Sunday, September 30, 2007

Somali piracy: A closer look at the problem

As I said in my previous post, piracy off Somalia is proving a serious problem for humanitarian organizations trying to deliver food aid to that failed state of a country. From Kenya, I wrote a report on this situation for The Globe & Mail newspaper in Canada that was published yesterday and can be seen online. Here is the first part of a lengthier look at what I saw while in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Under an overcast sky in central Nairobi, Peter Smerdon takes a sip of Tusker beer while gathering his thoughts. “The pirate situation in Somalia is extremely worrying to us,” says Smerdon, who works with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at their regional base in the Kenyan capital. A wiry ex-pat Brit with a youthful complexion that hides his experiences as a foreign journalist covering such events as the Rwandan genocide, Smerdon's job is to get the word out about what WFP is doing in Africa. It's not an easy job, especially where Somalia is concerned.

“Yeah, there is a certain ‘fatigue’ about Somalia, an exhaustion of sorts,” he admits, ticking off the symptoms: “You know, since 1991 there’s been civil war and civil conflict ongoing in the country, there’s been famine, malnutrition, starvation, displaced people, and it can seem like a place where things never change. Plus you have Iraq, Afghanistan and any number of other places vying for attention, from the media, from governments and from aid groups. And because there aren’t any good photo ops in Somalia – no foreign soldiers handing out food, no dying children, no celebrities – the situation there has slipped off the radar of most people. That’s a cold, hard assessment of things, but I know that’s how it works.”

As Smerdon explains, Somalia is a place just barely surviving, with little in the way of a functioning government, an economy in shambles and healthcare essentially non-existent. Having recently returned from the country, he says that, “The people there are feeling ground down. You may get by in the city – though in Mogadishu these days you might get killed – but in the countryside they’ve been weakened and ground down like you can’t imagine. Just across the border from Kenya you have places where in a ‘normal’ year you get acute malnutrition rates of twenty to thirty percent. Fifteen percent is the emergency level. In Somalia, life expectancy is about 46 years and a quarter of all children die before they reach the age of five.”

WFP has traditionally delivered the bulk of its humanitarian assistance, about eighty percent, by freighters sailing from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Somalia. Until now, those freighters have proven the most efficient way to get suitable quantities of food into the country, but the threat of renewed attacks by pirates has made shipping companies nervous about taking on the task of ferrying WFP cargoes.

“They’ve attacked over a dozen ships in the first six months of this year, two of which were working for us. In fact, Somali pirates have attacked five vessels contracted by WFP since 2005, hijacking three and holding them for ransom. Things have been quiet the last couple of months, mainly because of the monsoon which has prevented the pirates from venturing out. But what is worrying us now is that as the monsoon season comes to a close, the pirates will return. So as the monsoon season ends the pirate season begins.”

Piracy off Somalia has been growing in recent times as instability in the country allows armed gangs to run rampant. Pirate gangs have targeted general cargo ships, container vessels, gas tankers, dhows, fishing boats and, in November 2005, they even made a brazen assault on a luxury cruise liner sailing 160 kilometres off the coastline. Pirates have been particularly attracted to the unarmed ships arriving in Somalia laden with food aid: In the first instance, in June of 2005, they captured the freighter MV Semlow and held the ship and her crew for a hundred days before a ransom was paid. An attempt earlier this year to protect the vessels by hiring local guards failed when pirates shot and wounded two of the Somalis, one of whom later died.

Trying to send aid overland into Somalia by truck has never been a viable option for groups like WFP as the routes are often little more than rutted tracks and the convoys are invariably held up at roadblocks by armed militia groups, or even the TFG itself. “They don’t care if you’re carrying humanitarian assistance or not,” says Smerdon. “Everyone makes money out of checkpoints. It can be $50 a truck, which doesn’t sound like much but on one route we’ve used, from the Kenyan border to Wajid in the south, a distance of 125 kilometres, there were 29 checkpoints the last time I was there. So delivering aid by truck is not very reliable.” And flying assistance in by plane is simply out of the question for the time being, he explains, owing to the extremely high costs entailed.

All of this has left groups like WFP scrambling to solve a logistical nightmare. With malnutrition rates soaring in Somalia – exceeding twenty to thirty percent in some parts of the country – the organization must deliver 35,000 metric tons of food by the end of the year to avoid things getting even worse. Their only hope is to convince somebody to take on the dangerous job of ferrying their supplies through pirate waters, something that has proven difficult.

