The World's Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia - James Fergusson (2013)


Chapter 8. In the court of King Farole

Garowe, Puntland, August 2011

August the first was a big public holiday in Garowe. Not only was it the anniversary of Puntland’s declaration of autonomy in 1998, but in 2011, 1 August was also the first day of Ramadan. Garowe is Puntland’s capital, and the state’s president, Mohamed Farole, together with his son – also called Mohamed – had been planning the celebrations for weeks. The centrepiece was to be a parade. At 4 a.m., long before dawn, hundreds of townspeople had begun forming up in their marching squads in the main road out beyond the UN compound, my temporary home in the town. I was woken by the noise of the swelling crowd, a low-frequency rumble of excited chatter interspersed with whistles and snatches of song. Drawn on by the unmistakable atmosphere of a carnival, I dressed quickly and hurried out with my camera.

Puntland looms large in the wider Somali story. It comprises 212,000 square kilometres of territory, a third of all Somalia, the size of England and Wales combined; and it is home to some 4 million people out of an estimated national total of 10 million.1 These statistics alone mean that if Puntland had decided on full independence from Mogadishu in 1998 – as did Somaliland, their neighbour and rival to the north-west, in 1991 – then Somalia as a unitary state would have been finished. Instead, however, Puntland opted for devolution: self-government from Garowe, while maintaining strong political representation in Mogadishu in a clan-based confederation with all the other states and regions. What the Puntland government said and did mattered, therefore, because this political vision alone kept the dream of a single Somali state alive.

Puntland, however, is known abroad – indeed, it is globally notorious – for something rather different: the extraordinary flourishing of piracy along its thinly policed coastline, which, at 1,600 kilometres, is as long as Portugal’s. The state incorporates the whole tip of the Horn of Africa, jutting out into the Indian Ocean to form the southern edge of the Gulf of Aden, through which 21,000 ships plod each year on their way towards the Suez Canal, carrying cargo that includes a tenth of all of the world’s petroleum. By 2011, the Gulf of Aden had become the world’s Pirate Alley, the focus of a criminal enterprise that, according to one often quoted report, cost the global economy $8.3bn in 2010.2 The Farole family, meanwhile, had been accused by UN officials in Nairobi of personally profiting from piracy even as they claimed to be tackling it. Was this sensational allegation fair? The answer was important, because even Nato’s navies agree that the eventual solution to piracy will be found not at sea but on the land.

Puntland is named after the fabled Land of Punt, or Pwenet, an ancient Egyptian trading partner known even in the twenty-fifth century BC for its production of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In modern political terms, though, it is Darodistan, the principal homeland of the powerful Darod tribe, one of the big four in Somalia. The clan has produced two presidents and three prime ministers since 1960; and under the 4.5 clan formula, the Darod have been allocated the post of prime minister in the TFG in Mogadishu since 2004.

The Darod claim to be descended from an Arab nobleman named Darud Jabarti, who was supposedly shipwrecked on Puntland’s coast in the tenth or eleventh century, although some of the clan’s rivals tell the story rather differently. According to them, Jabarti was no nobleman but ‘a Galla slave’, exiled from Arabia for stealing the slippers of the Prophet himself, who ‘dismissed [him] with the words, Inna-tarad-na-hu (‘Verily we have rejected him’): hence his name Tarud or Darud, ‘the Rejected’.3 The folk tale shows there is nothing new about this region’s reputation for old-fashioned thievery.

Farole and most of his ministers were not just Darod but Darod Majeerteen, one of the four main branches of the tribe.* Following the failed invasion of Ethiopia in 1977, disaffected Majeerteen officers of the Somali national army mounted a coup against Siad Barre. This also failed, leading to terrible reprisals in the northeast. The Majeerteen became the first clan formally to renounce the regime in 1979, when the army deserter Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf formed the SSDF, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front. Yusuf went on to become the first president of Puntland, the first raison d’etre of which was to promote and protect the Majeerteen from the depredations of their chief rivals to the south, the Hawiye, as well as rival Darod clans such as Siad Barre’s own Marehan. The statelet had experienced internal unrest in the past, and struggled all the time to maintain law and order throughout the vast territory it claimed to govern. Indeed, yusuf yusuf – in dark acknowledgement of the violent legacy of Puntland’s first founder – remained a common term for a gunfight, an onomatopoeic description of whistling bullets.

And yet, compared to the south, Puntland was a haven of peace and prosperity. There was drought here in the north, but no actual famine, despite the great hardship. Garowe, in fact, had proved a magnet for southern refugees, with new tent villages sprouting along the banks of the dried-out river to the east of town almost as fast as in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab, meanwhile, had so far failed to exploit the divisions within the Darod sub-clans to establish any meaningful foothold here. This was partly because Puntlanders saw themselves as the country’s only reliable bulwark against Islamic extremism, a view succinctly expressed by Osman, a local driver for the UN, who told me: ‘Al-Shabaab? They are very very fucking people. We hate them. Yes. Thank you.’

