Two kinds of piracy - Kamila Hyat - Thursday, May 05, 2011

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We have all read books featuring pirates. Chilling images of the one-legged Long John Silver and the evil blind man Pew stick in the mind from the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic ‘Treasure Island’ and other yarns featuring the much-feared Jolly Roger fluttering above a pirate ship. Even today, obsessed men hunt for treasure they believe was left hidden centuries ago by legendary pirates.

But modern piracy is, of course, quite different from that which existed in ancient times. It is focused off the seas that surround Somalia with talk in the international community of moving in to capture Somali waters or even the ‘pirate’ villages which have crept up along its long coastline which wraps elegantly around the horn of Africa.

In the United Nations there is more and more talk about the issue and after the USS Bainbridge was seized by pirates in April 2009, prompting retaliation from the US Navy, President Obama also chimed in to say that there was need for action.

Since then, the problem has grown. In 2010, a record 1,181 hostages were seized off 49 vessels. Ransoms ranging from $500,000 to two million dollars have been paid in past years. Demands for amounts as high as $25 million have been made; insurance premiums have soared and aerial drops of tightly sealed ransom amounts over the high seas have become more commonplace.

The barely functional, transitional government in Mogadishu is essentially helpless and the pirates – some of whom own sprawling mansions and snazzy cars – have triggered an economic boom in towns such as Eyl, where restaurants that feed hostages flourish and other related enterprise has grown.

Modern pirates wield rocket-propelled grenades and guns, rather than swords, but the sight of a swarm of men scrambling up rope ladders onto a targeted ship is – for the crew – no less terrifying than that of Captain Hook swaggering along deck.

The captives they have taken are from a wide range of nationalities. Right now, among the scores of hostages held, are at least four Pakistani sailors, captured from the Egyptian cargo ship the MV Suez in August last year. The families of the captives have appeared on television seeking help for their loved ones.

The issue of piracy has also been taken up at home as a result of this ongoing drama. A ransom demand of two million dollars has been made in exchange for the captured Pakistanis.

An Indian welfare organisation has offered one million dollars and the shipping company had chipped in with 0.5 million dollars – while efforts are on to raise the remaining amount.

Traditionally, the Pakistan government has done little to help its citizens captured at sea. In April this year, the Danish Navy rescued 16 Pakistanis who had been in the captivity of Somalian pirates for over a year after having been taken hostage in a number of different incidents.

But is there only one kind of piracy prevalent in Somalian waters? Are the pirates who raid ships and demand large ransoms usually from insurance companies really villains without anything to redeem them? The voices of these men are of course almost never heard.

Only rarely are the views of others in Africa who paint a somewhat different account of events reflected in the mainstream media. We hardly ever hear them. The story these sources tell is a significantly different one.

They speak of another kind of piracy in the region. This involves giant trawlers that illegally fish in Somalia’s tuna-rich waters and also dump toxic, possibly even radioactive waste, in the area thus killing off fish close to the shores.

The result has also been a devastating loss of livelihood for the fishing communities which had formed around the Somalian coast chiefly during the 1970s and 1980s after drought drove farmers and herdsmen close to the seas and the livelihood they offered.

The collapse of the autocratic, socialist government of Siyad Barre in 1991, the breakout of civil war in Somalia and the consequent collapse of the Somalian Navy and Coast Guard left its waters open to powerful poachers from all across Southern Europe and the Middle East, who saw an opportunity to take home rich catches of fish.

Impoverished Somalian fishermen in their tiny boats stood no chance in the presence of the enormous vessels that muscled their way in. The fishermen also say that their nets were deliberately cut, their boats rammed and destroyed.

This piracy continues today, but outside Africa it is hardly ever spoken of – despite the fact that the fishermen victimised by it were the first to turn to piracy, as a means of survival, and, according to their own accounts, patrol the waters of their own land.

Since then, the growing influence of pirates, notably in the Puntland region of Somalia, and the increased organisation demonstrated by them have complicated the issue.

Force hardly seems to be the best solution. Like so many other African countries, Somalia has suffered from far too much intervention from the outside – following its independence from the British in 1960.

For the last two decades it has been in chaos, with secessionist warlords giving way to a brittle government trying to holdback Islamic militancy. While an international force patrolling waters that are deemed the most dangerous in the world may offer a temporary respite, the only lasting solution lies in greater stability within Somalia.

The existence of another band of pirates, aboard ships which fly the flags of many powerful nations, also needs to be acknowledged. The plunder of the nation’s waters and the theft from its helpless people is also a crime that must be dealt with. Anger within the country, reflected in writing and in music, runs high against this outrageous conduct and the silence of the world.

Both kinds of piracy off the Somalian Coast must be treated as an inter-linked issue. There cannot be one set of rules for some countries and different ones for others. Somalia needs a government that is sufficiently empowered to tackle the problem.

The best service the world can offer is help one take command and end the bedlam which affects Somalia just as badly as the ships which nose their way around its shores.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. Email: kamilahyat@

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