In all the reams of copy written about Somali piracy over the past few months one thing has been missing: interviews with actual Somali pirates. This is hardly surprising. Only the brave stupid risk a trip to Somalia so what we’re mainly left with is bizarre satellite phone conversations – via translators – with alleged pirates aboard hijacked ships.
I say ‘alleged’ because no-one knows for sure whether they’re talking to a real live pirate or some guy hanging out in Eastleigh.
Luckily there is another way of getting the pirates’ side of the story. Somaliland is just like Somalia except it doesn’t have the civil war, kidnappings and general every-day violence you get further south. Somaliland also has pirates. Around 40 or so men have been arrested, charged and prosecuted in the past year. The trials aren’t exactly a beacon of good jurisprudence. The most recent bunch were jailed for 15-20 years in a trial lasting less than an hour – they didn’t even get a lawyer.
So Somaliland’s jails have pirates. The only problem is most of the pirates claim they’re anything but. “We’re fishermen,” one man told me when I visited him in Berbera jail in May.
Luckily, Farah Ismail Eid is happy to admit he’s a pirate. With a couple of other journalists from Nairobi I interviewed him for more than an hour at Mandheera jail, a few miles south of Berbera.
It was a fascinating insight into the mind of a pirate (or in Farah’s case, a would-be pirate: he’s pretty rubbish at actually hijacking ships). It wasn’t much of an exclusive though. As the only Somali pirate willing to talk Farah has become a bit of a media celebrity.
Jeff Gettleman interviewed him in the New York Times last October. Then Matt Brown at the National (the new Abu Dhabi-based paper) met him in January. A couple of Italians at Rai TV passed through in March, while Shashank Bengali at McClatchy’s beat me by a week. The LA Times’ Ed Sanders and National Public Radio’s Gwen Thompkins met Farah on my trip.
Now Tristan McConnell has interviewed him in last Friday’s Times of London. I was unsure if Farah would agree to any more interviews. It took more than an hour of persuading and cajoling before he began to talk openly with us. At one stage the prison commissioner took him outside for a quick chat. A minute later Farah returned, suddenly happy to talk.
After the interview we took a tour of the prison. I asked one of the translators what changed Farah’s mind. He told me Farah and his friends (who unlike Farah argue they are “just fishermen”) were promised a kilo of khat to chew in return for the interview.
Judging from Tristan’s piece the commissioner might have had to try and persuade Farah again:
“These problems fell on us like rain,” he [Farah] said, his right leg twitching as he chewed on a mouthful of qat, a narcotic leaf enjoyed by many Somalis.
Update: Farah talks again. This time in return for cigarettes.