The Majeerteen were an independent, aristocratic people who saw themselves as the quintessence of nomad culture, far superior to any other clan. ‘The pride the Majeerteen tribes take in being of the Majeerteen, the most barren of all the Somali deserts, is as if that territory was the garden of Eden itself,’ observed Gerald Hanley. ‘Down south, on the Juba where the trees drip bananas, lemons, pawpaw . . . where the small, fat, black men can eat chicken, eggs, beef and have never been without a drink of water, I have heard Majeerteen askaris sneering at all this, and telling the local “slave people” that until they see the Majeerteen they do not know what living is. And in the Majeerteen you would have to kneel down and pray to a single blade of grass to come up, and cry on it every day to help it live.’4

The Majeerteen hero Yusuf’s instigating role in Siad Barre’s overthrow tended to confirm their view of themselves as lynchpins of the nation’s destiny, integral in every way to a better future for Somalia. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Puntland was ruled as a sultanate known as Migiurtinia. Critics of President Farole sometimes accused him of trying to revive the sultanate’s late-nineteenth-century golden age, and of wielding power like a boqor, or king. He was said, often, to have personal designs on Sheikh Sharif’s job in Mogadishu. Even the state’s motto, Star of the North, was heavy with the clan’s sense of its own importance.

The theme of the 1 August parade was, naturally, Puntland itself: a none-too-subtle showcase of the splendid social progress that had been made since 1998. As I made my way towards the head of the cavalcade, half a mile ahead, I overtook a company of recent law graduates from the new Puntland State University, another of freshly recruited customs officers, a third of policewomen with uniforms that were pressed and gleaming. The local football team, Daljir FC, was marching in black and claret tracksuits. The mechanics of the Nugal Electric Company sported green boiler suits and yellow helmets. Every aspect of civil society seemed covered, right down to a women’s jute-weaving collective, whose members wore light brown jilbabs, and who carried before them the untidy beginnings of a large hessian carpet. It seemed that the spirit of ‘scientific socialism’ that underpinned Siad Barre’s revolution was alive and well in Puntland. The Somali word for socialism, hantiwadaag, means ‘the sharing of livestock’, and although there were no camels on parade, the nomad herdsmen were well represented. I watched a posse of them go by on horseback, fierce, dark men with pale turbans and richly hennaed beards. Their horses were small and wiry, and wore no saddles; the riders leaned unnaturally far back, and beat their mounts across the withers with long thin canes, goading them into a quick, uncomfortable-looking trot for the appreciative crowds.

It was a greater relief than I had expected to escape the fear and claustrophobia of Mogadishu, 800 kilometres and a world away to the south. In Garowe it was possible, at least at times like this, to mix with ordinary Somalis without wearing body armour. Many of the people here were, extraordinarily, smiling. Their costumes were so clean and brightly coloured that they seemed to shine against the dun-coloured, sand-blasted setting of their town. As I walked, I was overtaken by a Toyota containing one of the organizers, the Puntland Youth and Sports Minister Abdiweli Hersi, who stopped to give me a lift.

‘What do you think? What do you think?’ he said, waving proudly at the crowds through the window.

He dropped me off at the town’s main square where a podium had been set up for the president and his entourage. I took up position behind one of the militiamen lining the route – he was wearing standard military camouflage except for the hat, a smart tweed cap that might have been sold in Jermyn Street – and waited for Garowe’s elite to arrive.

The presidential entrance was heralded by the arrival of more soldiers – a lot more. Two technicals, their machineguns swivelling menacingly, lurched to a halt in a cloud of dust and disgorged Farole’s Special Protection Unit, a platoon of paramilitaries in mirror sunglasses and bright red berets, whose chests gleamed with ammunition hung in unnecessarily long belts. Farole himself was a dark, squat man in a suit, surrounded by three tall bodyguards, also in suits, whose breast pockets bulged as they scanned the crowds for trouble. They looked as Mafioso as their boss’s name sounded: Farole was a nickname that meant ‘Missing Finger’.* Their appearance made a sort of sense. Farole, who was born in 1945 and educated in Mogadishu during the UN trusteeship, belonged to that generation of Somalis who still spoke fluent Italian.

On the outskirts of this circus, the president’s pencil-moustached son beetled about, harsh and serious as he barked his marshal’s orders into a walkie-talkie. He was just as thickset as his father, though more casually dressed in a black polo shirt, chinos and Crocs. This was because the Faroles were diaspora Somalis, from Australia. Mohamed junior had largely been brought up in a suburb of Melbourne.

His father was said to spend two-thirds of his state’s income on his own security, and from my vantage point next to the podium I could see it might easily be true. Most of the marchers I had seen so far were civilians, but behind them were hundreds of soldiers, wearing a surprising variety of uniforms. There were also squadrons of police cars and convoys of artillery trucks. Farole took the salute as his troops passed by with their hands on their belts and their knees raised high. He was like Castro in Havana, the Kims in Pyongyang, Brezhnev in Red Square.

