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Daniel Sekulich

The Globe and Mail

September 29, 2007



A swashbuckling source of starvation; The UN appreciates France's offer this week of naval protection for its aid ships, writes Daniel Sekulich. Somalia's pirates sure don't seem to care if their country goes hungry

NAIROBI -- With world attention focused on Myanmar, severe flooding across Africa and the suffering in Darfur, United Nations officials warn that once again a crisis is brewing in strife-torn Somalia.

Fighting between the government and the country's infamous insurgent groups has forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis from their homes, including Mogadishu, the capital. And drought in the countryside has led to one of the poorest harvests in years, forcing aid groups to prepare to feed more than a million people in the coming months.

The best way to deliver the food is by freighter, but for shipping companies, the waters off Somalia are among the most dangerous in the world.

“The pirate situation in Somalia is extremely worrying to us,” says Peter Smerdon of the UN's World Food Program (WFP) in Nairobi.

“They've attacked over a dozen ships in the first six months of this year, two of which were working for us. In fact, pirates have attacked five vessels contracted by WFP since 2005, hijacking three and holding them for ransom.”

Canada is the second-largest donor to the Somalia program run by the WFP, which traditionally ships about 80 per cent of its food from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Somalia. (The International Committee of the Red Cross and CARE are the country's other major benefactors.) Mr. Smerdon says monsoons have kept the pirates at bay for a few months, but now, “as the monsoon season ends, the pirate season begins.”

The situation is so dire that, on Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced at the United Nations that France is prepared to send a warship to the region for two months to protect WFP deliveries. And this week a six-vessel North Atlantic Treaty Organization flotilla, including the frigate HMCS Toronto, is patrolling the Somali coast.

Emboldened by the country's instability in recent years, pirates have targeted everything from cargo ships and gas tankers to a luxury liner cruising 160 kilometres out to sea. But the unarmed food freighters have been especially attractive, and not just for what's in their holds. In June, 2005, pirates held the freighter MV Semlow and her crew for 100 days until a ransom was paid. An attempt this year to protect vessels by hiring local security failed when pirates shot two guards, one of whom later died.

Sending aid into Somalia by land is difficult. The trucks often travel on rutted tracks and convoys invariably run into roadblocks manned by militias, or even the government itself. “Everyone makes money out of checkpoints,” Mr. Smerdon says. “It can be $50 a truck, which doesn't sound like much, but on one route … a distance of 125 kilometres, there were 29 checkpoints the last time I was there.” And cost alone rules out air deliveries.

With malnutrition rates exceeding 30 per cent in some areas, the WFP estimates that it must deliver 35,000 tonnes of food by the end of the year, and its only hope is to persuade somebody to ferry their supplies past the pirates.

An hour's flight southeast of Nairobi in Mombasa, east Africa's principal port, Karim Kudrati co-owns a shipping firm whose vessels have been hijacked while carrying WFP shipments. He says his company will try again, but only if there is “more protection for our ships and our crews.”

According to Mr. Kudrati, “Whenever one of my vessels has been hijacked, it is our firm that has to pay the ransom, sometimes over $100,000. … Yes, this is a business, whether we are delivering WFP cargo or commercial cargo. But, frankly, if I can find other charters, why would I bother with the UN?”

In fact, the company still trades up regularly with Somalia. Not far from Mr. Kudrati's office, or the warehouses where the WFP stores its supplies, the Semlow and sister ship the MV Miltzow, both victims of hijacking (you can still see bullet holes in the Semlow's wheelhouse), prepare to return to Somalia shortly.

Standing on the Semlow's bridge, chief engineer Juma Mvita watches Kenyan longshoremen manhandle sacks of Somalia-bound sugar into the holds and recalls being held captive in 2005. “When the pirates first came aboard, … we tried to explain that this is food for Somali people, but they did not care. … They were just thieves.”

Mr. Mvita shakes his head in disgust, calling Somalia a place where human life has no value. “Everyone has a gun and they are not afraid to use it. They will kill a friend, kill a family member – boom! – that easy. No, it is not my favourite place to go.”