“Shipping companies would rather do something else than carry our cargoes,” says Smerdon. “Recently we thought had found a vessel available, then heard it was off in Saudi Arabia – we’re hoping it’ll still become available – but that’s all we have right now. It appears that no one wants to work with us.”

In East Africa’s principal port of Mombasa, an hour by plane southeast of Nairobi, Smerdon’s assessment proves only partially correct. Karim Kudrati is co-owner of a shipping firm that has worked with the UN for well over a decade, and it was his vessels that were hijacked by Somali pirates. From his office in the Kundalini part of town, Kudrati says, “Would we work with them [WFP] again? Yes. But there must be more protection for our ships and our crews. Those charters are too costly to consider, the way they have been organized in the past.”

For Kudrati, the financial costs of ferrying aid to Somalia have not been cheap: “Whenever one of my vessels has been hijacked, it is our firm that has to pay the ransom, sometimes over $100,000. When the pirates steal the money from the ship’s safe, that comes out of my pocket. Yes, this is a business, whether we are delivering WFP cargo or commercial cargo. But, frankly, if I can find other charters, why would I bother with the UN?”

To be continued.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

France offers to help combat piracy off Somalia

Three weeks ago, while in Nairobi, I received a briefing on the dire situation facing the Somali people from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and it wasn’t good. Somalia is a barely functioning nation (the current term used to describe it is a “failed state”), with internal fighting between a variety of groups forcing a half million to flee for their lives, a drought that has reduced what little food is available for harvest and, now, a struggle to find ways to feed the population.

WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian agency and along with the Red Cross and CARE has been helping to care for millions of Somalis. Because of recent events, WFP alone now must feed 1.2 million Somalis in the coming months, which will require getting about 30-35,000 metric tons of food into the country by the end of the year.

But the agency has been stymied in their efforts by Somali pirates, who have attacked 17 ships so far this year, over double from all of 2006. These attacks have gone on for a couple of years, part of a pattern that has made the waters off Somalia among the most dangerous in the world for mariners. Some may remember the attack by pirates on a cruise ship, the Seabourn Spirit, in November 2005, but few probably know that UN-chartered aid vessels have been singled out in particular. The first attack, in June of 2005, saw pirates hold a ship and its crew for a hundred days before a ransom was paid, and the most recent incident, in May, saw the death of a local Somali hired to help protect the humanitarian aid.

As I discovered while in Africa, one of the effects of piracy off Somalia has been to scare off shipping companies from carrying UN food aid. Currently, there are no firms willing to do the job, fearing that their vessels and crews will be hijacked and held for ransom. But after an appeal for assistance, there may be some help coming: On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the UN Security Council in New York that his country would offer naval protection for WFP shipments. And I know from being in the Kenyan port of Mombasa that a French warship is already taking up station in the seas off Somalia. Now all that remains is for a shipper to agree to take the aid currently sitting in warehouses in Mombasa to Somalia itself. Without this aid, a dire situation may soon become even worse.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks before the Security Council, Sept 25.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Monday, September 24, 2007

Turning chaos into order

Down at the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula lies the formidable city-state of Singapore, home to four and a half million people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, primarily ethnic Chinese, Indian and Malayan, though with remnants of the British Empire lingering conspicuously.

Raffles Hotel

Singapore has managed to re-invent itself several times over the course of the last thousand years, but the transformation it has undergone in the last fifty years is nothing short of amazing. Under the firm guiding hand of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore has been transformed from a languid backwater island rife with malarial swamps to one of the most vital economic centres in the region, if not the globe. It is a place of order, discipline and measured control, while other cities in Southeast Asia seem to be teeming with anarchy, earning it the sobriquet “Asia for beginners”.

National Museum of Singapore

But hidden away beneath the success story of an economic and political powerhouse is the history of Singapore as a centre of piracy in the region, going back to well before Europeans first arrived here five hundred years ago. Because of its location, the island was a natural base for pirates to prey on nearby islands, coastal villages and any boats that happened by. Like many places in Southeast Asia where piracy flourished, the pirates were tolerated by the ruling class – so long as tributes were paid.