Puntland could not well afford this emphasis on the military. Civil society had not yet developed to the point where its citizens actually paid taxes. The state’s annual revenue, derived almost entirely from duty on goods passing through the northern port of Bossasso, came to just $26m. For all the pomp of the day’s celebrations, Garowe was a small place, with a population of no more than 60,000. The Faroles sometimes jokingly referred to their capital as ‘Brasilia’ – which meant that Bossasso, with a population of perhaps half a million, was Puntland’s São Paulo – although I doubted whether Garowe would ever be more than a raggedy desert road-town. Like a faded staging post on a western US interstate, its heart would always be the highway itself. The road the Puntlanders were parading upon was part of the old Italian-built network centred on Mussolini’s Strada Imperiale that once connected Mogadishu with Addis Ababa. Eighty years after its construction it was still the country’s only metalled road of any consequence. The Faroles were touchy about it, but the truth was that their writ didn’t run very far beyond the tarmac.

On the other hand, I had spent enough time in Garowe to appreciate that however obsessive the regime’s concern with its own security might have been, it was not paranoid. On my first visit, four months previously, a well-regarded official called Mohamed Yasin Isse, better known as Ilka-ase (‘Red Tooth’), had been killed when his Toyota was ambushed by two gunmen, in broad daylight in the middle of the town. His assassination had nothing to do with Islamic militancy. Red Tooth belonged to a Majeerteen sub-clan called the Omar Mahmud; his killers were thought to be from another Majeerteen sub-clan, the Mahmud Issa. It was a straightforward revenge hit for the shooting two months previously of a Mahmud Issa policeman in Burtinle, a dusty settlement a few miles south of Garowe.

I went with a UN security officer to inspect the aftermath of the killing. Red Tooth had died instantly at the wheel of his speeding car, which had careered on into a street café, killing an unlucky young woman sitting at a table there. The bullet-riddled rear of the vehicle was still visible, poking out from the rubble of the shop. Meanwhile, Farole’s secret servicemen, members of the feared Puntland Intelligence Service, had sealed off the town and were engaged in a furious house-to-house search for the culprits. According to the UN man, tit-for-tat clan killings of this kind were still common in Puntland. It made one realize how fragile Puntland’s peace was, and that Farole perhaps had no choice but to rule with an iron grip. There was only one road in or out of Garowe, yet Red Tooth’s killers were never caught.

The parade became increasingly surreal as it unfurled. The middle section was led by a group of ululating women decked out in green, white and blue, the colours of the new national flag, carrying a banner that read Xoogsatada(‘the Proletariat’). An absurdly tootling brass band marked the time, led by a baton-twirling drum major with red pompoms for shoulder flashes, groovy rectangular sunglasses, and a bus conductor’s cap. The women’s jute-weaving collective reappeared, unsmiling now, and marching with a disturbing, East European-style goosestep. Next came a green, white and blue giant, carrying an orange basketball: the tallest man in Puntland. He waved like an excited child as he loped past the podium, a small state flag held delicately between the forefinger and thumb of an outsized hand. In the same outfit next to him, like a distorted reflection in a funfair hall of mirrors, bustled a dwarf.

That evening, as a guest of the UN, I was invited with an assortment of aid officials to the formal ‘Puntland Establishment Day party’ at the presidential compound in the centre of town. The middle of it had been strewn with hay, and the surrounding buildings were strung about with coloured light bulbs, a bit like the set of a Christmas nativity play. The foreign guests were ushered to the VIP seats to Farole’s front and left, where we were each issued with a small Puntland flag to wave. Behind as well as opposite us sat row upon row of Garowe’s political and business elite. In this exposed position there was, unfortunately, no escape from the floorshow that ensued. The songs, poems and sketches had but one theme – the wonderfulness of the Farole administration in all its forms – and the performers kept it up for over three hours. The comic material was particularly dire.

‘I have been so happy these last four weeks!’ declared an actor in one sketch.

‘Why?’ inquired another.

‘Because parliament finally approved the law for the new electoral commission!’

This punchline was followed by a Vaudeville-style roll of drums and a cymbal crash. It was truly leaden entertainment. The only real distraction came when we were passed a large wooden bowl of raisin-like nuggets of mutton jerky, called oodkuc. This was followed by another nomad delicacy, a communal bowl of camel’s milk, caano geel, a pleasantly salty, smoky drink I thought I could get used to.*

Farole, who had changed into a loose embroidered shirt and a kufi cap beautifully worked with Arabic script, sat through it all with an impassive expression, speaking little. The audience, who were just as much on parade as the marchers of the morning, sat with stiff backs and fixed grins, smiling and clapping demurely. The evening was being filmed by at least three local film crews, who zoomed in on the foreign guests for the ritual sharing of the caano geel. It was clear enough that we were being used in the crudest way to legitimize the regime. White-skinned foreigners were a relative rarity in Puntland. Our presence as guests lent the party, and its hosts, a certain international respectability. The press here were not independent. The main local media organization, Garowe Online, was run by the president’s son.

