“Somalia is like a country out of a twisted fairy tale, an ethereal land given substance only by the stories we are told of it,” Toronto-based journalist Jay Bahadur writes in the introduction to his debut, The Pirates of Somalia.
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In an attempt to flesh out that picture, Bahadur ditched his marketing gig and took off for the Horn of Africa where, over the course of a year, he chronicled the life of one gang of pirates—both on and off the sea. Blending firsthand accounts of the modern-day swashbucklers with those of maritime officers, former hostages and foreign-policy experts, Bahadur gives texture and depth to a phenomenon that often seems more at home in the pages of a Hollywood script than the daily news sheets. Here, he spoke with us about life on the high seas.
Tell us about the book.
Ultimately, this is the story of a gang of pirates I followed for one year. I was their media mouthpiece almost. When I first got there, Boyah, the godfather figure of this particular pirate gang, was setting out on a big redemption movement. He wanted the world to know what he was doing was wrong. But he ended up in jail for continuing to finance piracy. It’s the story of one gang, melded with overall analysis. It’s a summary of the problems and complexities of piracy—a new topic that hasn’t been handled before.
Do you think that not being a journalist at the time gave you an advantage?
If I were a journalist, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to spend that much time there. I was able to spend five or six weeks there at a time. My first trip, I didn’t see another foreign journalist until the last day I was there. [If I’d been working] with a news agency, I’d only have had a matter of days there. I felt I had an advantage, even if I was taking my own life in my hands—I was inexperienced, and there are certainly things I would do differently.
I was really at the mercy of my partners there, and I didn’t have a reputation. I was just this kid from Toronto flying in to try to talk to pirates. I would have insisted we’d gone to more dangerous places. My interview technique was rough and unpolished—in retrospect, there are so many things I’d like to have asked.
You arrived on the ground there knowing no one except Mohamed Farole, who ran a local radio station. In retrospect, do you think that was naïve on your part—considering how dangerous Somalia is known to be?
Yes, it was naïve. But it was better than my original plan to fly in and find some pirates. I trusted him. He was immediately very eager. I’d sent out a proposal late one night to several sources, and I got a call from him at 7 a.m. the next morning. His father Abdirahman Farole had just been elected president of Puntland [an autonomous region of Somalia] so I figured I’d have good protection and very good access. But in terms of preparation—I had a proposal and a list of questions, I’d been following the story in the news, and I’d gotten my shots and vaccinations.
What do you think people are going to be surprised to learn about the pirates?
People think these pirates are extremely sophisticated, organized by outsiders, receiving intelligence from around the world. They’re not. When most people talk to me about piracy, they assume that it’s happening in response to the overfishing of Somali waters. The pirates have a surprisingly effective PR machine. But fishing is considered ignoble in many parts of Somalia. It’s never been a larger part of the workforce, and it’s not a big source of nutrition.
How do we combat piracy then?
I try to deal with that in the book. It annoys me when I read in all these op-ed pieces “let’s kill them all” or “let’s find a solution on land.” They’re trying to focus on a band-aid solution to mitigate the situation.
A lot of my suggestions are things that the government of Puntland has already suggested. There’s a need for improved coastal infrastructure to bolster security, which can be achieved at a relatively low cost. Also, they need all-terrain-vehicles and improved coastal radar.
It’s impossible to end piracy when Somalia is not a state…Somalis need to instill peace and security region-by-region before they can cobble their entire country back together.