Yesterday I discovered that the chances of anybody taking me onboard a ship bound for The Seychelles was about one in a million. I also found out that another shipping company, Maersk, had a freighter leaving on Tuesday to those infernal islands. So after spending the day trying to get a message to the right people, I headed over to the Oasis Club for the last time, knowing that if it wasn’t to be I would cut my losses and get the hell out of dodge.
The club was packed. HMS Chatham had just come into port, escorting the container ship Asian Glory back to safety. The Asian Glory had been captured last January and had been held in the Puntland region of Somalia for almost six months. Eventually after lengthy negotiations the owners shelled out $7,000,000 for the release of the vessel and the luxury cars it was shipping.
I got chatting to the good chaps of the Chatham (including the captain) and tried to get my head around this whole pirate problem. Here’s what I’ve learnt this week, amalgamated from my meetings with the Royal Navy, the US Navy, the Swedish Navy, the Dutch Navy, the crew of the Maersk Alabama, the captain of the San Cristobal and various mariners who have frequented Club Oasis over the last ten days…
How did all this get started?
Because Somalia has lacked an effective government since 1991, it has no navy (well, it has a navy, they just don’t have any ships). This means that for almost twenty years the waters around Somalia have been a free-for-all in terms of fishing rights. Anyone with a ship, a huge net and on-board freezing capabilities could sail around to the waters off Somalia and fill their boots. And they did. By 2005, fish stocks in the area had got dangerously low and the local fishermen turned to piracy to make ends meet. By 2007, the pirates had grown more and more audacious and started targeting large international cargo freighters and even oil tankers.
Joint task forces from NATO and other inter-governmental navies have been patrolling the waters since then, but rather than result in less pirate attacks, there has been a steady escalation as the pirate zone now covers a vast swathe of the Indian Ocean and ‘employs’ over 1,000 people.
Why can’t you just blow the feckers out of the water?
We’d like to! But that would risk escalating the situation. At the moment, very few of the hostages they take are killed, but if we start shooting first and asking questions later, then it could result unnecessary and unacceptable civilian deaths. Although that doesn’t stop the Russians….!
What about putting armed guards on the container ships?
Again, it risks escalation and these pirates have got rocket-propelled grenades. It’s too risky.
What about doing convoys?
Yachties are increasingly meeting up and doing the Gulf of Aden run in flotillas, but for big cargo ships, it’s just not economically viable to have them sitting around a port for a week waiting for other ships to turn up, plus once the pirates are on board there’s little use another ship in the area can do – even fully armed naval ships are powerless to stop the situation.
Are the kidnapped British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler still alive?
We believe so. But Rachel is not well.
What do you do when you catch the pirates?
We take their weapons off them, put them all on one boat (pirates usually hunt in packs), give them enough fuel, food and water to get back to Somalia and then set them free.
Yeah, we set them free, there’s nothing else we can do. We can’t take them back to Somalia to stand trial – there’s no government, judges, juries or prisons! Tanzania, Yemen and The Seychelles don’t want them and maybe can’t afford a ton of court cases and to pay for their incarceration. We don’t have the space to keep them in the brig for six months until we go back to the UK. So we disarm them and send them on their way.
So how on Earth do you think we’re ever going to get rid of these pirates?
The only way we can get rid of the pirates is to support the Somalia government in taking back their country, that way they’d have a navy to stop foreign fishing boats coming in and stealing all the fish. Also, they’d have a judicial system so we’d have somewhere to take the pirates when we catch them.
Unfortunately after the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, no government has the stomach to take on the madness that is modern Somalia. In short, there is no end in sight.