The Farole family’s relationship with the outside world had never been easy, least of all when it came to the question of piracy. The allegation that they were profiting from it personally – an allegation repeatedly made by the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia – infuriated the Faroles, who emphatically denied it and pointed out, accurately, that there was no evidence for it. It was true that the family had built a large outdoor restaurant, the only secure restaurant in Garowe, called Ruqsan Square, but there was no reason to suppose that this was not honestly paid for. Farole senior had spent many years in the Australian banking sector. In any case, Ruqsan Square could hardly be called opulent, or even much of a commercial success. There were few customers on the two occasions I visited, and those there were seemed mostly to be Farole’s ministers escaping the heat of their offices downtown, who paid for their milky tea not with money but with a wink at the waiter. The tables and chairs were arranged into a bizarre approximation of a nomad camp, where each section was cordoned off by an open-sided bell tent. The desert wind blasting through this place was strong enough to toss the plastic chairs about. The pinned-down tablecloths snapped and strained at their moorings like pennants on the mast of a yacht.

Critics in Nairobi, including senior officials at the UN, sometimes described Farole’s headquarters as a presidential ‘palace’, with the clear implication that it was corruptly funded. And yet the compound he occupied struck me as modest. It was certainly much less impressive than the nearby UN headquarters, which at four storeys high was easily the tallest building in Garowe. The UN’s building was also heavily guarded and painted white, giving rise to any number of sarcastic local jokes about out-of-touch officials living in ivory towers.

Less amusing was Farole’s growled observation one day, to a senior foreign official who had just arrived in Garowe, that there were ‘too many southerners’ among the UN’s local staff. As one of the few sources of a decent income, the UN was an important employer in the town. Farole didn’t want those jobs taken by anyone but northerners. The UN interpreted his remark as a scarcely veiled threat, and quietly transferred a number of its non-Darod Somali staff to positions elsewhere in the country. They were in no doubt: Farole’s Puntland was at bottom a mono-clan police state, where bad things could and sometimes did happen to people with the wrong tribal affiliation. Yet, that was a quite different complaint to the charge of complicity in piracy – and no matter what Farole did in this regard, the rumours refused to go away.

From the moment he assumed office in 2009, Farole had come under huge international pressure to prove his innocence by taking concrete measures against the pirates. The problem, however, was not just that Puntland was broke. In UN parlance, the state lacked the ‘capacity’ to deal with piracy on its own. For example, there were an estimated 5,000 pirates operating off Somalia, but with just 350 prison places in the whole of Puntland, there was often literally nowhere to put them when or if they were captured. There was also a shortage of judges capable of trying them, and few courtrooms to hold a trial in. The UN Development Programme was funding dozens of judge-training scholarships at the university in Garowe, as well as building new prisons, notably a 254-cell facility at Gardho. But these projects would take time to mature, and until they did there were genuine limits on what the Faroles could do to oblige the West.

I saw Gardho prison for myself, later in the year. It was a forbidding place, even in its half-constructed state, out on the edge of a remote town half way between Garowe and Bossasso. The desert wind rattled the roofs of the empty watchtowers, and the unfinished cells were inhabited by geckos. The prison represented the first serious money that anyone had spent in Gardho since the Italians, eighty years ago. The former colonists were not forgotten in the town. One local family were even called Duce, thanks to a great-grandfather who adopted the name in honour of the regime that once employed him. The Italians had administered the surrounding region from a Beau Geste fort that still stood in the town, crumbling and forlorn.

Next to it, apparently still in use, was the town jail, a tiny, crenellated blockhouse containing a single, dank cell. Above the door was carved a date, 1933, together with the eroded bas-relief of what appeared to be a saluting fire-hydrant, but that on closer inspection revealed itself to be a fasces, the symbol from which the fascists took their name.*

The jail, despite being the only one in Gardho until the new one was finished, was empty when I looked inside. The policeman on duty explained with a shrug that its mud-brick walls were so old and rotten that the last prisoner – a ‘superthief’, he said – had managed to dig his way out with a tin plate. The escape hole was still visible, since no one had troubled to fill it in. Law and order, it seemed, was an optional extra in rural Puntland.

The town jail in Garowe, by contrast, was full to overflowing when I visited. With its two heavily armed soldiers patrolling a parapet around a sandy courtyard that contained a lone, spindly acacia tree, it had a distinct Spaghetti Western atmosphere. Mohamed Abdirazak, the wiry, suspicious captain of the guard, was even wearing a cowboy hat. He led me to the main cell, designed to hold perhaps a dozen prisoners but which now contained forty. It was supposed to be a holding jail, a place to put prisoners in transit to the much larger facility at Bossasso, but due process being what it was in Puntland, most of the inmates here had already been locked up for nine months or more.

They were all young men, most of them under twenty. As I approached, their arms came through the bars of the door like the waving tentacles of a sea-monster. Up close, they pressed their faces into the gaps and protested their innocence, shouting over each other, desperate to be heard. The cell beyond them was a windowless cave, fetid with condensation and stinking of sweat and human waste. You could feel the waves of heat generated by this heap of humanity from ten feet away. Not all the prisoners were shouting. I glimpsed more of them squatting in rows in the darkness at the back, each man shackled to the other by the ankle, mute and depressed.

