An interview with a jailed Somali pirate leader
Behind the bare brick walls of a desolate former British colonial prison in Somali land, five jailed Somali pirates didn't seem very fearsome at all.
Their exploits have turned the inky-blue waters of the Indian Ocean into a perilous gantlet for ships and an unlikely security challenge for world leaders. But behind the bare brick walls of a desolate former British colonial prison here, five jailed Somali pirates didn't seem very fearsome at all.Skip to next paragraph
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One looked to be in his late 40s, his brambly hair stained a deep henna orange, his milky eyes staring into the middle distance. A slightly younger man clutched a faded sarong to his matchstick waist and spoke in barely a whisper.
The leader of the pirate crew, 38-year-old Farah Ismail Eid, wore such a hungry look that a visiting government official, unsolicited, folded a pale $10 bill into his sandpaper palm.
That a few hundred men like these have wreaked so much havoc in the seas off of East Africa is a testament to the sheer power of guts and greed. It's also a stark illustration of the all-consuming anarchy ashore in Somalia, where, after 18 years of conflict, jobs are scarce, guns are plentiful, men will risk everything for a payday — and their government is too weak and corrupt to stop them.
The men behind bars, however, offered another explanation for piracy.
Their story is also rooted in greed — not of their brazen colleagues with the million-dollar ransoms, they say, but of foreign companies that they say have profited from Somalia's lawlessness by fishing illegally in their waters since the 1990s.
In a long interview with McClatchy at the jailhouse in Mandhera, an austere desert fortress in the autonomous northern region of Somaliland, where British forces held Italian POWs during World War II, Eid related what amounts to the pirates' creation myth, in which overfishing by European and Asian trawlers drove Somalia's coastal communities to ruin and forced local fishermen to fight for their livelihoods.
"Now the international community is shouting about piracy. But long before this, we were shouting to the world about our problems," said Eid, a bony-cheeked former lobsterman with a bushy goatee. "No one listened."
Of course, the pirates' journey from vigilante coast guard to firing automatic weapons at cruise ships — as one band did over the weekend — is a reminder that good intentions don't last long in desperate Somalia.
In 1991, Eid was scavenging for lobsters along the craggy shores of central Somalia, saving to start a fishing company, when the government and its security forces were swallowed up in a coup. The country's endless coastline — at nearly 2,000 miles, it's longer than the U.S. West Coast — suddenly became an unguarded supermarket of tuna, mackerel and other fish.
When huge foreign trawlers suddenly began appearing, the local fishermen who plied their trade with simple nets and small fiberglass boats were wiped out, Eid said.
"They fished everything — sharks, lobsters, eggs," he recalled. "They collided with our boats. They came with giant nets and swept everything out of the sea."
At the outset, fishermen in the ramshackle ports of Puntland, Somaliland's rowdy neighbor, re-branded themselves as "coast guards." The first hijackings that Eid remembered came in 1997, when pirates from the port of Hobyo seized a Chinese fishing vessel and then held a Kenyan ship for a $500,000 ransom.
"When I heard about this," Eid said, "I was happy."
Eid had sunk his savings into three boats. In 2005, with catches all too rare and a wife and two children to support, he traded his fishing equipment for a couple of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers in a market in the wild-west port of Bossasso.
He and five other fishermen, swathed in camouflage, piled into a motorized skiff and set off from the village of Garacad. But their motor was too feeble to catch up to any of the ships they spotted, so after five sweltering days they returned to shore.
The next year Eid tried with a stronger engine, a German one imported from Dubai. This time, the novice pirates caught up to a cargo ship and came face to face with its European crew. But Eid's men couldn't prop their heavy metal ladder up against the freighter's hull quickly enough to board the ship. The vessel escaped unmolested.