Catching up with Somali pirates on their day off

Down and Out in Nairobi: Somali Pirates in Retirement
By Nick Wadhams / Nairobi

An armed pirate looks at a cargo ship anchored offshore in northeastern Somalia

The pirate is sitting in the backseat of my car. We are parked in the basement lot of a Nairobi mall; the Muzak version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" echoes across the concrete. The man, who calls himself Ahmad, tells me he helped hijack six ships off Somalia before he quit the trade in November because his wife left him for another pirate. He starts to cry and hides his face with his hands. "I felt that I could murder that man," Ahmad says. "My town was dominated by him. I thought the best thing was to run away from that place before I killed someone."
I met Ahmad a couple of weeks ago at a restaurant in Eastleigh, a Nairobi neighborhood dominated by Somalis. He came with another ex-pirate, named Bashir, who bared his black, rotted teeth every time he smiled. Bashir and Ahmad sipped strawberry milkshakes through long straws. Soon after the shakes arrived, a group of well-dressed Kenyans sat down in an adjacent booth and began shooting them cold stares. Ahmad thought they might be police or intelligence officers, so we paid the bill and retreated to the safest place we knew, another car, and parked it down an empty road.

Bashir was once a fisherman. The pirates wanted to hire him because he knew how to swim, a valuable skill he could teach other recruits. Bashir claims he was among the pirates who hijacked the MV Faina, a ship carrying 33 Soviet-era battle tanks to Kenya, on Sept. 25, 2008. He fled Somalia after that job, he says, because he fell out with the pirate leaders over pay. He earned $6,000, but his bosses deducted two-thirds of that to pay for the food he ate during the operation. "We are the ones out on the water taking all the risks and suffering," Bashir says. "That was how our differences began. I feared that because I disagreed with the boss about money, they would assassinate me."
When Somali piracy really hit the headlines in 2008, the first crop of stories told of young pirates who had struck it rich. They bought expensive cars and houses and married the prettiest girls. Then, everyone said, the pirates started looking for places to invest their money safely and fueled a building boom in Nairobi. Bashir and Ahmad headed to Nairobi for a different reason: asylum. Willing to risk police harassment, hunger and poor prospects, they arrived with a few hundred — maybe even a few thousand — dollars, but nothing like the riches they dreamed of when they joined the business.

Good information on the inner workings of the piracy trade is hard to come by, but evidence from out of Somalia indicates that criminal syndicates with financiers and investors based in Dubai and London and Mombasa, Kenya, have taken over piracy in Somalia, which got its start in the early 1990s as a way to mete out retribution on ships that fished illegally or dumped toxic waste in Somali waters. Now the warlords at the top take almost all the money and pay the men at the bottom next to nothing. The pirates caught on camera bobbing in their skiffs are the high-sea equivalent of the Cosa Nostra's lowliest associates. "The people being arrested are actually foot soldiers. They are not the real pirates," says Dickson Oruku Nyawinda, a lawyer who represents accused Somali pirates in Kenya's jails. "We are dealing with people who have no idea where the ransoms are going."

The U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia provided some illuminating details in a report in February. The report describes a corporate system in which pirates may be fined $1,500 for stealing from their ships or $500 for entering their bosses' offices without permission. On the flip side, pirates can win rewards of several thousand dollars for good behavior. "As the saying goes, 'the parents initially love their children equally, but it is the children who make them love some more than the others,' " says a document distributed to pirates by their bosses, according to the U.N. report. "It is up to your abilities to qualify [for] this easy-to-earn reward."

According to the report, rank-and-file militiamen receive $15,000 for their role in hijacking a ship. They get much more if they bring their own weapons or a boat. But pirates who have fled Somalia for Nairobi say that figure is much inflated. Ahmad, for example, says he might get a $10,000 share but his bosses would withhold as much as half of that to pay for his expenses. "The big fish are the guys who lead us, the ones who invest in the equipment, the boat, those things," he says. "Whether we die or not, they don't care."
The inequities are easy to see among the suspects who were arrested on piracy charges and are now being held in Kenyan prisons. They are generally illiterate young men who have no say in the operations they join and don't even know how much ransom is paid for the ships they hijack. All of the financial negotiations are conducted well above their pay grade. "These guys, you can call them ragtag people," says Nyawinda, their lawyer. "They don't have a leader as such. When I go visit them in jail, one may know Swahili more than the others. Whoever among them understands more becomes the leader."
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that pirate money is still driving a real estate boom in Kenya. Brokers and Somalis in Eastleigh point to new buildings, housing estates and businesses said to have been started with piracy money. They tell stories of Somalis bidding two to three times the asking price for a plot of land. "I have friends who ... tell me, 'This is piracy money. Take advantage of the situation while the money's here,' " says a broker who identifies himself as Willy.

But most pirates can only dream of such riches. Mohamed, another pirate I meet in Nairobi, is in the city for a few days, he says, to check on his employers' investments. Wearing a cheap charcoal suit and dirty fake-leather shoes, this father of eight clearly doesn't make a lot from piracy. He is vague about his boss's investments and says they might be small stalls selling clothes or cheap hotels. Mohamed got across the border from Somalia by paying someone to hide him inside the back of a truck. "I'm not happy with it, but since I have no education, I have no choice," he said. "If I had another choice, I'd do it, but this is the only job I know. If you tell me now you want to hire me, I'll work for you."
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