Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Pirates of Somalia

SOYMB has previously posted on the question of who were the real pirates off the coast of Somalia and once again the press features a story on the subject.

The closest Somali translation of the word is burcad badeed, which literally means "ocean robber". Boyah and his brothers-in-arms do not like to call themselves "pirates" in their native tongue. They referred to themselves as badaadinta badah, "saviours of the sea", a term that is most often translated in the English-speaking media as "coastguard". To him, his actions had been in protection of his sea, the native waters he had known his whole life; his hijackings, a legitimate form of taxation levied in absentia on behalf of a defunct government that he represented in spirit, if not in law.

In 1994, he still worked as an artisanal lobster diver in Eyl. Since then, the lobster population off the coast of Eyl has been devastated by foreign fishing fleets – mostly Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean ships, Boyah said. Using steel-pronged drag fishing nets, these foreign trawlers did not bother with nimble explorations of the reefs: they uprooted them, netting the future livelihood of the nearby coastal people along with the day's catch. Today, according to Boyah, there are no more lobsters to be found in the waters off Eyl. So he began to fish a different species.

From 1995 to 1997, Boyah and others captured three foreign fishing vessels, keeping the catch and ransoming the crew. By 1997, the foreign fishing fleets had become more challenging prey, entering into protection contracts with local warlords that made armed guards and anti-aircraft guns regular fixtures on the decks of their ships. So, like all successful hunters, Boyah and his men adapted to their changing environment, and began going after commercial shipping vessels. "There are about 500 pirates operating around Eyl. I am their chairman," he said, claiming to head up a "central committee" composed of the bosses of 35 other groups. The position of chairman, however, did not imbue Boyah with the autocratic powers of a traditional gang leader. Rather, Eyl's pirate groups functioned as a kind of loose confederation, in which Boyah was a key organiser, recruiter, financier and mission commander. "We're not murderers," he said. "We've never killed anyone, we just attack ships."

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