But with jobs for mariners scarce in this part of Africa, he really doesn't have much choice. “I have been to Somalia many times since [the kidnapping], but never again with the food aid.”

Why will shippers risk commercial cargoes but not aid?

“It is all about money, isn't it?” says Andrew Mwangura of the Seafarers Assistance Program. “Everything in Africa involves money – bribes – especially in a place like Somalia. … Whenever we hear of a commercial ship being hijacked, we usually assume that not enough money was paid to the right people.”

He gestures at the sugar being loaded. “This is a valuable commodity in Somalia. Someone will sell it in his shop, making money. To get the sugar to the shop means people are bribed from the moment this ship leaves Mombasa. It is in their interest to assure it is delivered.”

But food aid, he says, “is given away for free. The gunmen are smart too. They know they cannot steal the food and sell it themselves. That would be dangerous.” Somali warlords understand that the world would not just stand by. “So the one way Somalis can make money,” Mr. Mwangura says, “is to hijack the ships … for ransom. This is why no one wants to work for WFP.”

The simple solution would seem to be naval protection for the aid's three-day journey from Mombasa to Somalia. But any warships in the area are usually looking for terrorists, not pirates. Last year, crew from the USS Winston S. Churchill captured a gang of Somalis, but the encounter was accidental. More often, naval vessels fail to respond to pleas from ships under attack because of legal issues.

Engaging suspected pirates at sea is not something a country takes lightly. Officials must confirm that a criminal act has been committed in international waters and receive political approval to act, which can take hours. If, in that time, pirates reach the 12-mile limit of Somali territorial waters, foreign vessels cannot follow without permission from Mogadishu, which the government has yet to grant.

But there are signs the situation may be changing. Mr. Sarkozy's offer this week came in response to a joint call for action from the heads of the WFP and the UN's International Maritime Organization in July. That same month, HMCS Toronto left Halifax with a crew of 235 to join the NATO squadron on a mission to examine the maritime situation off Africa and test the alliance's ability to send ships outside the North Atlantic, its normal area of operations.

Dealing with pirates isn't an official part of the mission, says Lieutenant-Commander Angus Topshee, the ship's executive officer, but the attacks off Somalia are no secret. “The crew is very aware of piracy – we've adopted an unusually high force-protection posture,” he says by satellite phone. “Every nation is required under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to repress piracy. … And I'll be honest: The ship's company would like nothing more than to come across a pirate attack and do something about it.”

He, like Mr. Mwangura, realizes pirates know that foreign ships like HMCS Toronto can't enter Somali waters. So, the week of patrolling may just be a dry run for future deployments, something that senior naval officials in several countries seem willing to consider.

“If you'd asked me this question just four or five years ago,” LCdr. Topshee explains, “I'd have said, ‘No, pirates don't exist, this is nonsense.' But the reality is the modern-day pirate is alive and well, with a keen economic sense and with a vicious determination to get whatever money they can out of people. We find it very frustrating that the generosity of nations can't get through to the people who so desperately need it.”

It is hoped that, by the time HMCS Toronto and its squadron leave for the Red Sea, a French vessel will be on the scene. But many observers believe that unless there is a forceful, long-term naval presence, the temporary patrols and hand-wringing over legal issues will only embolden the pirates into believing that the West doesn't really care.

“Since the 1990s, I think Somalia has frightened the West, it certainly frightened the Americans, and many countries are just fairly tired of it,” says the WFP's Mr. Smerdon. “We're trying to feed people in need, but logistics – delivering food – is not that sexy. There are no blue helmets, no white UN vehicles, no Western troops handing out food to dying people in a war zone. This is nuts-and-bolts work we're doing, but it is among the most vital things the United Nations can do.

“We must feed these people because we're talking about millions …who are going hungry, are susceptible to disease and unable to function. And if we can secure our supply lines now, then we have a chance to avert a greater tragedy in Somalia in the future.”

Toronto journalist Daniel Sekulich is working on Sea Terror, a book about modern piracy to be released in 2009.

© 2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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