"The Pirates Have Seized the Ship"
Even as gunboats from across the globe move into their waters, the desperate, well-armed, and increasingly bold bandits of Somalia keep swarming the decks of the world’s largest ships. They take what they want, they don’t leave until the (higher and higher) ransoms are paid, and they won’t stop until a modern-day war against piracy breaks out
by jeffrey gettleman
our little plane buzzed over the crumbling dunes, and the midday sun made the wasteland beneath us look impossibly bright and lifeless. We crossed over a ridge of mountains that gave way to a long empty beach and then a vast, beautiful expanse of teal blue. The pilot cut our speed, and the plane began its descent into Boosaaso, a booming pirate city and a portal into the chaotic underworld of Somalia.
The airport in Boosaaso is like most in this country, a strip of gravel with an outhouse and a corrugated-iron shack where a few veiled women stirred a murky pot of tea. Outside, in the thin lattice of shade provided by thorn trees, lurked the mooryaan, the half-starved young men with glassy eyes and loaded Kalashnikovs who haunt every nook and cranny of this country. Some of them wore military fatigues that drooped off their shoulders, making them look like boys in men’s clothing, which they were. They watched as the plane rolled to a halt and the pilot opened the cabin door.
Friends who work for the United Nations in Kenya had warned me to stay away from Boosaaso. I had about a 100 percent chance of being stuffed into the back of a Toyota or shot in the head, they said, unless I was extremely well guarded, around the clock, in which case my chances were only marginally better. In Boosaaso you have to go through the local “government” to hire security, which really means you’re going to criminals to hire security to protect you from criminals. The guards you’re assigned may keep you from being kidnapped, or they may kidnap you themselves. There’s a lot of money on the line, in a very poor place, so it’s impossible to know which way it will go. (Shortly after I visited Boosaaso, two journalists who’d come here to get a closer look at Somalia’s pirates were kidnapped for forty days, most likely sold out by their Somali fixer.)
I grabbed my bags and stepped out into the crushing light and heat. I’d been in contact with a young Somali journalist named Bulgaz, whom I’d deputized to line up security. He was wearing a polo shirt and wraparound shades when we met on the airstrip, and we shook hands and hugged Somali-style, shoulder to shoulder. He pulled me into a nearby four-wheel-drive truck with tinted windows, decorated like a gaudy mosque, with a feather boa covering the dashboard and gold-plated charms dangling from the rearview mirror. The windows were rolled up tight, and I nearly gagged from the overpowering smell of air freshener. Behind our truck was another pickup, with ten gunmen crouched in the back. I swiveled around to check out the guys in charge of saving my life. They looked back at me, unblinking. Their commander had just confiscated all their cell phones so that none of them could call in our location to anyone else, a smart move, security-wise, but one that immediately pissed them off. “Ten, like you said,” Bulgaz said. “Let’s go.”
We bumped along a dirt road through a field of garbage, where goats snacked on plastic bags and thin little boys with sunken eyes watched over them. Women, veiled head to toe, trudged along the road hauling plastic jerricans sloshing with water. Occasionally a cart would pass, pulled by an emaciated donkey with every rib showing. It’s impossible to overstate the level of poverty and human suffering in Somalia. After eighteen years without a functioning government, after ceaseless fighting and famine, it is the world’s most failed state. And the grubby city of Boosaaso is the logical, Hobbesian end toward which all of Somalia is headed.
Boosaaso is perfectly positioned near the mouth of the Red Sea, at the crossroads of Africa and Arabia, to supply this lawless corner of the world with all its contraband needs: guns, drugs, expired baby formula, counterfeit electronics, counterfeit dollars, even smuggled human beings. If it’s illegal and it makes money, then someone is trafficking in it here. When we arrived, the center of town was packed with people—money changers sitting sphinxlike in front of bricks of Somali shillings, waiting to convert pirate dollars into the filthy local notes; old men in skullcaps chewing camel steaks at dingy, whitewashed restaurants; boys hawking slices of watermelon from roadside carts. Several late-model Land Cruisers, trucks that cost at least $50,000, prowled the deeply rutted roads. As we moved through town, our driver jutted his finger toward a large white house with a steel gate. “C.I.A.,” he said. He may have been right. It was an open secret that the American government was working with notorious figures in northern Somalia to track Islamist terrorists. Not far from the center of town was a neighborhood called New Boosaaso, where just beyond a cluster of refugee huts made from bits of cloth and cardboard rose a colony of palatial new homes with huge walls surrounding them and satellite dishes on their roofs. Spectral figures tramped through the dust on the way to their hovels, and right next to them were some of the nicest houses I had seen anywhere in Somalia, where so many buildings have been reduced to piles of machine-gun-chewed bricks. I suspected that this was where the pirates lived.
