2/2011
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The Country of Poets and Pirates

May 2009 the Voice of Russia observer Georgi Kapchits returned from Somalia where he served as an interpreter and consultant for a Russian television crew. He visited numerous parts of this formerly integrated country, met with political leaders and cabinet members, as well as fishermen, pirates, city residents and rural villagers.


In recent years, the fractured nation-state of Somalia, which occupies a vast territory on the Horn of Africa, has become notorious for the scandalous activities of local pirates who have captured dozens of trade vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, then received millions of dollars in ransom money to relinquish the cargo ships and their crews. The amounts of money received by such marauders and their collaborators sometimes exceed the annual operating budgets of the current governments of Somaliland, Puntland and a shrunken “Somalia.”

The guards of Georgi Kapchits and his crew.

I visited the coastal fishing town of Eyl (located 600 kilometers north of Mogadishu) which has been dubbed “pirate headquarters” by the world media. I observed three captured ships in the harbor but could not talk to the pirates. When I offered to visit them by boat, our team leader Vladimir Sinelnikov declined to support my venture, insisting that his studios lacked sufficient ransom money to free us should the pirates “detain” us, and he would never return home to Moscow without me and cameraman Sasha Kublitski!

A few days later, however, I saw some alleged pirates shackled in the Bosasso prison on the northern Somali coast within the semi-autonomous state of Puntland. The details of my meetings and overall impressions will be presented in a little while. But first, permit me to offer a few words about the history of Somalia and its people.

Descendants of legendary Punt

Many scholars believe that Somalia was the legendary country of Punt, which once supplied the court of Egyptian pharaohs with the aromatic gum resins, myrrh and frankincense. In the Middle Ages, the Somali language, culture and religion were influenced by the Arabs. By the end of the 19th century the Somali Peninsula was partitioned among France, Britain, Italy and Ethiopia.

In 1960 the British colony in the north and the Italian one in the south acquired independence and merged to form the Somali Republic with Mogadishu as its capital. In October 1969, General Mohammed Siyaad Barre took power by overthrowing a corrupt and malfunctioning parliamentary regime, soon proclaimed socialism as Somalia’s governing political ideology, and established close relations with the Soviet Union.

The years from 1969 - 1977 are remembered by many Somalis with great nostalgia and considerable fondness. Thousands got an education in the Soviet Union and Soviet experts built dozens of industrial enterprises, schools, hospitals and infrastructure facilities throughout Somalia. During those years, Somalis shared a popular refrain known to all, “either Russian, or rain,” whereby the benefits provided by Russians were equated with a gift of heaven.

Somalia is an arid country where rainfall is sparse and falls mainly from April to June. Only the two rivers flowing through its territory – Juba and Webi Shabelle – do not dry up. The neighboring irrigated lands can support settled populations of farmers who grow bananas, cotton, rice and sugarcane. The residents of the coastal areas have traditionally engaged in fishing activities. But nowadays, the fishing sector, like much else in Somalia, is in the economic doldrums.

The majority of Somalis are still pastoralists, raising goats, sheep and some cattle but dromedaries represent the most valuable part of their numerous flocks. They tolerate the heat well and can survive for many days without water or food. When a nomadic residence is changed the animals are loaded with a collapsible house and the modest possessions of the family. Camels are packed by women but all other work associated with caring for these animals (including milking) is performed by men. The love that Somalis bestow on camels knows no boundaries. “A camel is a camel and it is exchanged only for a camel,” they say.

"A camel is a camel...", they say.

A traditional Somali family usually consists of a husband, one or sometimes several wives (the Somalis are Muslims and the Koran allows polygamy) and their children. Several closely related families form a reer. A family and a reer are the lowest stages of the social organization of the Somali kinship system. Several reers which trace their genealogy back to a common ancestor form a knee. Several knees make up a bone and several bones a tribe.

