Saturday 24 March 2018

'Captain Phillips' in Oscars bid but former Somalian pirate tells his real-life story

Best Picture: Captain Phillips
Best Picture: Captain Phillips

Stephen Mooney

When one thinks of the Seychelles a few words probably come to mind: sun, beach, sand, paradise even. But high and tucked away on the top of a mountain rests Montagne Posse, a maximum security prison for captured pirates, drug lords, and murderers.

For a number of years now there have been countless news reports on Somali pirates hijacking ships looking for ransom in the Indian Ocean.  The release of Captain Phillips, the biopic based on the hijacking of a merchant mariner, highlighted the issue to a global audience last year.

Abdul Mohammed, a former Somali pirate whose name has been changed for the purpose of this article, was caught by the Seychelles coastguard and imprisoned in 2009.  He has since become the first pirate to co-operate with the Seychelles intelligence services and uses his knowledge of piracy and Somali warlords for good.  

He spoke to me about his journey.

Born into a family of seven in a village between Haradheere and Hobyo in Somalia, his father was a farmer and a member of the Haiwiyee clan.  He began attending Islamic school when he was six, and when he was 13 he went to Mogadishu and lived there with his grandmother.  While he believes that the civilian controlled areas in Somalia were relatively safe, when I ask him what it was like growing up in Mogadishu, an extremely bleak picture emerges.

“Children don’t know about clans but they learn later on,” he says.  “It was very difficult growing up in Mogadishu. There was no administration, no government, no law and order.  It was very dangerous you had to keep quiet. 

"If someone disagreed with you, you had to be patient or they’d kill you.  Most people had AK 47S and life was cheap.  There were checkpoints everywhere and you had to pay money to pass.  There were warlords in control of different areas and you couldn’t enter these.”

Despite his difficulty growing up, Abdul maintains that he was happy when he was living with his mother and father and loved watching Arsenal play in the cinema “even though they win nothing”.  But a lot of young men have no other option but to pursue piracy when they become teenagers.

“Circumstances,” he says, “I had no money no occupation and no security.  It was the worst time in Somalia.  I had to go find something to survive.  I had no hope and heard that pirates made good money.”

There are a number of factors that cause these circumstances. 

According to Abdul, the problem in Somalia is the clan system as they don’t trust each other and everyone is fighting for power.  The warlords use the clan to fight for power while the Somali people face losing their protection if they stay away from them.   Unfortunately more problems seem to be arising.

“Al Shabaab terrorism is now an extra problem because they are over the clan and don’t follow the clan orders,” he says. “It’s all about money and power and the normal people suffer. Other countries taking our fish and dumping chemicals in the sea is very bad too.  All my friends who used to be fishermen have no work and had to go to piracy.  This is what started piracy.  They had no choice we had to feed our families.”

It was in 2009 that Abdul gave in to these circumstances and first went out to sea in search of a ship worth hijacking when he was caught by the Seychelles coastguard.
Library Image. Photo: Getty Images

Seychelles is home to Montagne Posse, a maximum security prison for captured pirates

“I was in a mothership with other guys and we had two skiffs.  We had rocket launchers and AK 47S. We had no plan and were just going to capture any ship.  I got sea sick.  We were at sea for around seven days when they captured us.  We had enough water and food and petrol and Khat to last a long time.”

Abdul was then sentenced to ten years in Seychelles notorious ‘Pirate Prison’, I asked him what the experience was like and with sadness in his voice, he replies:

“It was not comfortable.  There were five of us in a cell.  It was very small.  There were many pirates there but also drug dealers and murderers.  I had no privacy.  We found small spaces to pray but had no place where we could all pray together.  Everybody was always fighting specially between the Somalis and other prisoners. 

"There was just rice and fish every day but the worst part was in high security.  It was always closed and you have no freedom or sunshine.”

However, after two-and-a-half years he was taken from the prison and moved to protective custody for his own safety.  He was in contact with a Government official and succeeded in convincing him that he wanted to help and change Somalia for the better.

“I told him my story.  I told him the situation in Somalia and that I wanted to make Somalia a better place for my family and the new generation.  I told him that I could help to prevent bad actions by warlords and pirate chiefs.  I know Somalia very well and can see that it will never improve unless the people of Somalia stand up for themselves. 

"Outsiders like the United Nations cannot change Somalia without the Somalia people.  Sometimes they make the situation worse by misspending their money.”

From speaking with Abdul it became very evident that he wholly regretted his involvement in piracy, not just because he was caught, but because he knows it was wrong.  He emphasises that he had no other options.

“Yes but what else could I do.  I cried for my involvement.  I am trying to make things better.”

The work that Abdul is now undertaking is extremely dangerous, often putting his own life and the life of his family in harm’s way.  I ask what kind of work he actually carries out:

“It is very dangerous work.  My own life and my families in Somalia are in danger.  I help by providing intelligence and evidence on warlords and pirate chiefs operating in Somalia.  It is too dangerous but the only way.”

With my final question I ask if he thinks he’ll ever be able to leave this all behind and live a normal life, he simply responds:

“Insha’ Allah". If it is God’s will.

With thanks to

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