Thanks to Somalia, the world is in the midst of the greatest piracy epidemic since the Barbary Wars in the early nineteenth century. From Boosaaso and rocky little coves up and down the 1,900-mile coast, Somalia’s pirates are threatening to choke off the Gulf of Aden, through which 20,000 ships pass each year. The economic consequences of all this piracy are potentially catastrophic. The world’s biggest shipping companies are detouring their vessels thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope, at the bottom of Africa, rather than risking a voyage through Somalia’s pirate-infested seas. Insurance costs are shooting up. Security bills are skyrocketing. The cash-starved Egyptian government could collapse if more ships avoid the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, which provides Egypt with billions of dollars each year.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,’’ said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London. When we spoke in December, he told me that more than a dozen hijacked ships, with 300-plus hostages, were anchored just off the coast of Somalia. “You can see the images of these ships on Google Earth,’’ he said. “Nowhere else in the world would this be tolerated.’’ Somalia was gripped by “a national criminal ethos,” Mukundan went on, and only now that pirates were threatening global trade did the world seem to care about it.
Since December, warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain, and Germany have all joined the hunt for Somalia’s pirates. But the pirates keep eluding them, keep hijacking merchant ships, and keep making millions in ransom payments. In the past year, they netted $120 million, an astronomical amount of money in a country where a fifth of the population is on the brink of starvation.
It’s easy to think of the pirates as modern-day Robin Hoods, and in some respects they are. In Somalia, a whole mythology has grown around them. I’ve been told—though I haven’t seen them—that entire malnourished villages along Somalia’s coast are now being well-fed by the loot they bring in. Women bake bread for them; young men from the coastal villages board the ships once they’re docked and act as extra muscle to guard the hostages; others serve as scouts, accountants, mechanics, and skiff builders. There’s no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays—it’s about the only industry that does—but this goes beyond just the money. With their black scarves covering their faces and submachine guns slung over their arms, Somalia’s pirates are the real Jack Sparrows of the twenty-first century, minus the eyeliner. One young woman who lives near Boosaaso bragged about going to a pirate wedding that lasted two days. A band was flown in from neighboring Djibouti. There was nonstop dancing and an endless supply of goat meat. “They drive the best cars, they throw the best parties,” she gushed. “We all want to marry them.” She claimed that her own pirate boyfriend had just given her a small gift—$350,000 in cash. For young Somali men, pirate life is becoming too much to resist. Fishermen all along the coast have traded in their ragged fishing nets for rocket-propelled grenades.
despite the rash of piracy over the past year, it’s only since fall that the pirates have become front-page news. In the last week of August, the MV Faina (MV stands for “motor vessel”) set off from the port of Nikolayev in the Ukraine, bound for Mombasa, on Ken-ya’s coast. It was a tall, lumbering freighter, painted blue and white. Its captain was Russian and its twenty-one crew members mostly Ukrainian. Its cargo was secret.
A month later, on September 25, the Faina put out an SOS. Three small speedboats were heading straight toward it, approaching fast, the typical pirate swarm. The next day, news broke that the Faina had been hijacked 200 miles off Somalia’s coast. Its secret cargo, which was only reluctantly revealed by the Kenyan government, was thirty-three Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks, 150 grenade launchers, six antiaircraft guns, and heaps of ammunition. Alarm bells started ringing—in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital; in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan; and in Washington, D.C.
The hijacking came at a precarious time for Somalia. The transitional government, a coterie of mostly ex-warlords that had been weak and unpopular since the day it was formed in 2004, was on the verge of collapse. The Islamist movement that had briefly controlled the country in 2006, and then was ousted by a joint Ethiopian-American military offensive, was now back, and American officials were convinced that an Islamist-led Somalia could blossom into a jihad factory like Afghanistan or the Sunni Triangle of Iraq.