When the famous Chinese admiral, Zheng He, visited what was then called Temasek in 1405, he soon found his fleet involved in running battles with Sumatran pirates. Four hundred years later, the islands and coves around here were still known for piracy. When the first British Resident, William Farquhar, stepped ashore onto Singapore in 1819, it’s recorded that he encountered a row of skulls – pirate trophies left for all to see.

As the British set about turning Singapore into a colonial trading outpost, they were forced to do something about all the marauders who threatened their ability to exploit the region. The Royal Navy began attacking pirates wherever they could find them, culminating in the Battle of Batang Marau in July 1849. HM Brig Albatross is said to have engaged a fleet of a hundred perahus (canoes) and some 3500 natives, dealing a crushing blow to the pirates.

But piracy never really disappeared in the waters around Singapore, or elsewhere, for that matter. By the 1990s it had resurfaced to become a serious threat to shipping in both the Strait of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore, and armed vessels again sailed forth from the harbour to deal with the problem, continuing a tradition that goes back a thousand years.

Singapore Coast Guard patrol boat

Monday, September 17, 2007

The mighty prawn

Most of the fishing that goes on in the coastal villages of peninsular Malaysia is a decidedly low-tech affair: It primarily involves casting a net into the Strait of Malacca or laying out longlines of baited hooks, but the inshore waters are also harvested. After spending a day several kilometers out into the seas in a small boat, my local guide – an amiable young man named Kamarudeen – leads me down to the beach to watch as men wade through waist-deep water pulling nets behind them.

The men are seeking prawns, or shrimp, which can be found in abundance here and may be caught for a few days every month. In the words of academics, this is an example of a community-based economy managing a sustainable resource, for these prawns are not destined to be flash-frozen and shipped to some restaurant table in a foreign city. Instead, they will be sold locally, and the villagers only take what they need.

As the men wade through the surf, they push two long bamboo poles that rest on their shoulders. The poles hold open the mouth of a net that trails behind them, scooping up prawns from the murky waters. The prawns are integral in making two traditional seasonings, a cake-like patty called belacan and a liquid version known as cincalok. You can see both for sale in small shops throughout the region, selling for the equivalent of about a dollar.

The actual manufacturing process is done by women villagers, usually working in the yards outside their homes. The prawns are ground up, mixed with salt and allowed to mature a few days before being finished for market. Kamarudeen introduces me to one villager forming the mashed prawns into cakes. He calls her “Makcik” – auntie – and I watch as she methodically takes what looks like coarse sand and works it into a small mold about the size of a hamburger patty. She’ll make hundreds of these in a single day, leaving them to dry on wooden trays laid out in the sun beside a group of noisy chickens and the laughter of her grandchildren.

Small-scale local economies like this are a vital part of coastal communities around the world. As she lays out her patties, “Auntie” tells me the villagers have been doing this for as long as anyone can remember. “We were making belacan when the Japanese came here,” she says with a laugh. History tells me she means 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Army conquered Malaysia, but for Auntie that’s ancient history. And before that, I ask? She looks at me sternly for a moment and then a smile creases her features as she indulges this odd foreign man. “Before that? Ah, you would have to go ask the ghosts.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Malaccan piracy – some context

Dutch gravestone, St. Paul’s Church, Melaka

The attacks that have occurred in the Strait of Malacca in the last fifteen years have garnered the most attention, which is understandable when you consider that hundreds of commercial ships, tugboats and fishing vessels have been assaulted in these waters during that time. The concerted efforts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, along with several other nations and international groups, have managed to reduce piracy in recent years, mainly through the use of force.

One shouldn’t assume that piracy is a recent phenomenon in this part of Southeast Asia; it goes back hundreds of years, if not longer, and was a normal part of the lives of those who inhabited the coastal villages and those who sailed the adjacent seas. While at the Singapore National Library, I saw a print from the 1840s showing an Iranun pirate holding a kampilan sword. The Iranun plied the Sulu archipelago off eastern Malaysia and there is a well-preserved example of a kampilan in the National Museum of Singapore. This metre-long weapon has a steel blade and wood handle and is decorated with human hair. Swung down onto the skull or shoulder, it was designed to kill a victim with a single blow.

