Friday, 21 November 2008

21 November 2008

If you’ve been trying to figure out how those Somali pirates managed to clamber aboard the giant oil super-tanker Sirius Star in the middle of the Indian Ocean last weekend, I think I can enlighten you – because I’ve done it.

Well, something rather similar, at any rate. Many years ago, I was invited to spend a few days aboard a super-tanker in the Gulf. But it had no intention of stopping for me, so I was ferried out in a launch from Dubai to meet it, and then clambered up the side with the help of a none-too-secure rope ladder. I imagine the pirates did much the same thing (although they wouldn’t have had to do too much clambering, given that the tanker was fully laden with 2 million barrels of crude oil and therefore lying very low indeed in the water).

The point being that super-tankers are not easy to defend. They are slow, and ridiculously difficult to manoeuvre. What’s more, they need only a handful of crewmen on board, so half a dozen pirates with a couple of Kalashnikovs are probably all you need to seize control.

Hijacking a super-tanker – or any other kind of sea-going vessel -- is a bit like taking someone hostage. Its only value is what someone else is prepared to pay for it. The Somali pirates wouldn’t have much use for the crude oil, or for the tanker itself – but the several million dollars in ransom money they expect to be able to extort will buy each of them a very nice home, a top-of-the-range 4x4 and as many guns and nippy little speed-boats as their hearts desire.

So here’s the question: should the ship’s owners refuse to pay up? Yes, it’d be tough on the crewmen, whose lives could be at risk – but all previous experience suggests that paying up merely encourages a repeat offence. That certainly seems to be the view of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who said yesterday: “There is a strong view of the British Government, and actually the international community, that payments for hostage-taking are only an encouragement to further hostage-taking.”

And here’s another question: could it be that paying a million dollars – or even 10 million dollars – once in a while for a hijacked ship is a pain that ship owners are prepared to bear? Most of their ships don’t get hijacked, and even if they start sending them the long way round Africa, instead of through the Gulf of Aden and up towards the Suez Canal, that won’t necessarily do them much good – after all, the Sirius Star was heading south towards the Cape of Good Hope when it was seized, simply because it’s far too big for the Suez Canal.

So who will stop the pirates? There’s no authority in Somalia, nor has there been for the best part of 18 years. It’s now nearly two years since the internationally-recognised interim government, with the help of the Ethiopian army, defeated the Union of Islamic Courts which had ruled much of Somalia for nearly six months. But now the Islamists are back in strength, and the Ethiopians are reviled as an occupation army. Think Afghanistan and the Taliban, and you’ll get the general idea.

By a strange coincidence of timing, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo both now find themselves back in the headlines. In Congo there are 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers and a high-profile diplomatic effort to restore security to the east of the country. In Somalia, on the other hand, after the collapse of the interim government, there is virtually no effective international engagement at all.

I think the most heartbreaking scene I ever witnessed was in southern Somalia in 1997, when I was there to report on a catastrophic floods emergency. I came across a deserted hospital – the staff had all left when they ran out of drugs. In the dust outside sat a woman with two tiny dying babies in her arms, sobbing almost silently as she watched their lives ebb away. She had brought them to the hospital in the desperate hope that she would find help there. But there was none.

That was more than 10 years ago, when Somalia had been without a government for “only” six years. The sad truth today is that Somalia still has a lot more to worry about than pirates who hijack super-tankers. And I fear there’s no end in sight to its suffering.

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