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A journalist in the hands of Somali pirates

Somali pirates in Hobyo, north of Mogadishu. (EPA)Shadows of emerging skyscrapers in a neighborhood in Nairobi come alive as the sun glides down the western horizon. I am walking down one of the deserted streets in the city’s Eastleigh shantytown. Lately, Eastleigh has become a contradiction of sorts. While the roads remain as torn as ever and clean drinking water and other social amenities remain out of reach, there is a new aura of affluence among the numerous huge buildings that seem to be coming up overnight.

Under one of the complexes with nine floors or more, I pause to wonder at the developments in this neighborhood, which just a few months ago seemed too familiar to me. Now I can only just recognize the place I call home. As I consider these changes, a loose piece of timber bolts from somewhere atop the building and, with a thud, lands a few meters away from me, barely missing a young man walking under the building.

At first the man stands tongue-tied—then he launches into a profuse diatribe about Somali pirates and the hasty and reckless structures they are putting up. This building, he says aloud, has been made possible by piracy money. As I watch him turn a corner and disappear behind another high-rise building, my curiosity about this small and fast-changing Somali neighborhood in Kenya and its possible connection to piracy money from the coast of Somalia jolts my nose for news into action. I know I have to do something to investigate—so begins my long trip to war-torn Somalia.

I travel to Eyl, a small village in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland that is the epicenter of the now infamous ship-hijacking trade. This small town used to be a fishing resort for the locals but all that has changed: abandoned wooden boats, and dirty, sandy beaches are everywhere. A woman helpfully directs me to a big house unlike the surrounding ramshackle structures. She says it is a meeting point for pirates. As the watchman opens the main gate, I feel like I am in a big capital city with cars parked inside the compound and comfy sofa sets all over the place. The house is incredibly beautiful.

“Hello. Welcome. You seem new here, what can we do for you?” says one of the more than 10 men chewing khat. I introduce myself and as seconds turned to minutes, the men become comfortable with me. These men, it turns out, are pirates. And they begin to tell me their side of the story.

“We started this trade because some countries are destroying our livelihood by dumping toxic materials into our sea,” says a man named Mohamed who is sipping coffee. “We are also up against the illegal fishing that takes place here.”

To the far right is a man about 70 years old with a bushy beard that is slowly taking over his round face. I am told he is the ringleader. “We are only waiting for the monsoon period to end and this time we will strike hard,” says Guled Mohamed.

On this Friday, the team is busy organizing the food to take to hostages held in different locations. Men clad in local Somali regalia crisscross the verandah. The team offers to take me to a group of Asian hostages secured at an island miles away. I agree to go.

Along the route, a confrontation ensues between the pirates onboard while deep in the Gulf of Aden. A section is opposed to the idea of a journalist recording and visiting the highly guarded territory. Two of them turn, pointing their AK-47 rifles at me. At this point I am speechless that the men who only a few minutes ago were friends are baying for my blood.

After more than four hours roaming the Gulf of Aden, we finally come ashore. They lead me to a dark room and hold me hostage for eight hours, often threatening me: “You’re going to die in the next four hours if we don’t get a kill today,” one of them says.

My Sony H4 Zoom recorder is my only companion as I keep the record button on, making sure that I leave evidence even if they end my life. At this point, I reflect on my initial questions that led me to this mission: Who is behind this trade and does it have links to the development that is on going back in Eastleigh? My nose for news is slowly being replaced by a desire to survive the ordeal. I keep praying for a quick intervention. I see July 31 as my last day on Earth.

Eventually, they release me, but not before a parting shot: Western forces must respect Somalia. “You must tell the international community that we are here to stay despite what the U.S., Russia, and France do,” the ringleader, Guled, said. “They should respect our waters and avoid dumping waste here.”

But I was adamant and wanted to get a story. Pausing and gauging my tone, I slowly whispered, “Do you have cohorts in Kenya?”