By the time the gun-toting pirates climbed aboard the Faina, the Islamists were fighting their way toward Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. The Americans were terrified that the pirates would offload the tanks and other weapons and funnel them to the Islam-ists. Half a dozen American warships were quickly dispatched to tail the Faina, which had docked just off the coast.“We can’t let the Islamists get those tanks,’’ one American diplomat told me. “It could change the whole balance of the war. There’s no way these guys will get away with this.’’
I agreed. It seemed, at the time, that the pirates were badly overplaying their cards, attracting too much notice to a problem that had been allowed to flourish for years largely because it had remained below the radar. I couldn’t see how they could possibly escape, now that they were surrounded by warships and under constant surveillance by Defense Department satellites.
Over the last week of September, I repeatedly tried to make contact with the pirates on board the Faina (a high-level diplomat in Nairobi had slipped me the number for the satellite line on the ship’s bridge), and when I wasn’t doing that, I was boning up on all things pirate. The resemblance between the Somali pirates and their Barbary brethren was striking. By the 1600s, pirates from the Barbary Coast, which included what is today Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, were seizing European vessels and ransoming their crews for enormous sums. Like the Somalis, the Barbary pirates usually kept their hostages alive—not out of any enlightened sense of humanity but simply because it was good business. They only hung captives from giant hooks or carved them into little pieces if they resisted. The Barbary pirates used small wooden corsairs, often powered by slaves chained to the oars, to swarm and attack the larger European ships. They hailed from a messy, underdeveloped part of the world and managed to harass and humiliate the greatest powers of the day. They would sack coastal towns in Italy and Spain, even as far as Iceland, and drag their captives back to the casbah. But their bravado became their demise.
The pirates had flourished for two centuries because various European countries—and eventually America—paid “tribute” to the pashas who underwrote their activities, and in exchange the pirates left their ships alone. In one year, 1797, the U.S. paid a million dollars in tribute fees, about a fifth of the national budget. Eventually, though, the Americans began to feel humiliated paying off a bunch of thugs in blousy pants, and in the early 1800s the American navy sailed across the Atlantic and pounded the Barbary Coast, bringing the long reign of the pirates to an end.
I figured the Faina would be a similar turning point, that the pirates had gone too far (they asked for $35 million when they learned what the cargo was) and their hubris was going to be the beginning of the end of the glory days of Somali piracy. But the guys on board the ship seemed completely unfazed that the most fearsome navy in the world had them pinned against Somalia’s craggy shore. After three days of nothing but my phone ringing endlessly aboard the ship, my call was finally picked up by one of the pirates. He spoke English.
“Can I speak to the pirate spokesman, please?” (My contact in Nairobi had told me that they were more sophisticated than you’d expect and had appointed one of their own to handle PR.)
I heard some shouting in Somali, and then Sugule Ali, the pirates’ official spokesman, got on the line.
“Haa,” he said, the breathy Somali word for “yes.”
Sugule seemed happy to chat. He talked for a while about the typical pirate diet—“rice, meat, bread, spaghetti—you know, normal human-being food”—and then he explained to us his notion of Somali piracy. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”
the pirates often use this as a rationale for their actions. Somalia has some of the most bountiful seas in the world, and during peak seasons trawlers from around the globe converge here, using tactics like dynamiting reefs and employing waterborne vacuums to suck everything up—fish, coral, rocks, plants—from the ocean floor. Over the past few months, several fishermen turned pirates have told me how illegal fishing and toxic-waste dumping started in the early 1990s, shortly after the government collapsed, and how they often saw barrels containing who-knows-what bobbing in their seas. It was only a matter of time before the fishermen decided to strike back.
They began venturing out and boarding the trawlers and demanding that the captains pay a “tax,” and before long they graduated to attacking freighters and oil tankers farther out at sea. Sometimes, Sugule explained to me, the pirates even used “mother ships,” vessels they’d already hijacked, as bases on which to live and sustain themselves for weeks, hundreds of miles out in the ocean.
In another phone call, a different pirate on board, Jama Ali, described how they had been hiding out on a rock in the Gulf of Aden, spying on ships through a set of binoculars. At a certain spot in the gulf, he said, there is a narrow passage, which is where they’ll often prey on ships that come in close. “If a car gets off the road, it might be in trouble,” he said. “It is like that.
