Dhows rest on a white sand beach in front of a few dozen ramshackle homes. A creek cuts inland, traced by a dirt road that runs to a craggy fishing settlement 3km away. Until recently Eyl was a remote and rundown Somali fishing outpost of 7,000 people. Now, thanks to some spectacular ocean catches, it is a booming mini-town, awash with cash and heavily armed young men, and boasting a new notoriety: piracy capital of the world.
At least 12 foreign ships are being held hostage in the waters off Eyl in the Nugal region, 480km south of Africa’s Horn, including a Ukrainian vessel loaded with 33 tanks and ammunition that was hijacked last month.
They are being closely watched by hundreds of pirates aboard boats equipped with satellite phones and GPS devices. Hundreds more gunmen provide backup on shore, where they incessantly chew the narcotic leaf qat and dream of sharing in the huge ransoms that can run into millions of US dollars.
In a war-ravaged country where life is cheap and hope is rare, each successful hijack brings more young men into the village to seek their fortune at sea.
“Even secondary school students are stopping their education to go to Eyl because they see how their friends have made a lot of money,” Abdulqaadir Muuse Yusuf, deputy fisheries minister for the Puntland region, said yesterday.
The entire village now depends on the criminal economy. Hastily built hotels provide basic lodging for the pirates, new restaurants serve meals and send food to the ships, while traders provide fuel for the skiffs flitting between the captured vessels.
The pirate kingpins who commute from the regional capital, Garowe, 160km west, in new 4x4 vehicles splash their money around. When a ransom is received the gunmen involved in hijacking the particular ship join in the splurge, much to the pleasure of long-time residents. Jaama Salah, a trader, said that a bunch of qat can sell for US$65, compared with US$15 in other towns. Asli Faarah, a tea vendor, said: “When the pirates have money I can easily increase my price to US$3 for a cup.”
Somalis in the diaspora — especially in Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and the UK — finance the pirate gangs and keep a large chunk of the ransom money, estimated at more than US$30 million this year alone, far more than Puntland’s annual budget. But the gangs of gunmen sometimes split hundreds of thousands of US dollars between them.
In the region’s bigger towns, such as Garowe and Bosasso on the Gulf of Aden coast, a successful hijack is often celebrated with a meal and qat-chewing session at an expensive hotel.
One successful pirate based in Garowe, Abshir Salad, said: “First we look to buy a nice house and car. Then we buy guns and other weapons. The rest of the money we use to relax.”
WEALTH BUYS RESPECT
The pirates appear to have little fear of arrest by the weak administration, who many suspect of involvement in the trade. By spreading the money to local officials, chiefs, relatives and friends, the pirates have created strong logistical and intelligence networks, and avoided the clan-based fighting that affects so much of the rest of the country.
And though few believe the pirates when they claim to be eco-warriors or marines defending Somali waters from foreign exploitation, their daring and wealth has earned them respect. It has become something of a tradition for successful pirates to take additional wives, marrying them in lavish ceremonies.