In a deep, husky voice, Guled answered, “Yes we do. Not just in Kenya but also Dubai, Germany, and even Canada. I will be honest: This business is bigger than you think. Though we carry out the operations, half the money goes to businessmen abroad who finance us and provide us with equipment.”

The International Maritime Bureau lists the Somali coast as one of the most dangerous waterways. For those who perceive the current calm in piracy off the Gulf of Aden as an end of sea piracy, Somali pirates are asking you to think again. The men, who earned themselves the nickname “The Robin Hoods of the Sea,” say they are still in action and are strategizing.

Kassim Mohamed is a freelance journalist based in East Africa who has contributed stories from Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Uganda to Current TV.

October 1, 2009 11:30 AM ET | | Comments (22)

Comments

What a terrific piece.The writer has not been judgemental, he simply expressed what happened to him and has in no way offended anyone.Bravo CPJ and Kudos Kassim.
Where does Kassim come from? is he in Somalia?

Brilliant work.

I am happy you survived to tell this story. The world would be surely blind without journalists... We see they see.

Am amazing story ,you are a real journalist with nose for better indepth news content soucing to know more deeper than we see on the surface...

Bravoooooo!!!

Excellent piece, it almost makes one feel like they are the ones who went through the ordeal.

What? I can't imagine undergoing this experience.Kassim must be a strong person with passion for his work.
Journalists are our eyes where there is darkness and they shape society.The Committee to protect Journalists has done a mervellous job by adding this.

is He a poet?wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Surprising, what an incredible journey.Kassim where have you been before? we need ten more journalists like you in Africa to cover the troubled region.Bravo to you and the Committee!
I really appreciate journalists.This pirates were good people as they didn't kill you.Your lastline-pirates are strategising is true.Just yesterday they hijacked aboat.

May God bless you-Ameen.

This is a story we can relate to.Its well balanced.He gives the pirates a chance to express what they feel and as well as telling what they do.

Kudos journalists worldwide.Kudos Committe to protect journalists, plese protect this lot(journalists) thy are important in our lives.Without them the world will not be a better place.

Have seen Kassim's other work as I followed the link you gave and what a reporter.

Kasiim I knew u.u will die with a passion of reporting and investigating news beside you in bed. U r the next Mohamed Amin

Amazing story... kudos to you Kassim... we would love to tell the story from the A24 Patform and try and get this story told to a wider audience...

Well done...

This is facinating and warrants an honour.This journalist is one of a kind(a rare species).He has delved into this world that is rarely told.

Thanks CPJ for sharing this.Journalists have to be safe through thick or thin.

good work kassim.
that was so courageous of you!
lakini nimeogopa

You must be a person with a heavy heart to do such a story.Just be careful and God bless you and journalists around the world.

Bishar, Dubai.

Amazing experience. Awesome story.

What an incredible journey! Hollywood moguls should do a film on this experience.I don't know much about Somalia but now I have some idea of how the piracy business works.
Thank you the Committee to Project Journalists for thinking about people like Kassim who put their lives on the line for this noble duty of informing others.

Rosebella,
Havanna.

The story is not only informative but also captivating. The style of unfolding it, is neither dull nor exaggerated but wow!

Bring more of this Kassim.

Simply brillaint work.Thanks for sharing!

That is incredible, an experience of a lifetime. Thank Goodness you lived to tell it. Great Kassim.

Just catching up now to this newest @current contretemps. Kudos to Mohamed for pushing the Vanguar envelope.

Fantastic kassim...happy to now ur alive my friend...how comes u havent availed this footage to NTV? Next time round you have such a story..inform me..i ll see how newsdesk can help you out!!cheers
Haku

That's great Kazzim. Were you breathing at that time? I now believe it can happen. I only heard of this in movies. "I see July 31 as my last day on earth." It's moving. Where are the orgs that recognize Investigative journalists? They must read this.Kudos boy.

Kassim you are a great Journalist.

Hi Kassim, nice to read you article.

Im proud to have a friend like you from too far continent of Africa.

I heard that you were threatened in searching for truth, pls be strong and continue your fight to promote our profession!

Keep it up, dear classmate!


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