Also at the National Library, I came across a book written by Owen Rutter in 1930 about Malay pirates, in which he said, “Compared with [Malay pirates] the buccaneers of the Spanish Main were gentle and amiable creatures.” One of the biggest differences between pirates of the Caribbean and those in Southeast Asia was that the latter were able to roam relatively unbothered by any naval ships from great powers. While the likes of Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were being hunted by the navies of Britain, Spain and France, their Asian compatriots had a much easier life.

This began to change in the early sixteenth century, with the arrival of Portuguese explorers sailing large, heavily armed vessels. The Portuguese had heard of the wealth of Melaka, which was the most important and powerful trading centre in the area. It had been so for a hundred years, a place where vessels arrived from China, India and Arabia to trade and barter. Though the city-state had officially adopted Islam in the middle of the fifteenth century, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious port.

Replica of Flora de la Mar in Melaka town

The arrival of Portuguese vessels in 1509 may have surprised the Melakans, but, on the other hand, they had been used to foreign ships coming and going for years so the initial thinking was that perhaps this was just another potential trading partner. Within two years, though, Alfonso de Albuquerque had besieged the city, forced the sultan to flee and finally established European control over Melaka, control that would remain for four and a half centuries. They built first a fortress, called A’Famosa, and then an entire walled city that rivaled those in Medieval Europe.
Remains of Porta de Santiago

The Portuguese also soon set about consolidating their power over the Strait of Malacca (which, by the way, is the European spelling of the name; the locals call it the Selat Melaka). And one of the things they did was to work to stamp out the piracy that was commonplace, while also attacking any local settlements that did not accept their rule. This set a pattern that would be carried on by successive European powers, including the Dutch and the British, in which the domination of the seas was done at the point of a gun and a cutlass. Which leads one to remember that one man’s navy is another man’s pirate.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Melakan catch of the day

After another bone-rattling tour of the area in the perahu, Abdul returns to where his net has been laid and signals to his partner to start pulling it in. Today’s haul does not appear to be particularly rewarding – a lot of small fish that cannot be useful for eating, some ikan duri, which is also known as goat catfish, a couple of malong (yellow pike congers) and a snapper, which Abdul calls jenahak. The snapper is the best of the catch, since it will fetch the most at market. Once we get back ashore, Abdul will pass his catch onto a middleman who then takes it market across the street. After all is said and done, a fisherman here can make 200 Malaysian Ringgit on a good day – about sixty Canadian dollars. That is then split with one share going to the junior partner and two shares to Abdul.

As they two men finish hauling in the net and stowing the larger fish, I notice that the gentle swells that had welcomed us a few hours earlier have become angrier and that the wind has shifted around from the south to the west. Abdul notices it, too, along with a dark mass of clouds that’s lying off over Indonesia somewhere and heading our way. He doesn’t like this west wind and neither do most of the other fishermen: we’re one of the last boats out. Abdul starts up the engine and orders his partner to pull in the anchor; I'm left to sit on my ass and hold on as the bow swings around and we begin racing to shore with the wind at our backs.

Fishing villages like Abdul’s are found all over the coast, but in this part of the country they are under increasing pressure as developers seek to build resort complexes and vacation condos. This leaves small villages with roofs of corrugated tin sitting in the shadow of gated communities that rise ten or twenty stories high. In fact, most foreign tourists who visit this area probably don’t even realize there are fishing villages tucked all along the coast. The impact of all these developments is already being felt, as some villages are relocated to make way for new construction. For fishermen like Abdul, it’s yet another assault on a lifestyle that has been an important part of Malay culture for thousands of years.

As our perahu nears the shoreline our speed doesn’t slow one bit and it appears we’re going hit the beach with the throttle wide open. Since the village shoreline is crowded with all the other boats that have already come in, I’m wondering where Abdul intends to land us, and how. I glance over my shoulder at him but he barely registers my concern, sitting with one hand on the tiller, the other holding a smoke. At the last moment, he steers for a small opening among the other perahus and we hit the sandy beach at full speed, sliding up until the boat is completely clear of the water. Abdul grabs the engine and pulls the prop out of the water at the last possible moment, then shuts then engine off.

