Op-Ed by John Guy
One free, thirty-seven to go. Hostages held by Somali pirates, that is. Seven from commercial ships, thirty unfortunate fishermen, and one lucky German-American journalist, Michael Scott Moore, free this week after German sources paid a reported $2m ransom.
Nice for Moore, and nicer for the Somali gangs in Galkayo, central Somalia, who captured him over two years ago while he was researching a book on piracy. You would think the hostage takers would be both grateful and happy now the hostage is off their hands and the cash is in them. Instead six of them are dead.
Colonel Mohamed Aden, a senior Somali police officer, told Reuters that six members of the same family were dead after a fight over the cash.
There is quite a big investment in a hostage taking and ransom. You need cash, influence, guns and young men, all of which are in plentiful supply in Somalia. Two and a half years keeping their valuable hostage safe from other clans who would like to steal him. Two and a half years paying and feeding guards to protect the hostage. Two and a half years of nervously moving the hostage around. Two and a half years paying the negotiators. Two and a half years paying off the local officials and police to turn a blind eye.
Then the cash comes, the hostage goes, the tension is relieved and a lot of very excited young men with guns have to pay off the investors and divide the rest. So now there are six fewer people to split it with.
No comfort to the hostages still there, nor to Moore, who will take some time to recover from his research trip. But you have to see the irony of it all.
The captain and crew of the cruise ship Salamis Filoxenia did not hesitate when they got a distress call from a fishing boat laden with Syrian refugees and in trouble in rough seas south off the Greek island of Paphos. They put themselves and their ship at risk and rescued 300 people, 52 of them children.
It was an apt rescue, as filoxenia is the Greek word for hospitality or generosity shown to people who are far from home.
The Cypriot ship took the rescued refugees to its home port of Limassol. And there the refugees repaid their rescuers by refusing to leave the ship. They wanted, they said, to be taken to Italy.
Now call me unsympathetic, but if I haul someone off a sinking tub, give them hot food and a warm cabin to sleep in and take them to a safe port, I wouldn’t expect them at that point to demand a ticket to somewhere more to their taste. Especially as all of them were and are in good physical shape.
Meanwhile three hundred cruise passengers had to be disembarked and flown home. Salamis Cruise Lines Managing Director Kikis Vassiliou says the company’s losses as a result of the rescue run into hundreds of thousands of euros.
Cypriot police eventually negotiated the refugees off the ship, where I suspect the supply of filoxenia was beginning to run low.
But you would not be surprised if next time a captain in that area gets a call for help there is pause for thought.
The whole southern Mediterranean is a mess of desperate people fleeing Africa, trying to reach Europe in leaky boats. Every day there is a heroic rescue, and every day there is a tragedy as boats sink, refugees die from crushing or asphyxiation or drowning or the people traffickers they have paid for a passage simply kill them.
It’s not the fault of anyone involved, but the behavior of this relatively lucky but very ungrateful bunch means the rest will find less filoxenia when they most need it.
Even more gratitude
Both seafarers and Somali pirates have good reason to be grateful to Shell and a group of other shipowners. They are doing what should have been done a long time ago, and done by governments. They are putting cash where it is needed to develop economic activity in the areas of Somalia where piracy festers.
The Joint Shipping Initiative, which includes Shell, BP, Maersk, Stena, NYK, MOL and “K” Line, have just given $1.5 million to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project to improve the lives of Somalis and security for seafarers. This follows $1m they gave in 2013.
The money has been spent building markets and roads in areas where the piracy sucks in the 67 per cent of unemployed youth. Markets and roads create commerce and jobs. Selling fish in a market is a lot more attractive than getting shot or drowned trying to hijack a ship. The new cash will allow UNDP to develop more infrastructure in the towns of Alula and Bargal, near the tip of the Horn of Africa, and Balanbal in central Somalia.
“Piracy is a global problem that takes root in limited economic opportunities, high youth unemployment rates and poor infrastructure,” Jens Munch Lund-Nielsen, Head of Emerging Markets Projects in Group Sustainability, Maersk, said. “The problem requires a land-based solution.”
Right on, Jens. Took a long time to get to this point though. Piracy off Somalia has cost shipping billions of dollars, and is still costing the world’s trading nations billions in largely ineffective naval patrols. It has cost many seafarers their lives or their liberty. So finally seeing an investment in the sensible economic development which is the only way to stop piracy is really something to be grateful for.
John Guy served on merchant ships and warships for sixteen years before becoming a ship inspector and then a journalist. He advises companies and organizations working in the global shipping industry on media and crisis management. His recent novels are The Reluctant Pirate and The Golden Tide.