Somali pirates – Rambo and Robin Hood in one

Aden (Yemen), April 17 (Inditop) “We’re simple fishermen making our living with hard work,” insists 26-year-old Ahmed Abdallah Mussa, trying – and failing – to look innocent.

He and 21 other alleged Somali pirates, captured by Russian and Indian naval personnel during the past five months and handed over to authorities in Yemen, now share the overcrowded cells of the central jail in the port city of Aden with thieves and murderers.

They obviously feel superior to their fellow inmates. Somali pirates see themselves as Rambo and Robin Hood wrapped into one.

They have no feelings of guilt. On the contrary, their recent confrontation with the US Navy only strengthened their conviction that impoverished Somalis were waging a just struggle against big, wealthy powers whose trawlers had depleted Somalia’s waters of fish.

The Indian Navy found firearms and rocket-propelled grenades on board the Yemeni fishing boat that Mussa and 11 Somali accomplices are accused of hijacking.

“We need them for self-defence,” said Ahmed Qilawi, 19. With his impudent laugh and acne scars, Qilawi had a hard time playing the part of a fisherman. He seemed to know a lot about weapons, and little about fishing nets.

“When you find a boat with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and ladders with magnets, you can be sure its occupants are pirates,” noted Hussein Haji Mahmud, who has been civil war-torn Somalia’s vice consul in Aden for more than 20 years.

“You don’t use rocket-propelled grenades to protect yourself, but to attack,” he said. “And the ladders with magnets that stick to a ship’s hull – they’re needed to board a ship.”

Mahmud has visited the jailed Somalis in Aden. “Some of them are new to the business, but others probably joined the pirates quite a while ago,” he surmised.

Mahmud said that one of the young inmates, radiating self-assurance, had told him that back home in the pirate region of Puntland, on the northern shore of Somalia, he owned three sport utility vehicles and several minibuses that he rented out.

“If you give me your mobile phone,” the suspected pirate said in the diplomat’s telling, “I’ll call a contact there and have him send me $300 so that I won’t have to eat bread and beans three times daily in jail – at home we feed animals that kind of stuff.”

Mahmud gave the young man his phone, he said, and since then the man occasionally has a jailer bring him a meat dish from one of the many restaurants directly adjacent to the jail’s walls, which bristle with green shards of glass.

The vice consul said that several weeks ago he had sent a confidant to the jail in the Yemeni city of Mukalla, where another 10 alleged Somali pirates were being held. “The crew of a German warship handed over four of them, and Danes the others,” he said.

Mahmud does not know much about the circumstances of their arrest. But he is a conscientious man. He wrote down the inmates’ names in a brown notebook.

He also updates daily the number of foreign ships held by pirates off Somalia’s coast. The current number was 27 – with a total of 267 people on board.

The way that the navies of Russia, India, France and the US have dealt with the brigands is correct, he said, adding that Germany and several other European countries had been too soft in their responses.

“The worst thing is the high ransom payments, which spur the pirates on,” he said.

Lotf al-Barati, director general of the coast guard in Aden, takes a similar view. “Pressure on the pirates has to grow,” he said. “That’s the only way to get a grip on the matter.”

“In the long run,” al-Barati went on, “we need a strong government in Somalia. Otherwise this scourge will never end.” He said the recent attacks off the coast of Kenya and in the Indian Ocean demonstrated that pirates simply sought new “fishing grounds” when previous ones had become too risky.

The screen of the computer humming in al-Barati’s air-conditioned office in Aden’s harbour showed the body of a beached Somali refugee.

The young man did not survive the dangerous passage to Yemen in a boat used by people smugglers. “I wish I were a pirate,” said a speech balloon coming from the dead man’s mouth.

Al-Barati likes drastic talk. And he wants drastic action against sea piracy, which is jeopardising the livelihood of many people in Aden who benefit, directly or indirectly, from the foreign ships that dock there.

Such considerations mean nothing to the young Somalis in Aden’s central jail. They come from Puntland, where pirates have weapons and means of communication more modern than those of the police.

“Everybody here in Yemen has a dagger, and one in two people has a pistol. So why shouldn’t we be allowed to have weapons on board?” asked Qilawi, the youngest of the suspected Somali pirates.

“In a way, I feel sorry for these young men,” Mahmud remarked. “They’re sitting in jail, their mothers and wives cry me a river on the telephone, and meanwhile the pirate masterminds are building themselves villas in Canada, staying at five-star hotels and travelling around the world on European passports.”