June 12, 2009

Foreigners are the real pirates, says former Somali fisherman

by Tristan McConnell in Berbera, Somalia

The first time Farah Ismail Eid set out to hijack a ship off the 
coast of Somalia his boat was easily outrun. On the second occasion 
he kept pace but his boarding ladder was too short. On the third 
attempt he was captured.

Eid, 38, from Eyl on the Somalia coast, is one of an estimated 1,500 
fishermen-turned-pirates who have made the seas between the Suez 
Canal and the Indian Ocean the most dangerous shipping route in the 

"I believe the title of pirates should be given to those who come to 
our waters illegally," he told The Times after shuffling into a room 
at the British colonial-era Mandheera prison, 40 miles south of 
Berbera, wearing plastic sandals, a T-shirt and a length of printed 
material wrapped around his skinny waist.

Eid may have not proved himself much of a pirate, but others have 
attacked at least 114 ships this year, 29 successfully. About 20 
ships and 300 crew are being held hostage, while dozens of 
international warships now patrol the Gulf of Aden.

International forces have been wringing their hands over how to deal 
with captured pirates. In many cases they are simply released after 
their equipment is destroyed - but Eid and his four-man crew were 
tried and given 15-year prison terms. "When we capture the pirates we 
bring them to justice," said Ahmed Ali, the deputy head of the 
ill-equipped Somaliland Coastguard.

Mandheera prison is straight out of a spaghetti western: hot wind 
blows dust devils across a scorched plain surrounded by rocky, 
scrub-covered hills. A few eucalyptus trees offer scant shelter from 
the 40C (104F) heat. Barred windows in the 6m (20ft) walls let little 
light into the sweltering cells that are home to 633 prisoners, 
including the five pirates caught in September last year. Another 31 
have been captured and brought here since.

Eid blamed foreigners for the rise of piracy. He said he had a couple 
of boats and a fish-trading business in Eyl until illegal trawlers 
ruined the fishing: "The fish we caught used to be enough for the 
local people and enough to sell, but now there is not even enough to 

Foreign ships started dumping toxic waste in Somali waters, he said, 
and one day he found shoals of fish floating. "We thought we were 
lucky. We collected the fish and stored them in refrigerators, then 
later we discovered they were like plastic.

"These problems fell on us like rain," he said, his right leg 
twitching as he chewed on a mouthful of qat, a narcotic leaf enjoyed 
by many Somalis.

Eid said that fishermen bought guns and set out to exact informal 
taxes on the foreign owners of illegal trawlers. The kidnapping 
business proved lucrative, with ransoms of hundreds of thousands of 
dollars regularly paid out - and any noble motives were soon 
forgotten as pirate gangs launched attacks on cruise liners and cargo 
ships, including those carrying food for Somalia's starving millions.

He justified the attacks as a way of highlighting their concerns. "We 
are quite aware that what we are doing is wrong, but this is a way of 
shouting to the world," he said. "The world should ask: 'Are these 
people wrong or were they wronged themselves?"

Eid has his own solution to the problem. "The international community 
should come and talk to us; they should compensate us for the 
problems caused to our waters by illegal fishing and toxic waste," he 
said. "Then, until the government is in place in Somalia, we could 
protect the ships as they cross our waters."

The international community is unlikely to take him up on the offer.