Captain Mohamed explained that his jail was once notorious for its escapes, but no longer, now that he was in charge. The biggest problem caused by the overcrowding, he said, was that the inmates had to sleep in constant physical contact, shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, which led to lesions of the skin that became infected. I asked if there were any pirates among them, a question that produced a renewed scuffle by the door.

‘Yes! Yes! I’m a pirate!’ said one young man, forcing himself forward. ‘Can you get me out of here?’

His name, he told me, was Abdikadir, although the details of his story changed so much in the telling that it was impossible to trust anything much he said. At one point he asserted that he was not, actually, a pirate, but a cold chain technician at a Galkacyo maternity clinic. He was like the crucifixion victim in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who, desperate for a last-minute reprieve, cries out, ‘I’m Brian and so’s my wife!’

He described how he and his cousins had been travelling the previous year in two cars towards the notorious northern pirate port of Bargal – ‘For health reasons,’ he said – when they were ambushed by police acting on a tip-off. There was a short shoot-out, in the course of which a cousin was wounded, and all of the travellers were arrested.

‘They took three Kalashnikovs and destroyed both of our cars,’ he added, still bitter at the memory.

‘But what were you doing with three Kalashnikovs?’

Abdikadir ignored this question and merely repeated that he was innocent. He saw no contradiction: why would a cold chain technician not be armed, and up for a shoot-out with the police? There was no sense or logic to the way he bent the truth. I was reminded of Richard Burton’s frustrated observation that ‘these people seem to lie involuntarily: the habit of untruth with them becomes a second nature. They deceive without object for deceit, and the only way of obtaining from them correct information is to inquire, receive the answer, and determine it to be diametrically opposed to fact.’

The interpreter I had borrowed from the UN office offered a different explanation, which was that Abdikadir was crazy. This did not seem unlikely after nine months locked up in such a terrible place.

‘Now do you see how difficult it is for judges to deal with this problem of pirates?’ he said.

Establishing the rule of law was crucial to the fight against piracy. That much was understood in every Western capital in the world. And yet in 2009, when President Farole announced plans to arm and train a new ‘Puntland Marine Force’ strong enough to take on the heavily armed pirate bases, no foreign donor could be found to fund the programme. The truth was that, despite local help from agencies like the UN Development Programme, the international community still didn’t fully trust the Faroles.

In 2010, when Farole turned for help to what was then called Saracen International, a shadowy organization said to be backed by, and based in, the United Arab Emirates (and not to be confused with other organizations and/or companies with the same name), he was publicly denounced by the UN and even the US State Department, who accused him of evading a regional arms embargo. The Puntlanders complained that they were damned if they didn’t act against the pirates, and damned if they did. Suspicions were even voiced that the Marine Force’s true purpose was not to combat piracy but to secure the state’s territory in the north-west, much of which is contested by Somaliland.

A Marine Force had nevertheless come into being, and was said by 2011 to number over a thousand men. They were much in evidence at the parade, easily discernible by their light blue uniforms and a regimental flag displaying a gold anchor and rope. Their marching was better and their weapons seemed cleaner than average. They were discreetly accompanied by two drill instructors whom I presumed to be employees of Saracen, South African-looking white men sporting beards and bush hats, who scowled and looked the other way when I tried to speak to them, pressaverse according to type.

An evening or two after the party, I was finally granted the private audience with Farole that I had been looking for, and returned to the presidential compound, which looked even less impressive now that the crowds had gone and the hay and the pretty lights had been removed. Several members of Farole’s innermost circle were lounging in plastic chairs by the entrance to his private quarters, chatting and joking with each other. This was always a good time during Ramadan, when the fast-breaking meal, iftar, was over, and the cool of the night relieved the tension of the super-heated days. I recognized several of the men here: General Khalif, the Security Minister, Ilkajir Jama, the Interior Minister, Isse Dhollowhaa, the Director of Puntland Petroleum. On a fourth chair, inexplicably, sat the dwarf from the parade, with his legs poking horizontally over the edge. He smiled up at me briefly and shook my hand in a serious way before resuming his conversation with the minister to his left.

The inner sanctum smelled of boiled pasta. An ornate ceiling fan slowly stirred the heavy air. Farole, sitting stolidly in the centre of a huge brown leather sofa, looked more Godfather-like than ever. His eyes, now that he was no longer wearing sunglasses, seemed small and myopic, while his spoken English seemed surprisingly accented for a man with a PhD from a university in Melbourne. From time to time his utterances were spontaneously interpreted by a small, bald, obsequious man on the adjacent sofa who spoke English like an Oxford grammarian.

‘What I think the president is trying to say . . .’ he would interrupt.

I wondered who this unlikely court attendant could be. When I found a way to ask he said only that he was a ‘friend’, newly arrived from Leicester in the English Midlands, where he practised as a fully qualified family doctor.

Farole’s antipathy to piracy seemed genuine enough. The damage to Puntland’s reputation and to the fabric of Somali society meant that there was ‘no alternative’ but to fight it. Ignoring the pirate problem was not an option, he said, because it would only spread in a way that could overpower the Puntland government in the end, affecting not just Somalia but the entire world.

