For the crew of the small coastal freighter Semlow, the latest security crisis of the new century winnows down to something simple and personal: a dense ball of fear weighing in their guts like ballast.
On a sweltering afternoon recently at this teeming port in southern Kenya, the ten seafarers stood watch on the vinyl- and wood-paneled bridge or leaned on the rails along the deck. They watched as cargo handlers on the pier below wrestled with heavy nylon bags of split peas, piling them up so a crane could haul them into the Semlow’s damp, rusty hold.
Each bag was marked “World Food Program.” The peas and hundreds of tons of other foodstuffs were bound for Mogadishu, Somalia, from where they would be distributed to some of the roughly 3.5 million Somalis — half the country’s population — who now depend on U.N. food aid to survive.
After nearly 18 years of civil war, clan infighting, banditry, invasion, military occupation and insurgency, Somalia is a land on the brink, facing a humanitarian crisis more severe than that in Darfur. Even a minor disruption to the flow of donated food could kill thousands.
But that’s lost on the Semlow’s sailors, who have a more immediate concern: pirates.
Ironically, the piracy began a decade ago in part as a response to international efforts to feed Somalia’s starving millions without traversing more dangerous routes on land.
Sailing north to Mogadishu from Mombasa now means plying the world’s most dangerous waters.
Today, the Gulf of Aden and portions of the Indian Ocean practically belong to modern-day cutthroats armed with assault rifles and anti-tank rockets and traveling in fast “skiffs” that can run down all but the speediest vessels. From modest beginnings a decade ago, Somali pirates have taken advantage of their country’s anarchy to build sophisticated criminal enterprises that rake in millions of dollars annually, making piracy Somalia’s biggest industry.
One victim of the rise in piracy has been the U.N.-led aid effort for Somalia. Pirates have hijacked ships, stolen food and held crews for ransom. The Semlow herself was held for nearly four months in 2005.
Today the threat has only grown, with more than 100 incidents in 2008 and 40 successful hijackings.
Pirates range farther, strike harder, and aim for bigger and bigger targets. No ship within 500 miles of Somalia’s shores is safe. Last year, pirates seized container vessels, a Saudi supertanker and even one Ukrainian freighter hauling weapons and armored vehicles. On several occasions, they attacked cruise liners carrying hundreds of tourists, and tourism officials say it is only a matter of time before a passenger ship is captured.
“Piracy has affected the entire shipping industry,” said Khalid Shapi, managing director of a large tour company in Mombasa that works closely with cruise lines.
In response, maritime insurers have increased rates, while shippers have chosen new routes, adding days to a ship’s journey and hundreds of thousands of dollars to payrolls and fuel bills. All these costs “trickle down to the common man on the street,” according to Frederick Wahutu, a veteran maritime official in Mombasa.
For the sailors that work these waters, hijacking means weeks or months of captivity, abusive treatment and even the threat of death.
So it’s no wonder that, during a visit to the Semlow in December, no one mentioned the humanitarian crisis that the ship’s journey was supposed to help alleviate. No one could see past the pirates that stood between the Semlow and safety.
“I don’t know how I got myself back in this situation,” said Juma Mvita, the ship’s engineer.
Mr. Mvita was aboard the Semlow in 2005 when it was hijacked.
Two decades of violence
Piracy in Somalia is the logical if tragic result of 18 years of lawlessness.
A brutal civil war toppled dictator Siad Barre in 1991, but no single leader or entity emerged to replace the deposed regime. Instead, local warlords duked it out, each with their armies of narcotics-addicted foot soldiers. An unprecedented U.N. peacekeeping operation meant to return stability to Somalia ended in bloodshed when, in 1993, 18 U.S. troops were killed during a raid to capture two minor officers of a prominent warlord.
After that disastrous raid, recounted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down,” the developed world mostly abandoned Somalia, leaving behind only a bare-bones U.N. food program.
“The great ship of international good will has sailed,” “Black Hawk Down” author Mark Bowden wrote. Somalis have “effectively written themselves off the map.”
What followed was more than a decade of fighting that steadily reduced the country’s infrastructure to ruins and its people to desperation. Over time, more and more Somalis came to depend on the U.N. for food. The rise of a hard-line Islamist regime calling itself the Islamic Courts Union drew Ethiopia into the fighting in 2006.
The State Department has branded the Union’s armed wing a “terrorist group.” U.S. Special Forces were on the ground during the Ethiopian invasion, and U.S. forces based in Djibouti have launched air and missile raids targeting suspected terrorist leaders.
By late 2007, the Ethiopians were mired in a brutal, Iraq-style insurgency. In that year alone, some 7,000 Somalis died in the crossfire. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis only worsened. In the last 12 months, the number of Somalis requiring U.N. food assistance has jumped by 77 percent to the current 3.5 million.
