeared.
Like many in Somalia, Bile is angry that outside powers are seeking a military solution to a more complex problem. He rejects the tag of "terrorist" and denies links to Islamic militias, like the Al-Shabab, which are in control of large areas of Somalia. He insists that the pirates would not give "one AK-47" to the Islamists.
While admitting that the influx of foreign navies is making his life more dangerous, he remains defiant: "We will keep carrying out attacks. We are ready for long distance attacks as far as the coast of Yemen."

No comments: