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Pirates of the unruly sea

Pawan Bali

Updated: July 1, 2011, 6:32 PM IST
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My first encounter with sea-pirates was at the age of seven. They seemed largely harmless. Patched-eye pirates, somehow, invoking pity. It was an Asterix comic-book, unintentionally introducing the enigmatic world of the pirates. I still have not known a real pirate up close, but recently the encounters recounted by the released MV Suez hostages do give a sense, that they are anything, but harmless.

Piracy in Somalia is as old as its non-existent government. After the civil war in 1991, the Central Government collapsed. The transitional Federal Government, which replaced it, only controlled a small part of the country. That's when piracy was born-apparently at first it was just the capture of ships, which were encroaching the Somalian waters for illegal tuna fishing. The hostage ships were asked to pay taxes and then let off. But for a country, which had no jobs, no money, piracy soon became an instant hit for churning millions of dollar notes.

MV Suez hostages tell us that it's a well-organized international crime. For them, the ordeal began on July 26, 2010, when their ship, loaded with cement, spotted six men on a boat speeding towards them. These small boats are called skiffs. The pirates were armed with machines guns and rocket-launchers: the MV Suez crew, with only water hoses and fencing. It was a poor contest. Soon, the pirates had put a ladder, and fighting all resistance started climbing up the ship.

Usually in the Gulf of Aden, warships escort carriers -- considering it is a high piracy zone. But as luck would have it, MV Suez was lagging due to slow speed and became an easy target. The ship was captured at around 7:15pm, and at around 8:30 pm NATO choppers came for a rescue operation. But by then, it was too late and hostages were at a gunpoint, forcing the choppers to return. The released hostages tell us that the pirates are well equipped and have agencies investing into this. " They used to tell us one, two, three years is not a problem. You can stay," says NK Sharma, a second engineer on MV Suez. Even keeping hostages requires investments, and they have enough of it.

So, once the six pirates were on board, the ship was turned 360 degrees, and over 25-30 more pirates joined in. Later, the ship was parked to Al-Damana, which Sharma says is their "kabila" or the hub.

There was food and ammunition back-up being regularly provided by the support "staff". There were also four translators, but they would not stay overnight.

Besides this organized infrastructure, interestingly even ransom collection is professional. The crew tells us that the job is outsourced to a company called Al Fakira, which specializes in ransom delivery. The company has small aircrafts, which collects the amount from the host country of the ship - in this case, Egypt. An email is then send out to the pirates, exchanging code words. The aircraft arrives on a fixed date, hovers over the ship, counts the crew-members as a life certificate, and then parachutes the first packet of ransom. Few minutes later, the second packed is dropped too.

After the amount is collected, the aircraft pilot wishes the crew good luck, waves and returns. The pirates count the money and even have machines to check if the currency is genuine or not.

The entire industry seems to be thriving. With ransom amounts touching even $10 million dollars, why wouldn't it be? The international law against piracy is still not as strong, some convictions never happen. The pirates thrive, and live a life of luxury. Even the locals and the transitional government think of piracy as just another regular business. And like one of them said in a NYTimes report: "Pirates are normal people, just very, very rich." The unruly kings of the unruly sea.

First Published: July 1, 2011, 6:32 PM IST

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