The tribe is headed by a chief whose power is absolute. A familiar saying notes, “A straight chief has a straight tribe, a crooked chief has a crooked tribe.” Judging by what has been happening in Somalia over the last twenty years since the collapse of the Barre regime, hardly any straight chiefs remain there. The highest level of Somali hierarchy is a clan of which the major ones are: Dir, Daarood, Hawiye and Digil-Mirifle. Every Somali knows exactly the place he occupies in the clan and sub-clan structure and, when referring to himself, first tells his name and that of his father and grandfather, and then informs the listener of the knee, the bone and the tribe to which he belongs.

Tribal divisions and clan rivalries, which often appear stronger than the common language, culture and religion of the Somalis, destroyed their statehood. It happened in 1991, when the regime of Mohammed Siyaad Barre collapsed under the blows of the clan oriented opposition forces. But the "first alarm bell" rang out in 1977 when the country having reinforced its military muscles decided to annex the contested Ogaden – a Somali-inhabited vast area that had been claimed by neighboring Ethiopia for over 50 years. Following a crushing military defeat by the Ethiopian army, supported by Cuban troops, the ruling circles of Somalia blamed the Soviet Union, which had not supported their military adventure. The USSR Embassy in Mogadishu was destroyed and Soviet diplomats and experts were expelled from the country in October 1977.

The word "Ogaden" was first taken to a Russian ear by poet Nikolai Gumilev. In 1913 he visited the Somali peninsula with an ethnographic expedition. What he saw there left him with an uneasy impression. He wrote:

“No people in Africa are more formidable than the Somalis
No land in Africa is less cheerless than their land.”

However, the country through which Gumilev travelled was not inhabited only by warriors because as early as 1854 the famous British orientalist Richard Burton reported from his travels there that “the country teems with poets.” Perhaps Gumilev also recognized this vital cultural characteristic of the Somalis, because some stanzas in his “Peninsula” book are written with the use of alliteration, which forms the basis of Somali poetry:

“So many whites were pierced by a spear
Near its sandy wells – in the darkness.
So that Ogadeen could praise their exploits
with the voices of hungry hyenas.”

One of the country’s most revered poets was the leader of the Somali national liberation movement in the first decades of the 20th century, Sayid Mohammed Abdille Hassan. The British called him “Mad Mullah” for his inflexible fighting spirit and the fierce tenacity with which his movement resisted colonialist armies. These same traits of resilience and bravery are shared by many contemporary Somalis who have, of necessity, been educated in and graduated from the severe “survival school” that forms the sparsely watered spaces and scorching stony plains of their country.

Mogadishu: Twenty years later

A wall in Mogadishu.

Before this trip I had visited Mogadishu once before, in 1989, when the Somali Academy of Sciences invited me to the 4th International Congress of Somali Studies. That time, on board the direct flight from Moscow to Mogadishu (with brief stops in Cairo and Dar-Es-Salaam) were two familiar Africanists. They told me they were supposed to accompany the Director of the Institute of African Studies Anatoly Gromiko (son of the former minister of foreign affairs), but at the last moment he had changed his mind and decided not to go.

Since this news had not reached Somalia, all members of the Soviet Embassy in Mogadishu came to the airport prepared to greet the plane. Although Somali-Soviet diplomatic relations had practically broken off in 1978, they had since been re-established; hence several important Somali leaders were also there to welcome their prominent guest. Upon learning that Gromiko was not coming, they immediately departed, but left intact the schedule of events for their eminent guest. Still considered part of his “group,” therefore, we were given accommodations at the best metropolitan hotel, the Al-Uruba, and driven to conference sessions in a governmental limousine.

An Unisom soldier.

In 2009, upon arrival at Mogadishu airport, the reception for our television team was strikingly less impressive. Exhausted by the 24 hour flight, as we deplaned and shielded our eyes from the tropical sun, we found ourselves immediately surrounded by a dozen Ugandan soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force who led us to armored cars waiting nearby. Bristling with machine-guns and awfully nervous they took us to the “best” hotel available. This time it was not the once luxurious “al-Uruba” (the next day we saw its ruins), but a modest building of the former Chinese Embassy in which some members of the Transitional Federal Government formed three months ago had taken residence.