‘The pirates take drugs and drink alcohol,’ he said. ‘Both these things were very unusual before they came because they were unaffordable . . . Puntland could become a nation of alcoholics.’

‘There’s the risk of STDs too, such as AIDS,’ chipped in the GP from Leicester.

Farole nodded gravely.

‘I have always been against piracy,’ he went on. ‘Taking young girls by force has never been popular, you know?’

I asked why, if this was his view, the international community persisted in suspecting he was involved. The blame, he said, rested with the UN Security Council’s Monitoring Group, whose annual reports had repeatedly alleged that his officials were on the take. In particular he questioned the impartiality of Matthew Bryden, the Monitoring Group’s Canadian coordinator. He explained that Bryden’s wife, Ubax, was a well-connected Isaaq, the dominant clan in Somaliland, and that Bryden supported Somaliland’s bid for independance. That often meant Bryden painting their neighbours, and particularly Puntland, in a bad light as that would encourage the international community to think likewise. The Monitoring Group’s allegations, according to Farole, were not objective but ‘politically motivated’. Bryden, he noted, had not once visited Garowe while he was president.

‘But in the end it doesn’t matter what foreigners think. It’s what Somalis think that counts.’

Whether Bryden was biased or not, the fact was that in the first quarter of that year, some ninety-seven ships were attacked off Somalia, almost triple the number in the previous first quarter. Even as the new Puntland Marine Force was parading through the centre of Garowe, pirates were holding around six hundred sailors for ransom on board twenty-eight ships.6

On the other hand Farole had, in fact, begun to make progress against piracy. For all the shortage of prison spaces, over two hundred alleged pirates were presently locked up in Puntland. Bryden’s latest report acknowledged that, thanks to the Farole administration’s ‘firmer stance’ on piracy, the centre of pirate operations had started to shift away from Puntland towards Galmudug, the turbulent region to the south. It was particularly significant that the once notorious pirate port of Eyl was now completely clean of pirates, a development of which Farole, who was born there, sounded very proud.

‘It was the community themselves who rejected the pirates,’ he said. ‘I spoke to the elders and the religious leaders. It was a big campaign. I pointed out the enormous social cost of piracy – how the young men of the coast are in prison in twenty different countries, and how a great many others who put to sea are simply getting themselves killed.’

He was right on this last point. In 2012, the death rate among pirates was estimated by Nato to be as high as one in three.7

Farole explained how important Eyl had once been to the Italians for the export of livestock, but that trade had dried up after independence. With the decline of their port, the citizens of Eyl had focused instead on fishing, particularly for lobster. To begin with, Siad Barre had helped with this initiative. The Soviet Union provided training and construction materials for a refrigeration plant, and fishing communities were organized into cooperatives. At the height of the boom, the industry employed as many as 60,000 people.*

Yet after the Ogaden War, Farole went on, Siad Barre withdrew his support and concentrated government resources on the ‘golden triangle’ cornered by Mogadishu, Kismayo and Baidoa. All industries outside that triangle – he listed fisheries, minerals, oil, water and frankincense, as well as the husbandry of livestock – were neglected.

‘Whatever else happens, we can’t go back to the old system,’ he said.

The fisheries industry went into a steep decline. Further disaster struck in 1991, when the collapse of central government opened the door to unlicensed foreign fishing fleets, which devastated local stocks of fish and lobsters. The coastal reefs were desecrated, too, by the unlicensed dumping of toxic waste. Farole explained with something like pride how Eyl had been among the first coastal communities to defend their livelihoods by attacking the illegal fleets. They called themselves, without irony, ‘coastguards’. It was the rest of the world, not them, who dubbed them pirates.

That, however, was then; he acknowledged that things were different now. There was no illegal fishing off Somalia any more, and with the re-establishment of authority in Mogadishu and Garowe, ‘piracy’ no longer served any useful purpose, and had become merely another criminal enterprise. Farole had found foreign funding for ‘community projects’ designed to entice the young men of Eyl away from the sea and back on to the land. One of the main backers, appropriately enough, was Italian. He described what he called an important ‘development opportunity’ just south of Eyl, where the commercial production of sorghum and potatoes was possible.

Enticement, however, could only do so much. Farole was adamant that the campaign could not have succeeded without local consent. Most effective of all, he said, had been the moral arguments put forward by the local religious leaders. It was they who had persuaded the people to turn against the pirates by convincing them that their behaviour was ‘unIslamic’. The key to defeating piracy, he was convinced, was moral rearmament through the mosques.

The campaign in Eyl, he confidently predicted, was just the start. Other notorious ports, such as Garacad, 130 kilometres to the south, had followed Eyl’s example and were driving their local pirates out, too. The whole area of pirate operations was being squeezed southwards and out of Puntland altogether. If I wanted to see pirates for myself these days, he said, I would have to go down to Galkacyo or Hobyo or Harardheere.

There was at least no need to go so far to find the victims of piracy. The following morning in the UN canteen, all the talk among the breakfasting internationals was that the crew of a pirated Thai fishing boat, the Prantalay 12, had been rescued and brought into Garowe overnight, and were now resting at the Global Hotel, a run-down establishment barely 200 yards away up the street.