“We chased that Ukrainian ship for eight hours,’’ Jama recalled. “We lost our ladder, but fortunately we climbed on the ship through the ropes on the side.’’ (Security consultants later told me that leaving ropes dangling over the side of a ship when sailing past Somalia is a serious mistake.) Once on board, the pirates did a fast inventory of the cargo and discovered they’d hit the jackpot, Somali-style, with $30 million in arms now in their possession. They went through the paperwork on the bridge and learned that the T-72 tanks and grenade launchers were not destined for Kenya, as the Kenyan government claimed, but were actually headed to a former rebel army that now runs Southern Sudan, and that the port of Mombasa was simply the transit point. It was yet another shady African arms deal, which likely involved million-dollar kickbacks for the Kenyan officials who helped facilitate it, and the pirates had broken it wide open.
“These guys are pros,” Andrew Mwangura, the head of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program in Kenya, told me. Many of the seafarers in Mwangura’s organization have learned about Somali piracy the hard way, having been kidnapped and held for months. Still, he seemed impressed by, almost enamored of, the pirates. He explained that “investors” front the money for skiffs, guns, binoculars, GPS units, fuel, and cigarettes. The investors then take a slice of the ransom, usually about 20 percent, with another 20 percent set aside for future missions, 30 percent to bribe government officials, and the rest split between the pirates and their henchmen, who can number in the hundreds. The strings are pulled by Somali businessmen based in Kenya, Djibouti, Dubai, and even London. They have translators, accountants, money inspectors—an entire white-collar network that manages the operations from afar. Mwangura and other pirate experts told me that the investors have deep connections to Somalia’s government, especially in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, where Boosaaso is. They estimated that on any given day, as many as 1,500 gunmen go out in skiffs to hunt down the ships, and thousands more work onshore guarding the captives.
Ransoms are normally paid in hand-offs on the ship, though in January, nearly two months after pirates had hijacked the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker, $3 million was dropped in a watertight orange case by an unmarked plane, the cash literally floating down by parachute and landing on the deck of the ship. After the pirates divvied up the booty, they were so anxious to get back to shore that they left in the middle of a storm. One of their skiffs capsized, and several pirates drowned. The body of one washed up on the beach with a soggy brick of $670,000 wrapped in his clothes, his $70,000 share plus an additional $600,000 for the investors. When I and a reporter working for me in Mogadishu tried to find out who that money belonged to, nobody in Xarardheere, the pirate town where the body was found, seemed to know. Some young kids onshore tried to run away with the cash, but elders swooped in, knowing that at some point the investors, wherever they were, would come calling.
in november, I took the train from Nairobi down to Mombasa, the steamy port town on Kenya’s coast, and bribed my way past the port’s main gate ($5 smacked with a smile into the guard’s hand) to meet a Kenyan sailor named Athman Said Mangore, who brought me onto his jalopy of a ship. We sat in his fishy-smelling cabin, and he told me how he had been a captive for three months, kidnapped when he was working as a crew member on a ship sailing from Mombasa to Boosaaso with a shipment of rice for the United Nations World Food Program.
Three pirate skiffs struck in the dark, Mangore told me. “We didn’t see them until they were on board.” They were led by an older pirate named Captain Grey, who seemed to know the Somali seas intimately. “He was all right,” Mangore remembered. “A short guy. Thin. Serious.” Captain Grey tried to maintain discipline, Mangore said, and when he was present, the younger pirates didn’t slap around their captives. But when he left, the pirates grew restless and wild. “They sprayed the windshield of the bridge with their guns,” Mangore said. “They were angry about there not being enough water.”
The pirates were often high on khat, the mildly stimulating leaf that Somalis chew like bubble gum. It was three months of hell living with them, Mangore said. His only redeeming memory, he told me, was of seeing a hundred-foot-long whale crash up through the water and then disappear. “I will never forget it,” he said.
You would think that, with piracy such a threat to world trade, there would be a more concerted and robust response. But so far, no one seems to want to fully take the problem on. Some shipping companies are now hiring their own defenders, private security contractors fresh from Iraq who are taking gigs riding along as extra muscle on merchant voyages. I met a bunch of these guys lounging on a beach in Oman, swigging Heineken and talking about how, if it were up to them, they’d make the pirates walk the plank. Most had shaved heads and thick, tattooed arms, but that was it. No guns, no armaments. The ports in this region—with the exception of those in Somalia—don’t allow weapons, and the guards are forced to confront machine-gun-toting pirates with fire hoses. (In one attack, Filipino sailors unsuccessfully pelted pirates with tomatoes.)