The Somali leadership was unable to render more honor to its guests from Moscow. The modest conditions of life – an air conditioner that worked only in the daytime, cold water available only at night, and hot water non-existent – were compensated for by a reliable security and easy access to prominent Somali news-makers. For instance, it was relatively easy for us to arrange an interview with any minister by simply meeting him in the corridor, or at the canteen, or in the yard. Nor was it considered improper or impolite simply to knock on his door.

Within a few days, we met the current President of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a 45-year-old ex-teacher. Before he was elected president he was Commander in Chief of the Islamic Courts Union, (ICU) which enjoyed support among the majority of Somalis in the Mogadishu region a few years ago. After Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed took office, the ICU split as its most radical members joined the Islamic Al Shabab movement (“the youth”), which now controls many southern parts of the country.

Somalia is the only state on the territory of the former Democratic Republic that is recognized by the international community, according to its President. “I’m happy you’ve come,” he explained. “It’s a good sign and I hope Somali-Russian relations will be restored soon. We’ve sent the Russian president a message requesting a meeting and we count on a positive answer. As soon as we get the answer we’ll head for Moscow to discuss our problems. Eighteen years of civil war left no statehood and caused the country to fall apart. In addition, there are pirates who threaten navigation off Somalia and inflict a lot of damage on their own country, in the first place.”

Travelling men, Mogadishu.

It took us one hour to travel just a few miles from our hotel to the presidential residence. We were obliged to poke along slowly, halting at frequent checkpoints and maneuvering around barbed wire tapes. The guards – eight sloppily dressed soldiers and a colonel in military uniform – ordered us to keep the windows closed and to remain inside at all times. It was morning but the city looked deserted with many houses gaping at us through the eye-slits of their broken windows. A Somali proverb asks: “Which place is better – one which is bare but serene or one which is green but dangerous?” I do not know which place is better, but the one that is worse is bare and dangerous as, for example, the city of Mogadishu.

After the 1989 Congress of Somali Studies was completed, Somali President Mohammed Siyaad Barre hosted a reception to honor its participants. Already visibly aged and paunchy, he stood near his palace on the ocean shore. Close by was General Hersi Morgan, the Minister of Safety, his notoriously brutal son-in-law, who had mercilessly exterminated members of the Somali opposition movements and inspired horror and hatred throughout the country. Many said that he was the only person whom Barre trusted. The scholars would approach the military dignitaries, greet them briefly, and then hurry away for food at the reception tables. When it was my turn, I addressed Siyaad in Somali; he smiled and shook my hand. I also greeted Morgan but received no reply, as the General was looking elsewhere with vacant eyes.

A year and a half later in January 1991, Mohammed Siyaad Barre was overthrown and eventually fled the country. He sought to settle in neighboring Kenya, but the opposition protested so he moved on. He died in Lagos, Nigeria on the 2nd of January 1995. General Morgan became a warlord who controlled the southern port city of Kismayo and most of the Lower Jubba region in the 90s until he was ousted from those territories by another warlord, Colonel Barre Hiiraale, of the Jubba Valley Alliance. That region is now under the administration of the radical Al Shabab group.

After we completed our production work in Mogadishu this year, the film crew headed to the far northeast of Somalia, to the semi-autonomous mini-state known as “Puntland.” On the highway in a remote region between Qardho and Bosasso, our guide, also named “Siyaad” suddenly handed me a mobile phone. Upon pressing it to my ear, I was astonished to hear a voice say, “Hi Georgi. It is Morgan. Do you want to talk?”

Pirates of the 21st century

Before 2004 the word “pirate” did not exist in the Somali language, nor did the term “piracy” which denotes theft, brigandage and lawlessness on the open seas. With hindsight, we can see that the prerequisite geographical conditions for piracy had existed along the extensive ocean coastline of Somalia. The Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden that form the eastern and northern shores of Somalia have long been venues for active and diverse forms of long-distance trade.