The U.N. has struggled to keep up with demand.
“We need more food,” Dr. Hawa Abdi, director of a sprawling refugee camp outside Mogadishu, pleaded amid a spike in the fighting. In response to such pleas, the U.N. steadily increased the amount of aid it supplies to Somalia to the current 12,000 tons per month.
But even that record quantity has proved insufficient. The main problem is not with the amount of food available, it’s with transport and distribution. While 12,000 tons per month adds up to enough food to feed 3.5 million people annually, people don’t eat on an annual basis. Unless there is a significant reserve, the food must come in the right amounts regularly, rather than in widely separated spurts. People can die waiting for the next big shipment.
“Before the last week of October, we were hand to mouth,” said World Food Program (WFP) spokesman Peter Smerdon. “There was not much of a reserve.”
Getting adequate donations of food from world governments was one problem. But the bigger problem was banditry. Local militias manning as many as 300 roadblocks, plus scattered bands of highway robbers, make it tough going for ground convoys.
“There have been attacks on our transport staff,” said U.N. logistician Lemma Jembere. Ground convoys have been seized and pilfered by criminals and local warlords.
So the U.N. turned to the ocean for its transport needs. Today 90 percent of food aid for Somalia travels by sea, departing from the port of Mombasa in southern Kenya and arriving in Mogadishu or the nearby port of Merka after a two-day, 500-mile journey.
“That is the most convenient way of delivering the large quantity of food required in Somalia,” Mr. Jembere said at his office in a villa outside Mombasa.
But the banditry that strangled Somalia’s roads has migrated onto water. In the mid-1990s, pirates began seizing the unescorted food ships. At first, these pirates acted out of a perverse sense of justice. “They said that the food was not getting to where it was intended because of the warlords,” recalled Mr. Wahutu, the maritime official. “The pirates said, ‘We shall hold the vessels, so we get the food.’”
Over time, pirates became bolder, seizing so many food ships that many ship owners refused to take U.N. contracts. Somali pirates risked starving themselves and their countrymen.
Do-it-yourself coast guard
Where the pirates seizing food ships might fancy themselves as “Robin Hoods of the sea,” other pirates got their start in the 1990s by defending Somali fisheries from illegal incursions by foreign fishing trawlers. They called themselves “coast guards.”
Somalia has rich fisheries. Indeed, before the civil war, fishing — especially for tuna and sharks — was one of the country’s major industries. But when the government collapsed, there was no one to enforce Somalia’s national waters.
With no maritime offices, courts, police, coast guard or navy to protect these waters, major fishing countries had a field day. Fishing vessels from as far away as China and Japan sailed across the Indian Ocean to plunder Somalia’s tuna stocks. Somali fishermen responded by taking up arms, boarding fishing vessels and demanding “fees.”
To be sure, illegal fishing is not an exclusively Somali problem. “Countries like Mozambique and Tanzania are losing in excess of a billion dollars a year in illegal fishing and destruction of reefs,” according to Theresa Whalen, one of the Pentagon’s top Africa officials.
But only in Somalia have native fishermen taken maritime security into their own hands, because only in Somalia have they had to.
From these perhaps defensible origins as Robin Hoods and coast guards, Somali pirates have evolved into purely criminal enterprises, employing surprisingly sophisticated tactics.
Using captured vessels, the pirates carry their skiffs hundreds of miles from shore, guided by GPS. (Pirates briefly used the Semlow for this purpose.) They zero in on the most lucrative targets, scale the ships’ sides, often at night, and overpower the bridge crew. From there, they sail to one of several pirate enclaves in rural coastal towns, where cell-phone negotiations commence with the ships’ owners. A large ship can bring in a ransom of $1 million or more.
But these tactics would be useless without good intelligence. For that, pirates have “a sophisticated network,” according to Abubaker Omar, a prominent Mombasa maritime unionist.
Other Mombasa sources said that pirates have paid informants inside Kenyan maritime offices, feeding them information on ships’ destinations and cargoes. Many local government officials in Somalia are also on pirates’ payrolls, taking a cut of pirates’ hauls in exchange for overlooking major international crime occurring right under their noses.
No one doubts the pirates’ motives.
“We just want the money,” Sugule Ali, a pirate spokesman, told a reporter after his associates seized a Ukrainian vessel laden with weapons.
When pirates boarded the Semlow in 2005, capturing Mr. Mvita and his nine shipmates, they didn’t ask the captives for fishing fees, nor did they plunder the food stuffed in the hold. They simply held the vessel and her crew until a ransom was paid.
Returning to Mombasa after 110 days in captivity, the first thing Mr. Mvita did was go to his local mosque to pray. “At that moment, I decided never to go to sea again,” he said. But he wasn’t happy with any other line of work, so he returned to the Semlow and an ocean teeming with pirates.
