February 19, 2011

Piracy on the High Seas.

We see it, hear about it, and feel it in our daily lives. The reach of the Somali pirates is hitting closer and closer to home, as they grow more and more powerful.

Recently, a BBC international news headline read: Greek oil supertanker Irene hijacked off Oman. Frankly, you do not need too wild of an imagination to guess that it is the Somali pirates behind this ship seizure. Carrying 266,000 tons of crude oil with an estimated value of $200 million, it is believed this is the largest vessels ever seized by Somalis.

Today, four Americans sailing on a yacht off the coast of Oman were taken hostage by Somali pirates. While pirates usually attack cargo ships, in more recent years it has become increasingly common that they now seize yachts as well. The yacht's owners had been sailing around the world since 2002, apparently on a Bible hand out mission.

Overstretched international anti-piracy forces operating in the Indian Ocean give priority to protecting cargo ships over private yachts. We have an acquaintance here who runs an anti-pirate private security firm. Basically, if you have something you want to transport, he hires mercenary types to board your boat and help keep you safe from the pirates. Right now - business is booming. When I pointed out his rather perverse implications behind this business model, he demurely agreed.

But the story hitting closest to home began four months ago now and is still unfolding. Two people whom we know from the Dar es Salaam were kidnapped off of Mtwara in South Tanzania. They were sailing home to South Africa to spend the holidays with their families; they had volunteered to work as crew on someone else's yacht. The stories about the circumstances under which their yacht was seized are murky, but either way, the result is tragic. Two South Africans from very humble backgrounds are now being held for ransom by Somali pirates. The initial ransom price was set at $10,000,000, an astronomical sum by all accounts. Apparently, their families are bargaining for their release, while at the same time begging for contact to make sure that the person they are dealing with can assure that their loved ones are safe, hell, even alive for that matter.

We recently learned that negotiation proceedings were beginning to reach a formative end, and to help ensure that these negotiations were brought to a positive end we were asked to contribute a rather modest amount, approximately $10US to support the fund being raised to ensure their release. It was assured that all donations would remain anonymous, it certainly doesn't bode well for assuring future safety when pirates know who is willing to fork over cash for someone's release. We unflinchingly were willing to contribute to this fund, in fact we made an extra donation on behalf of our friend who met this couple and has been actively following the story of their release stateside. But the reactions within the community were mixed, and I can see both sides.

Somalia has had no functioning central government since 1991, which allows piracy to flourish off its coast. Somali pirates have made millions of dollars in recent years by capturing cargo vessels in the shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa and holding the ships and crew for ransom. A ransom payment perpetuates and further fuels this practice. This is probably the biggest and most compelling reason to not give money, and it also just so happens that this really goes against the grain of my belief in the importance of "development." I suspect most Somalis themselves would share this opinion.

But seriously, how can we NOT give?! If I were in their position I would certainly want to be rest assured that everyone who was able, was doing everything they could to help secure my release. Moreover, while I don't want me money going to fund piracy on the high seas, where is my small little protest in not funding them going to get me? This is a pretty well established system, with extremely sophisticated leadership and money management, I alone do not have the power to change that.

So I am curious to hear your thoughts. To give or not to give, that is the question.

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