Somali chaos spills from land to sea
Last year Somali pirates were responsible for more than 100 attacks on shipping and although attempts are being made to tackle the problem, finding a solution is not straightforward reports Karen Allen in Kenya.
When pirates attacked, the crew disabled the Maersk Alabama’s power
I had come straight from covering the 15th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda – where 800,000 people had died – slaughtered in 100 days – to this.
One American seized in a dramatic hostage drama out at sea and the world’s media massed in Mombasa, scrambling to cover the action.
You can understand why I was a bit disorientated, as I tiptoed through a sea of satellite dishes, generators and empty pizza boxes at the quayside, to find my spot in the blistering sun.
“Whatever you do don’t miss the ship,” were the parting words of my editor.
Our mission, to catch the Maersk Alabama arriving with its crew of 19, minus the captain.
Captain Richard Phillips had made a magnanimous gesture.
Capt Richard Phillips was taken to Kenya aboard the USS Bainbridge
When heavily armed pirates seized his ship, he traded his freedom for the sake of his crew, and became a sort of willing hostage.
It was only after a five-day stand-off with a flotilla of warships that he was eventually rescued by navy snipers who shot three of the pirates dead.
When it finally docked many of the crew of the Alabama were eager to talk of the man they called their hero – the captain – and speak of the terrifying hours spent in a secure room wondering who was still alive.
“You people are good here,” one shouted out to me from the deck with a toothless grin. “It’s just the neighbours next door that are bad.”
The troublesome neighbour next door is Somalia, where piracy has spread like a tropical rash.
Reza tackled one of the pirates
What fascinated me most about this crew was how they represented the diversity of the United States.
There was the naturalised Indian man, Reza, who described how he had wrestled one of the pirates to the ground then stabbed him with an ice pick.
Then there was John – the man from Alabama – who had come out of retirement because “‘cos economic times were hard” to serve once again at sea.
I wondered what they all had made of this turbulent region and their plight that had thrust it into the spotlight.
For the US television networks, this ocean adventure had genuine appeal.
When a group of opportunistic pirates direct their automatic gunfire at a US ship, it evoked haunting memories of the past
But the tale of the world’s biggest superpower facing off with four teenage Somali pirates, also struck a nerve with Americans who remember their history. Especially those who could recollect their country’s last brush with Somali violence back in 1993 – the battle for Mogadishu, which left 19 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis dead.
Captured in the movie blockbuster Black Hawk Down, that brutal episode punctured the US cloak of invincibility. Since then the Horn of Africa would hold a particular dread for the American people.
So when a group of opportunistic pirates direct their automatic gunfire at a US ship, it evoked haunting memories of the past.
On the positive side, the amount of attention lavished on the Alabama saga by the media has thrust the issue of piracy into the spotlight.
Ransom demands can reach up tp $3m (Â£2.1m)
For the three years that I have been reporting on East African affairs I have seen the chaos on the Somali mainland spill out on to the sea.
In a country where for nearly two decades there has been no stable government, piracy has thrived largely because there is no functioning force to police the situation, there is rampant poverty and plenty of officials to bribe.
The downside, though, is the bellicose way in which the Americans have pledged to sort the piracy problem out.
No-one seemed that bothered when it was just Filipinos, Indians and Egyptians being held.
Now there appears to be a sort of “hostage jingoism” – at least, that is the view from many observers here on the ground.
The worry is that it could very easily be exploited by some in Somalia to stoke up yet more anti-American sentiment.
There are calls for more warships, more prosecutions of pirates. Key parts of a four-point plan.
People here hope that with President Obama now in charge, the approach will be more constructive – policies designed to restore security, stability and fresh opportunities in war-torn Somalia – rather than blasting it with military might either directly or through proxies like Ethiopia.
That Somali pirates had the temerity to attack another US ship just days after the Alabama was seized, is bound to make that a much harder argument to win.
But with President Obama’s African roots – his father was Kenyan – many here believe there is now the best chance ever to steer this Horn of African state towards stability.