Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The 21st century Coast Guard?

Like you needed another reason to love the Somali pirate story, which appeared amidst the dire tales of imminent global financial meltdown and Sarah Palin's bizarro tales of Putin's ethereal invasion of our Thulian mindspace. Hijacking a Ukrainian ship loaded with heavy weapons, inciting angered pursuit by both the American and Russian navies, these guys are like the trickster court jesters of our apocalyptic days.

The Somali pirates are coastal denizens of what is probably the world's biggest temporary autonomous zone. Not exactly a pirate utopia. In fact, they claim they are not even pirates. Rather, they are a sea posse, a bunch of local dudes who claim they are just protecting their own coastline from illegal fisherman and shippers and trash dumpers in a lawless country where the official state coastal patrols ended a long time ago.

"We come together like Chelsea or Arsenal," explains one of the Somalis. They even have an official spokesman. No, Harry Shearer did not make this up.

Q. & A. With a Pirate: “We Just Want the Money”

Sugule Ali, the spokesman for the Somali pirates holding hostage the Faina, a Ukrainian freighter loaded with weapons, spoke to me by satellite telephone today from the bridge of the seized ship. In the holds of the Faina, which the pirates seized on Thursday, are 33 Russian-built battle tanks and crates of grenade launchers, anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and other explosives. American officials fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamist insurgents who are battling Somalia’s weak government. My questions were translated into Somali, and Mr. Ali’s responses into English, by a translator employed by The New York Times.

Q. Tell us how you discovered the weapons on board.
A. As soon as we get on a ship, we normally do what is called a control. We search everything. That’s how we found the weapons. Tanks, anti-aircraft, artillery. That’s all we will say right now.

Q. Were you surprised?
A. No, we weren’t surprised. We know everything goes through the sea. We see people who dump waste in our waters. We see people who illegally fish in our waters. We see people doing all sorts of things in our waters.

Q. Are you going to sell the weapons to insurgents?
A. No. We don’t want these weapons to go to anyone in Somalia. Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons. We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money.

Q. How much?
A. $20 million, in cash. We don’t use any other system than cash.

Q. Will you negotiate?
A. That’s deal making. Common sense says human beings can make deals.

Q. Right now, the American Navy has you surrounded. Are you scared?
A. No, we’re not scared. We are prepared. We are not afraid because we know you only die once.

Q. Will you kill the hostages if attacked?
A. Killing is not in our plans. We don’t want to do anything more than the hijacking.

Q. What will you do with the money?
A. We will protect ourselves from hunger.

Q. That’s a lot of money to protect yourselves from hunger.
A. Yes, because we have a lot of men and it will be divided amongst all of us.

Q. [There are 20 crew members, most of them Ukrainian, being held hostage.] How are you interacting with the hostages? Eating with them? Playing cards?
A. We interact with each other in an honorable manner. We are all human beings. We talk to one another, and because we are in the same place, we eat together.

Q. What if you were told you could leave peacefully, without arrest, though without any ransom money. Would you do it?
A. [With a laugh] We’re not afraid of arrest or death or any of these things. For us, hunger is our enemy.

Q. Have the pirates been misunderstood?
A. We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits [”sea bandit” is one way Somalis translate the English word pirate]. We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.

Q. Why did you want to become a pirate?
A. We are patrolling our seas. This is a normal thing for people to do in their regions.

Q. Isn’t what you are doing a crime? Holding people at gunpoint?
A. If you hold hostage innocent people, that’s a crime. If you hold hostage people who are doing illegal activities, like waste dumping or fishing, that is not a crime.

Q. What has this Ukrainian ship done that was a crime?
A. To go through our waters carrying all these weapons without permission.

Q. What is the name of your group? How many ships have you hijacked before?
A. I won’t say how many ships we have hijacked. I won’t talk about that. Our name is the Central Region Coast Guard.

For more insight, see Gettleman's excellent little video report from the scene.

We can only hope that the crisis will reach its climax tomorrow night, in time for bizarro Palin and blabbermouth Biden to hash out the surrealities of our new century in cathode ray technicolor.

For more on old world pirate utopias, check out Peter Lamborn Wilson's amazing work on the subject.

For a very amusing speculative fictional take on the Somali pirates and their pop cultural intersection with Johnny Depps' Disney pirates, check out Terry Bisson's "Pirates of the Somali Coast," collected in the Hartwell and Cramer Year's Best SF 13.

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