As for why the rest of the world doesn’t want to get more involved, part of the problem has to do with the perceived legal complications of capturing and prosecuting pirates (though international-law scholars I spoke with say any country can arrest and prosecute robbers on the high seas). Then there’s the bigger fear of getting sucked back into Somalia. Most military experts I’ve talked to say the only way to really stamp out piracy is to take out the pirates onshore. But there’s the rub, because no one wants to put boots on Somali ground. The Black Hawk Down episode, in which Somali militiamen in flip-flops shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed eighteen American soldiers, is still fresh in everyone’s memory. So for now it remains a game of chase, played out on about a million square miles of water.
I went out in December with the Italian navy on a pirate hunt, cruising the Arabian Sea on a 485-foot destroyer loaded with torpedoes, surface-to-air-missiles, heavy-caliber machine guns, radar, sonar, and infrared cameras. The Italians served up some great coffee and a mean buffet, but I got the sense that they wouldn’t know what to do with a real-live pirate if they caught one. The captain told me their mission was to escort food ships and scare away the pirates. They didn’t even have a brig on board, he said.
The Danish navy has arrested suspected pirates several times, apprehending young Somali men cruising around in speedboats with guns, ladders, and no fishing rods. But each time, the Danes concluded they didn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute because there was no evidence that the pirates had attacked Danish citizens.
The strategy right now is to deter attacks and then, if a ship gets hijacked, to “negotiate”—which is what the diplomats say when what they really mean is “pay off the pirates.” And in each case, it actually makes sense to fork over the ransom. Even 2 or 3 million bucks (the highest ransoms yet) are cheaper than a new ship or a cargo of tanks or taking out life insurance for two dozen men. But taken as a whole, the ransom strategy is fueling the piracy and drawing in more wannabe buccaneers. And no shipping company wants to be the first to call the pirates’ bluff.
As of late January, the Faina was still being held by pirates, despite the six American warships and Russian frigate pinning it against the shore. Ukrainian officials were begging the Americans not to make any rash moves. Payment would be coming, the Ukrainians assured the pirates, but there seemed to be some dispute over who was going to pay—the shipowner or the owner of the tanks or the families of the crew. (At the time of publication, the Israeli owner of the ship appeared to be close to agreeing on a ransom, although this had been rumored before.) The awkward reality is that the Faina was part of a secret arms deal, and no one involved believed it would ever be made public, until that SOS went out. It’s exactly the kind of situation—a ship filled with illegal weapons, captured by well-armed and desperate and unpredictable men, surrounded by boats with massive amounts of firepower—that could spiral very quickly out of control.
in somalia, especially in Boosaaso, the local government is more than happy to throw pirates in jail. The leaders in Puntland are savvy enough to know that the Western world is fed up with the pirates, and the last thing they want is U.N. troops coming on land and shutting them down with force. Publicly, the officials say they are doing all they can to crack down on piracy. Privately, though, several Boosasso officials told me the government was rolling in pirate dough. “I know for a fact people in the Puntland administration are pirates,” one member of the administration told me. When I pressed him for names, though, all he would say is, “It’s not me.”
Suspect number one is Mohamud Muse Hirsi, also known as Adde Muse, who was the president of Puntland until his colleagues ousted him in January. Many pirate experts say that Adde Muse works closely with the pirates and that there is no way Boosaaso could be the place it is today without his involvement. Several pirates told me that they, too, had to dish Adde Muse and his associates Barbary-style “tribute’’ payments to keep operating.
When I visited him in October, Adde Muse bristled at the suggestion that he might be corrupt. “That’s not true,’’ he scolded. “We’re the leaders of this country.’’ The shades were drawn in his dimly lit office, but he still had his sunglasses on. He looked a bit like a gangster slouching in his chair, surrounded by sycophants, his copious soft belly spilling out of his shirt. He was a warlord not so long ago, and he had the same warlord habits I’d encountered in Somalia many times before—short on listening skills, physically intimidating but also, at the same time, friendly and seemingly aware of the absurdity of this whole place.