The reliability of the annual monsoon wind patterns enabled seafarers from south Arabia, the Persian Gulf, the Indian sub-continent and even China to sail back and forth across the Indian Ocean, including frequent stops at Somali ports such as Mogadishu, Merca, and Brava.

Although the Somali people were primarily pastoralists, farmers and city dwellers, the individualist nature of their culture (despite its occasional bellicosity) was tempered by the limited tradition of ocean navigation and mitigated against any history of piracy. Cases of assaults against foreign vessels are extremely rare in the annals of modern Somali history.

During a phone conversation with him from his base in Kenya, General Hersi Morgan, the former chief of safety, admitted that before 1990 no one in Somalia had ever heard of pirates. That is not surprising since the dictatorship of Siyaad Barre had spared no efforts in the formation and conservation of raw power without limits. In that sense, modern piracy is a manifestation and reflection of the anarchy that has escalated to such prominence following the collapse of the regime of Siyaad Barre, even though the first seizure of a foreign vessel by Somali pirates only occurred in 2004.

A couple of captured ships, in front of Eyl.

From 1991 to the present day, Somalia has been wrecked by a violently destructive civil war. It has had its peculiar characteristics. At war were not “tops and “bottoms”, though there are both in Somalia – gob (nomads, fishermen and other “free people”) and gun (craftsmen from the “lower ranks” who enjoy their protection). The fighting was initially between clans (groups of tribes), but then escalated to violence between the tribes within the clans. Those who sought to exterminate each other were actually kinfolk, who had lived together for centuries, had spoken the same language, and worshiped the same God.

The Somali traditional law obliged an assailant to pay one hundred camels for murdering a man. In the past two decades, as warfare became total, the oral laws were gradually ignored or forgotten – the six million camels which were in Somalia during that time were never enough to “pay” for the enormous loss of life. The warning of the ancestors has come true: “If brothers love each other they have much cattle and few tombs, but if they hate each other they have little cattle and many tombs.”

Since the late 1990s, the human resources of Somalia have been depleted. At least one million people have fled the country and a comparable number have perished from combat, murder, disease and hunger. In some places, however, the intense warfare shows signs of abating: first, in the northwest where Dir and Darood sub-clans established the Republic of Somaliland; and second, in the northeast where the semi-autonomous state of Puntland emerged ten years ago, inhabited mainly by other sub-clans of the Darood. In the south meanwhile (in Somalia) the war continues but nowadays it is waged less under the sky-blue color of the flag of Somalia and much more for the bright-green banner of Islam, as religious fanatics try to overthrow the current government of national unity.

The Somalis say: “War is evil, but men learn at it each other’s value”. They have five age groups. At war were two of them – the “shield-bearers” (youths between fifteen and twenty-two) and the “black-bearded” (mature men aged from twenty-two to thirty-five). Those who survived on the battle field and returned home saw widespread filth and squalor as enterprises constructed with the assistance of Soviet friends lay in ruins. The co-operative societies, created in the 1970s when thousands of nomads had been transferred to a sedentary life, ceased to exist.

Worse still, the coastal waters were furrowed now not by tiny feluccas of local fishermen but by huge vessels of foreign poachers. Soon after acquiring modern weaponry, the Somali fighters captured a few trawlers. In a tempest, having taken the fish, they released the ships, threatening to drown their crews if they ever returned. Some other ships came, were seized, but no longer escaped with the catch.

Pirates operate mainly from the coastal waters of Puntland, “driving” captured vessels to the town of Eyl (on the shore of the Indian Ocean), the city of Laas Qorey (in the Gulf of Aden) or to obscure deep-water bays remote from human habitation and visibility. When we arrived in Eyl there were three captured bulk carriers in its harbor and negotiations over the conditions of their release had been under way for several weeks.

