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 world.
“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 eat.”
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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.