Adde Muse said his militia had recently arrested several dozen men who were planning attacks and that the pirates had been sentenced to a year in jail. “You want to see them?” he asked me. “You are free.”
We jumped into our tinted-window truck and drove out of the presidential palace, past the parking lot full of technicals (the distinctly Somali invention of a jeep with the roof ripped off and a cannon riveted on back), and headed again through the fields of garbage to the outskirts of Boosaaso. The jail was down a gravel road, and since we had been given the big man’s approval, the ancient wardens scrambled to their feet when we arrived and nervously dug into their pockets for their rings of keys.
They walked us briskly toward the cellblock, which had a basketball court in the middle. Guards with AK-47’s prowled the tops of the prison walls. Inmates in the cellblocks thrust their arms through the bars and pleaded for water. They were packed into bare concrete rooms like sheep being led to slaughter. Some were old and shriveled. Some were just boys, including a tender-faced kid I met who’d slipped a knife into someone’s ribs for teasing him. When I first walked into the courtyard, I turned to a nearby inmate who’d said hello to me in perfect English and asked him where I could find some pirates.
“Pirates? Pirates?’’ he exclaimed, staring at me like I was an idiot. “This jail is full of pirates! This whole city is pirates!’’
I quickly learned the pirates had special status here. They were the only inmates not cooped up in the filthy, sauna-like cells. They lounged freely on the basketball court, men with wispy beards and little, stony eyes. At first, none of them would look straight at me. They’d say something bold, like how they’ve made “big money, big money, a million bucks!” and then flick back their filthy heads and cackle. I scribbled down the quotes, sweat dripping off my face, woozy from the heat and the ripe, musky aroma of hundreds of unwashed men. One after the other told me about how rich he was, how rich they all were, how they had so much money they could have whatever they wanted.
One of them, Jama Abdullahi, was a tall, lean pirate with a checkered, Arab-style scarf and a serious case of ADD. I chased him around the basketball court as I interviewed him. He spoke some English, telling me the name of his operation was “Somali Coast Land.’’
“You mean ‘Coast Guard,’ ’’ another pirate shot in.
“Whatever,’’ Jama grunted. And he plunged back into the stories about cruising around in fast boats packed with AKs, RPGs, and bazookas, hijacking whatever crossed his path. “We got more than 500 people working for us,” he said. “We make millions.”
Who knows, maybe this was true. Maybe for a bunch of them it was true. Maybe they had million-dollar homes in New Boosaaso with Land Rovers parked in front of them. Maybe when they went into town, the women swooned around them and gave them whatever they desired. Certainly this was the case for some of Somalia’s pirates, but the more I talked to these guys, the more their bravado struck me as an act and the sadder it began to seem.
The real pirate money was going elsewhere, to men who wore suits and had secretaries and went to offices in towering buildings, men who would never see this jail and likely never even see the shitty, lawless city of Boosaaso. The notion that the Somali pirates were Robin Hoods fighting back by going after the boats that have raped their seas—that notion is nothing but a sentimental fantasy to lay over the much uglier reality of Somalia. At best, the richest men in Boosaaso are just the current iteration of the country’s infamous warlords, making millions off the chaos around them and spreading some of that wealth to the grunts beneath them. That wasn’t these guys. These guys were fighting just to survive. They picked up a Kalashnikov and got on a boat because it was their way to eat.
We stood in a disappearing slice of shade. They were sickeningly skinny, with protruding collarbones and twiggy legs, most of them around six feet tall and 120 pounds. They had cracked yellow teeth. Their eyes were rheumy, and their hands were calloused by years of pulling in nets. What they really wanted to talk about was fishing. A pirate named Dirie told me about his old fishing boat. “Eight tons,” he said, smiling. “An inboard engine, three pistons.” He said that after the fish vanished from near the shore, he took his boat farther out into the ocean. But the big foreign fishing trawlers cut his nets and sent him home. Jama joined in the conversation. He was calmer now, talking about his family’s seafood business, now defunct, how lobster and shark were the big sellers. His dad and his grandfather had both been fishermen. “Brother,” he said, as he stared at the coils of razor wire all around him, “I miss the seas.”jeffrey gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times.