Abdirizak Yusuf Muse, the good-spirited mayor of Eyl and owner of the inn where we spent one night, answered our request to connect us with pirates by offering to bring one to us. He was abiding on land “because he had been wounded in a leg and had temporary lost his earning capacity”. We waited for the pirate a long time but he failed to appear.

The next morning, there were only two ships in the sea. The third one had been redeemed and floated away. The money among the bandits had been divided by the lame man who received a “handling fee” of 15 thousand dollars. Everybody was talking about it in Eyl where, like the rest of Puntland and all across the entire Somali peninsula, there are few secrets. How can it be otherwise if “what is uttered in a whisper comes to where people gather?”.

The town of Eyl.

In Garoowe, the capital of Puntland, an “anti-piracy” rally was underway. About two hundred men, women and children were listening to a fiery speech of President Abdirahman Mohammed Mohammud “Faroole”. When the rally ended he invited us to his residence. The President is about 50 years old and was born, and has studied and worked in Somalia. He assumed the leadership of Puntland in January 2009. He prefers to wear traditional Somali clothes – a round “chieftain hat”, a lunghi (man’s skirt of colored material) and a shirt worn over it.

“Piracy is one of the biggest problems, but not just ours”, he said. “Safety is one for all, and if you threaten someone, you threaten all. We are revolted with seizure of foreign ships. By undermining international navigation the pirates hurt their country. Ships do not come to our ports anymore. That is why we are struggling against pirates with all our might. But we don’t have enough force. There is neither army, nor coast guard. Warships of many countries are trying to bring the situation under control. But they won’t manage without us. This is one side of the case. There is another one, too. We have a lot of young people, but there is nothing to occupy them with. They need education, but we don’t have universities. They need jobs, but we don’t have enterprises. We count on the help of the international community. Recently we have condemned 60 pirates. Some were sentenced to two years, the others to life imprisonment. The rest, I am sure, will suffer the same fate”.

The one-storied prison in the town of Bosasso, where the pirates serve their sentences, is surrounded by a three meter-high wall. It is encircled by a right-of-way. A hundred meters away is the Gulf of Aden. From the cells (they are five or six) it is certainly not visible. A cell has only three walls. Instead of the fourth, facing the courtyard, there are bars. The temperature in the open yard exceeds 50 degrees Celsius, so in the cells it is not less. The hands of the prisoners are free, but their feet are chained. The chains clanked when, having seen us, they jumped up to snuggle the bars.

The Woman's breasts -bar, Bosaso.

Those pirates who are handed over to Puntland authorities by foreign sailors are sentenced to two years in jail. This lenient punishment is defended by the lack of compelling evidence – they are captured unarmed and not “in action”. Those pirates who are actually apprehended by Puntland authorities (always at or near the crime scene) are sentenced to serve a life term. But there seems to be no difference. Bosasso prison offers neither of them a chance of freedom.

Each participant at the 10th Conference of the International Association of Somali Studies held in 2007 at Ohio State University (USA), received in addition to the usual materials – a folder with the program, a notebook and writing-materials – a big poster with a photograph of the Somali Peninsula taken from outer space. Its shape resembles the horn of an African buffalo and an elephant’s tusk. And the bowsprit of a pirate ship, whose brigands are about to board its prey.

Georgi Kapchits with his Ukranian crew.

Georgi Kapchits

Born 2.10.1939. In 1967 graduated from the Institute of Asian and African Studies of Moscow State University. Qualified as a linguist in the field of Amharic and Somali studies. From 1967 to 1994 worked as a broadcaster in the Somali Section of Radio Moscow's World Service. Since 1994 has been working as a commentator at the Information Department of the State Radio Company "Voice of Russia". Lectured on the Somali language at the Universities of Moscow and Berlin. In 2000 defended PhD thesis on the Somali syntax. Author of seven books on the Somali language and folklore.

Site: Kapchits.narod.ru

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Photos: Alexsander Kublitski, freelance cameraman, Moscow