We clamber out of the boat and unload nets, catch, engine and fuel tank. The wind is now really blowing as we heft the perahu above the high water mark and secure everything from the approaching storm. We’re the last to return today; most of the other fishermen are up beside where the catch is sorted for market, watching television in a covered meeting area. Actually, they’re watching professional wrestling on the tv; American professional wrestling. Abdul smiles as we walk past the wrestling fans, shaking his head in the same way I am. “That is not real sport,” he says. “Is not even real job.” Tomorrow I am promised I can see some more aspects of this community and the way it is trying to maintain traditions.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Gone fishing

Mid-morning in a small coastal village in southeast Asia, a couple of hours south from Kuala Lumpur, and I’m struggling to help three guys heft a fiberglass boat down into the warm waters of the Strait of Malacca. How I ended up here sliding in the dirty sand with a bamboo pole over my shoulder and a trio of Malaysian fishermen laughing at me would require more time and space than this blog offers, so read the damn book when it comes out. Just suffice it to say I’m going fishing.

The open, six-metre boat, what they call a perahu, wallows a bit in the shallows as her master drops the outboard engine into the seas. Abdul starts the Suzuki motor up, calls out a brief warning and then the boat jumps forward through the swells, heading for the fishing grounds about five kilometers offshore where the men work. Slamming through the waters, I’m incessantly jarred as we careen off waves and Abdul periodically swerves to avoid logs floating in the Strait. He’s over a decade younger than me with features already weathered from setting out daily upon these waters since he was twenty-one, the son and grandson of fishermen.

It takes about ten minutes to make it to the fishing grounds, where at least a half dozen other boats are already moored. Abdul cuts the motor, talks quickly with another fisherman and then sets about preparing his net. With his partner, they lay it out and send it over the gunwales and then tell me there’s nothing more to be done for a couple of hours: it’s all up to the fish now. So Abdul fires up the outboard and takes me sightseeing, out towards the main shipping lanes of the Strait of Malacca.

The Strait of Malacca is one of the most important waterways in the world, a place in which a third of the world’s commerce traverses every year, with hundreds of tankers, container ships and other vessels transiting each day. It has also been one of the main locations for modern-day pirates to ply their trade, attacking commercial ships and local fishermen with a regularity that is shocking.

About 25 kilometres out, Abdul slows the engine of the perahu. He doesn’t have to tell me why, because there is a line of immense vessels plodding past us: oversized oil tankers, a container ship laden with metal boxes and a couple of tugboats hauling barges. We watch this display of international commerce for a bit, and I am reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park when the visitors to the island first see the dinosaurs – those immense brachiosaurus behemoths slowly walking along. That’s what these steel ships are like; quiet, intent and powerful.

Returning to the fishing grounds, we throw the anchor over and settle down to wait another hour before pulling the net. Between drags on his cigarette, Abdul tells me the struggles to earn a living fishing extend beyond the weather and the risk those big ships will run them over. Lately, they've had to deal with Indonesians coming over in the middle of the night to steal their boats and engines. Last month the village saw five engines and seven boats stolen, which amounts to a huge financial loss for these people, and there’s no insurance or other recompense available. Abdul sits by his engine waiting for his fish and tells me that every village around here – every village, he emphasizes – is dealing with the same problem.

I ask if there's a local name for these thieves and Abdul gives me a look of disgust. "Perompak," he says while flicking his cigarette into the sea, "But you can call them pirates".

The start of something new.

I sit on the front porch of small, thatched-roof cabin within sight of the Strait of Malacca in western Malaysia listening to the cry of the muezzin from the mosque across the road and wishing the bats would return to feast on the mosquitoes or a breeze of any sort would appear. For the first time in a week the stars are out tonight and the wind has died off completely, making for a sultry evening that leaves me smelling of sweat and mosquito-repellent. And there’s a hell of a kink in my neck from the reason I’ve ended up in the tropics of southeast Asia.

For the last several months I’ve been working on a new book that looks at modern-day piracy, crime and terrorism on the high seas. From my home in Canada, I’ve been immersed in far too many official reports, sifting through a litany of analyses of the situation and spending a lot of time on the phone and the computer. I’ve ventured off to the deserts of Nevada and the east coast of Canada, with a rash of towns large and small thrown in for good measure somewhere in between, interviewing dozens of people from admirals to deckhands to United Nations personnel. But, in the end, I had to get out and visit the places that have been most affected by this global problem and meet the individuals dealing with it.

The final story will be told, of course, in the book I’m working on, which will be released in 2009 in Canada (Raincoast Books) and the United States (St. Martin’s Griffin). In the meantime, you’ll find some initial impressions of my travels at this site. I welcome your comments.