I hurried along there with two UN officials and soon discovered that the rumour was true. There were fourteen fishermen in all. Although the boat they had crewed was Thai-registered, the men were all Burmese – some of the million or so mostly undocumented migrant workers who, over the years, had fled the junta in Rangoon and made Thailand their home. This presented both the Garowe government and the UN with a problem, for these crewmen carried no passports. What country should they be repatriated to, and who would bear the cost? Alan Cole, a British ex-navy officer with the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, had already spoken to the Thai embassy in Nairobi, since there was no Burmese one. The Thais had told him they had never heard of the Prantalay 12. Cole shook his head grimly: he had seen this kind of diplomatic farrago before. He recalled an occasion when he had been presented with some pirates who had been shot dead. He had been obliged to organize their burial himself, and even paid for it out of his own pocket.

‘The Somalis just aren’t set up for this type of thing,’ he said. ‘I just had to get it sorted.’

The crew of the Prantalay 12, he reckoned, could be stuck in Garowe for some time to come.

The crew emerged from the hotel door, blinking in the sunlight and looking comically short next to their lanky Somali hosts. They were fine-boned and caramel-coloured, with tousled hair and light blue food-worker shirts bearing the Prantalay company logo – the only shirts they owned, it turned out. They shook hands with each of us in their demure, super-polite Asian way, the left hand on the right forearm, their eyes cast to the ground. For a group of liberated hostages they seemed very subdued. I guessed they were suffering from a form of shock.

Only one of them, Hassan Pan Aung, spoke any English, but eventually the outlines of an extraordinary tale of suffering and adventure emerged. They had been in captivity for fifteen months, and had only been freed following pressure applied by some local elders. Ducaysane Ahmed, a government official in a smart jacket and tie with a Puntland flag in his lapel, was on hand at the Global Hotel to take credit for that – although it was clear that the poverty of these Burmese had played its part. The pirates had concluded, eventually, that these men were worthless as hostages. Five Thai crew members, the master and his four officers, were less fortunate, and had not been released.

‘We were so lucky to be Burmese from a shit-poor country like our Burma,’ as Pan Aung later put it to an interviewer from the Myanmar Times.8

Pan Aung recounted how, in early 2010, his boat and two sister ships, the Prantalays 11 and 14, had left the Thai port of Ranong on the Andaman coast bound for the fishing grounds off Djibouti, 6,000 kilometres away across the Indian Ocean. Their trip was certainly not illegal, as apologists for piracy used to claim. Pan Aung was even able to produce a licence issued by the Djibouti Ministère de l’Elevage et de la Mer for the trapping of lobster, mud crab and blue swimming crab. At 106 tons and 27 metres long, the wooden-hulled Prantalay 12 was small and slow, with a low freeboard designed for the easy recovery of traps and nets. She was the easiest kind of prey for the pirates, of whom there were twenty-five, in two speedboats. They were wearing camouflage uniforms and were so heavily armed that the fishermen thought at first they must be a legitimate naval patrol.

‘It was only when they were on our boat that we knew they were mother-fucking Somalis,’ said Pan Aung in the same interview in the Myanmar Times (a weekly international journal published, in English, by editors evidently untroubled by profanity).

All three boats in the fleet were taken, along with about seventy crewmen, sixty of whom were reportedly Burmese.

And so their adventure began. Pan Aung’s captors were based near the port of Garacad on the southern edge of Puntland. They didn’t stay there for long, however, but put the Prantalay fleet to use as ‘motherships’, with the hostage crews kept on board for use as human shields. Until 2009, the pirates tended to restrict their attacks to their home waters and the Gulf of Aden, but international naval patrols had made that old hunting ground less attractive than before. Motherships allowed them to range much deeper into the Indian Ocean – a response that the world’s admirals apparently never anticipated. Pan Aung and his shipmates found themselves travelling half way home again. Their captors took the Prantalay 12 as far as the coast of Sri Lanka. Eight months after the boat was pirated, they were cruising for a target in the Lakshadweep Islands, 200 kilometres south-west of Kerala, when one of the Burmese, 28-year-old Yan Aung Soe, managed to jump overboard and was rescued by the Indian Navy.

Throughout their ordeal, according to Pan Aung, the pirate bosses back in Garacad were in touch with the bosses of the Prantalay Marketing Company, in whose name the boats were registered, demanding a cool $9m for each of them. Prantalay was a fair-sized frozen seafood specialist with profits of $49m in 2011, but the company refused to pay. The pirates steadily lowered their demands as the months went by, yet Prantalay wouldn’t even enter into negotiations. The frustrated pirates began to starve their captives, and kept them hydrated with water contaminated by filth and salt. Pan Aung betrayed no emotion as he described how, one by one, his shipmates succumbed to strange swellings in their limbs and developed breathing difficulties. The sickness was so severe that five of them eventually died and were buried at sea.*

Their troubles were not over yet. One night, back at last on their remote Garacad anchorage, an argument broke out between the crews of two pirated vessels. The anchorage was small and crowded with captured fishing boats, and there weren’t enough mooring spaces to go around. The squabble turned into a firefight that only stopped when one of the shooters was hit. Pan Aung, who was thirty-six, said the pirates were ‘young boys, like my sons’. He added that they were ‘always’ high on qat, although on that night many of them were drunk as well.