The most desperate ships and crews saved Somalia from starving earlier this year. As piracy put the squeeze on sea traffic, the big shipping lines refused to take U.N. contracts. Only smaller companies, such as Motaku Shipping, the Mombasa firm that operates the Semlow, would come anywhere near the WFP Somalia operation.
“The smaller ships, they take risks,” Mr. Jembere explained. “Also, they believe that sometimes they will not be attacked” due to their low value compared to bigger hijacking targets.
Karim Kudrati might dispute that last point. Mr. Kudrati is Motaku’s director. Over the years, he said, all four of the ships he operates have been captured by Somali pirates while working for the U.N.
Still, the small shippers take on the dangerous Somalia run because they need the work.
“If we can find other jobs, we take them,” said Edward Kalendero, the Semlow’s captain. “I have to do this job to get money for [my family]. I have to go to Somalia.”
Relying on smaller ships, with their loads of just a few hundred tons, has strained the U.N.’s ability to get enough food to Somalia fast enough. So, in late 2007, the agency put out a call to the world’s navies, asking for warships to escort the food vessels to Somalia.
It was tough, at first, getting navies to commit. The Somalia run is dirty, dull and expensive for high-tech warships designed to fight other warships on the high seas. France stepped up, so did Denmark and later Canada, but at the expiration of Canada’s commitment in June, the U.N. was at first unable to find another military willing to send a half-billion-dollar warship to defend against fishermen with AK-47s.
“Without escorts, our whole maritime supply route will be threatened,” warned U.N. official Peter Goossens.
Eventually, the Netherlands offered up a frigate, followed by NATO with a mix of Greek, Turkish and other warships. But the NATO commitment was a stopgap, pending the establishment of a long-term European Union naval deployment made up of warships from a dozen nations, led by the British Royal Navy. That force launched its first escort on Dec. 14, riding shotgun alongside the Semlow for the weeklong round trip between Mombasa and Mogadishu.
The trip was uneventful. “We are feeling up,” is how Mr. Kalendero put it.
So far, no food ship has been hijacked while under military escort.
Increasingly reliable military escorts in recent months have improved the flow of food to Somalia, to the extent that, by early December, the WFP had met its annual goal. Mr. Smerdon said there were sufficient reserves to avoid the “hand-to-mouth” situation earlier in 2008 that threatened millions with starvation.
But escorts only deter pirates; they don’t defeat them. And considering how “bloody expensive” warship patrols are in the words of piracy expert Martin Murphy from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., military escorts are not a permanent solution to the food transportation problem.
Besides, there are plenty of other targets on the Indian Ocean to feed pirates’ appetites: Many thousands of ships crisscross these waters every year. In such rich feeding grounds, sea banditry is only increasing in range, frequency and audacity, despite the swelling ranks of foreign naval forces.
After all, pirates are just a symptom of Somalia’s worsening anarchy. As Somalia goes, so goes piracy - and Somalia is truly going south.
Politics as usual
“Somalia defies the imagination in terms of complexity, with clans and subclans that dominate internal politics, and in some ways have defied Africa’s ability to help Somalia help itself,” Mr. Whalen said.
In other words, the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia is doomed to end in failure, as has every other foreign intervention in the country in the last 17 years. “The chaos in Somalia is due to the clans,” he said.
And the clans show no sign of a lasting reconciliation.
In December, the pro-Ethiopian and pro-U.S. Transitional Federal Government - an alliance of clans based in the town of Baidoa, north of Mogadishu - began fraying, while the Islamic Courts Union recaptured large swaths of the southern countryside, including the port of Merka where the U.N. delivers much of its food. But even these gains could not prevent the Islamic Courts from suffering their own internal schism, as their hard-liners fractured into separate groups and began fighting among themselves.
On Monday, Abdullahi Yusuf, president of the foreign-backed transitional government, resigned, acknowledging that “most of the country is not in our hands” and that Somalia’s leadership is “paralyzed.”
That made the prospect for resolving the piracy plague even slimmer.
“Building up various capacities within Somalia, whether maritime security capability or, on land, the judicial and legal capacity to prosecute pirates, is part of the long-term solution to piracy,” said a State Department official, who asked not to be named. “None of the entities in Somalia have the capacity cooperatively or alone to fully address the piracy threat.”
So Mr. Jembere and Mr. Mvita lie awake at night and worry. Mr. Jembere, the U.N. logistician, knows that he will continue to depend upon fickle navies to ensure a steady supply to a country on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. Mr. Mvita, the ship’s engineer and former captive, knows that some day he’ll have to sail African waters unescorted again and that could mean falling into pirates’ hands.
The greatest victims remain everyday Somalis. For every Somali who grows rich from piracy, millions are at risk of starving. And there’s little chance that will change anytime soon.