Gold gleams on the high seas


Rafia Zakaria


Karachi: On the other side of the Indian Ocean, away from the shores of Karachi, lies Somalia, a country more beleaguered than Pakistan, even in these admittedly beleaguered times.

Wracked by civil war and a government that controls only a few swatches of territory, Somalia is a place where no one wants to be. Those who are left there are often those who cannot leave, those who are forced to eke out a living with bare resources. The story of pirates on the Indian Ocean is their story.

In a report issued by the World Bank and International Criminal Police Organisation recently on piracy, the testimony of some of these pirates is included.

When asked how he got into the business of piracy, one of them said this: “I was an unemployed, occasional fisherman and someone appr­o­ached me. Had I been invo­lved in a decent job at that time, I would have never got close to that. The man promised me money and khat (drug). He explained how he got his wealth. The man was my cousin. He was a successful pirate and was accompanied by an investor. He brought me from Mogadishu to Bossaaso by car. They took care of me in Bossaaso. I used to get everything on my cousin’s name — khat, comfort… I lived that life for two to three weeks. I was living like a minister. The financier brought a car and took us to Garacad. We stayed there for two months. We were living like vampires: only at night. Sleeping the whole day, chewing khat the rest of the time…”

There are many stories such as these, and together they represent the building blocks of a multi-million dollar business. The same report goes on to declare that between 2005 and 2012, $339 to $413 million in ransom payments were paid to pirates on the Indian Ocean. The average haul for a single pirate operation was around $2.7million.

Conversely, the average investment in running a piracy operation was relatively small. According to the research, a pirate operation off the coast of Somalia, which is dotted by small fishing villages replete with potential recruits, can begin with just a few hundred dollars.

Larger operations that use multiple hijacking vessels cost more money and require professional investors who are in turn paid a share of the ransom. These larger investments, the total costs of which can run into tens of thousands of dollars, are often undertaken with the complicity of former military officials, policemen and civil servants.

Drugs dealers involved in the production and sale of khat also enter the mad mix. In ensuring that a wide net of actors get a cut, the piracy operations give rise to a formidable hold on the underground economy of the ocean that beats on their shores.

While the pirate mischief of Somalia has merited a report issued by the World Bank, the tragedies of the country are little known in the international realm. Attention would reveal all the ingredients of certain disaster. There are clans that have been penetrated by Al Qaeda.

The hardline movement, al-Shebab, that recently attacked the Westgate Mall in Kenya, is engaged in an ongoing conflict with the government that came to power in 2012. They seem to be losing territory, but the war rages on as it has for years.

And of course, as catastrophic conditions go, a portion of the genealogy can be traced back to the US, whose widely backed intervention in 2006 is said to have pushed people into choosing between a foreign power and local barbarians.

As Pakistanis know, that is a sinister selection and a certain sign that times are not simply bad, but truly terrible. Faced with such pitiable circumstances, the Somalis put to use the trappings of disaster. Unable to travel and so unable to access jobs located elsewhere, they continue to look beyond their shores.

In an irony apparent only to the hapless: beyond their shores pass ships representing a world that still works, a world of interconnection, of exports and of imports, of trade and talks. It is a world not available to Somalia, and those who cannot play must spoil the games of others.

Somali piracy, of which even Pakistani ships have been victims, does what it can still do: it sits by the road that its people cannot travel, the oceans that they cannot pass, and inflicts its own brand of persecution.

Piracy is a crime under international law; but how does one speak of the law to those who have never enjoyed its protection? On the other side of the Indian Ocean, Pakistan faces very similar questions. On the agenda is the question of supply routes that traverse Pakistani territory, that represent the military aspirations of Nato and the US.

Can a country like Pakistan, increasingly familiar with the exclusions and slights of global exclusion, put its heart into a fight whose objectives make sense only to those for whom this is a remote control war? It is a difficult question, and as the country mulls it over, the picture of Somalia on the other side of the Indian Ocean can be instructive.

Will the ships that sail by carrying goods and fuel to and from a world that still works be allowed to sail in safety, or be stopped, forced to pay a ransom to those who watch from a crumbling country and are going nowhere?