In the melee, a drunken pirate at the controls of the Prantalay 12 selected the wrong gear and crashed into another boat, splitting her bow. No longer seaworthy, she was moved to another village anchorage where she had languished until one night the previous month, when strong winds had caused the anchor cable to give way. Pirates and captives abandoned ship as the Prantalay 12 drifted on to rocks and sank. The recriminations on the beach quickly turned violent, and lasted all night. Pan Aung described how the hostages had dug themselves into the sand as the gunfire zipped back and forth above their heads. The following morning they were marched for two days through the desert, where they were held first at one pirate camp, then at another. This was another fraught period when they thought they might be killed at any minute; no one had told them that the pirate chiefs had in fact begun the negotiations that led to their eventual release.*

The other crewmen sat in patient silence as Pan Aung talked, understanding nothing. I handed them half a packet of cigarettes which they fell upon ravenously, passing it back and back until it was empty. Four or five of them missed out on the windfall, yet I saw no disappointment in their faces or even any change of expression. We sent out for a box of two hundred Marlboros, and asked if they had eaten recently. Not since yesterday, they said; and in any case the hotel kitchens were now closed for the day because it was Ramadan. Ducaysane, embarrassed, went to find the manager, and soon the ship’s cook from the Prantalay 12 was hard at work in the outdoor canteen, cheerfully preparing a tureen full of macaroni.

I asked if any of them had had a chance to contact their families yet, and again they shook their heads. They had been free for nearly 24 hours, but none of them had thought to ask to borrow a phone, and none of the Somali officials had offered. We foreigners produced our mobiles, and a minute or two later Pan Aung was speaking to his wife in Ranong for the first time in fifteen months. It was the sort of golden emotional moment that in a Hollywood movie would be accompanied by the full string section of an orchestra. Pan Aung, however, merely smiled. He did not weep or dance for joy or even raise his voice much, and he kept his conversation short and matter-of-fact. Alan Cole, the UNODC man, shook his head in awe at this display of reserve and self-control.

‘It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?’ he murmured. ‘Any European would be in bits after what they’ve all been through.’

It was three months before the crew of the Prantalay 12 were able to leave Garowe’s Global Hotel. After long negotiations Thailand refused to take them, and they were returned to Rangoon, even though they had been employed by a Thai firm when they were captured, and most of them had families residing in Thailand. Hassan Pan Aung had lived in Ranong for over nineteen years. Their treatment by the Prantalay Marketing Company was disturbing by Western standards, although Alan Cole said it was not unusual.

These Burmese were not high-profile victims like the rescued British yachting couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, or the proselytizing Californians, Scott and Jean Adam, who were murdered aboard their yacht, the Quest, in early 2011. They were stateless, impoverished migrant workers of a sort often found below decks in the Far East’s under-regulated and poorly paid fisheries industry. The firms who employed them commonly treated them as expendable. With no family money behind them and no one to champion their cause, trawler crews from the Far East could languish for years in pirate captivity. Or, far from the gaze of the media, unnoticed and unloved, they could just as easily die of abuse, as five crewmen of the Prantalay 12 had done.

* The others are the Marehan, the Dolbahante and the Ogadeni.

* Although the digit referred to was absent not from the speaker’s hand, but his father’s. In Somalia, even nicknames are sometimes passed down the generations.

* The ‘Somali champagne’, as it is known, is as important to nomadic culture as the camel itself. According to the ethnographer I.M. Lewis, the country may even derive its name from the words soo and maal, which together form an instruction to ‘go and milk’ – the first words a foreign visitor might hear on the lips of his nomad host.5

* Mussolini’s adopted insignia – actually a bundle of birch rods with an axe-head protruding from it –was a symbol of legal authority carried by magistrates’ attendants in Roman times.

* In 1974, Siad Barre relocated large numbers of northern nomads stricken by the so-called ‘long-tail’ drought to the coast. His idea was to feed the starving pastoralists with the bounty of the ocean, but the experiment ended in failure because the camel-oriented nomads stubbornly refused to eat fish, a foodstuff that they still regard as beneath them. See, for example, Nuur Ciise’s poem in Faarax Cawl’s 1974 novel Ignorance is the Enemy of Love:

The grunting grumbler pours tea between his lips,

His nose dribbles as he fills his jaws with fish,

He lives in debt while the man of mettle milks Debec, his she-camel

*The probable cause of death was later identified as beriberi, a vitamin deficiency disease.

* The Prantalay 12’s sister ship, the Prantalay 14, was sunk off the Lakshadweep Islands by the Indian Navy in January 2012 following a battle in which ten pirates were killed. The Prantalay 11 was captured nearby a week later, after its captors attacked an Indian Coastguard vessel they had mistaken for a merchantman.