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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.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / May 3, 2009

Mandhera, Somalia

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.

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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."