Days 1,244-1,248: The War At Sea

Mon 28.05.12 – Fri 01.06.12:

There’s a war going on. Did anyone tell you? Bet they didn’t. The UN wouldn’t tell you, because then they may be called upon to do something about it. The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) wouldn’t tell you, because then they’d perhaps feel a tad silly for issuing advice akin to the hilarious ‘Duck and Cover’ leaflets distributed in case of a nuclear strike. Your local retailer won’t tell you, because even if there is now a 20% shipping surcharge slapped onto every product you purchase, they still make the same amount of profit. The insurance companies won’t tell you, because they can now charge a hefty premium on any ships crossing the Indian Ocean. The only ones really losing out are the mariners, the people of an already war-ravaged East African country and YOU.

I’m talking, of course, about the Somali pirate situation. Whereas the pirates in the Straits of Malacca are essentially thieves who come on board to see what they can nick, Somali pirates take a more novel (and much more profitable) approach: they hijack entire ships and hold their crews hostage for weeks or even months. There are currently 30 ships and over 500 mariners being held hostage RIGHT THIS MOMENT by pirates in the Indian Ocean. The money they can command from a single vessel is staggering: some are ransomed for over $10 million.

How did we get into this mess? While we should all share some collective responsibly for the UN’s and NATO’s inaction in supporting what little government exists in Somalia, it’s a badly kept secret that many pirates were originally fishermen who had their livelihoods literally STOLEN from them by irresponsible Chinese fishing practices. Technically Somalia has got a navy, it just doesn’t own any ships – so it can’t patrol its territorial waters. Knowing this, large-scale trawlers came over from China in the early noughties and half-inched all the bloomin’ fish from the coast of Puntland in the North-East of Somalia – and by ALL the fish, yes, I mean ALL THE FISH. As in ‘So Long, And Thanks For…’

With nothing more than a wooden speedboat, a few AK-47s and the steely desperation borne of knowing your family will starve to death if you fail, the Somali fisherman began launching attacks on a few big cargo ships. Piracy in the Indian Ocean has now grown into an industry that ‘employs’ over 10,000 people. It’s gone from being from a headache for mariners passing through the Gulf of Aden to a full scale armed conflict zone that encompasses a vast chuck of the Indian Ocean, to 77° East of Greenwich to 10° South of The Equator.

Why am I telling you all this? It’s because the next and final stage of my journey will involve me travelling through the heart of the Somali Pirates’ sphere of operations. Today I said my goodbyes to Kuni and the gang (see what I did there?) and set off to the port in order to join the good ship Kota Wirawan, the PIL freighter that would be taking me to Country 198 of The Odyssey Expedition: SRI LANKA.

Wirawan. God that’s hard for me to say. WI-RA-WAN… nah, just comes out as ‘Wiwawan’. I’ll get it in the end.

I quickly familiarised myself with the ship and the crew. It was an amazing assortment of nationalities on board. Usually you get three or four different nationalities on board: this ship had 12. Captain Heri was from Indonesia, the Chief Mate was from Russia, the Second was from India and the Third was from Pakistan. Then we had Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Burmese, Bangladeshis… and the two guys running ship security were from Singapore.

Ship security? Yep, in order to travel safely across the Indian Ocean, many of the larger container firms are turning to putting armed guards on board their ships. On this voyage I learnt a LOT about ship security. Bobby Teng, the guy in charge of the operation is ex-Singapore army, and he’ll be leading a team of four armed guards on the trip from Sri Lanka to Kenya and back.

So far, no cargo ship with armed guards on board has been taken by pirates, and the escalation of violence that many feared would happen has not (as yet) occurred. Bobby took me on a tour of the ship, showing me the preventative measures they use to stop the pirates coming anywhere near them. First up: a HUGE banner with ‘STAY BACK – THIS SHIP IS ARMED’ written in Somali, with a silhouette of an armed guard to back up the point.

Then there are two scarecrows (I called them Butch and Sundance) who stand guard on the wings either side of the bridge.

There’s also eight different firing positions, four on the wings, two on the aft, two on the foredeck give the guards vantage points which allow them to pick off any would-be pirates (after firing a warning shot) with an accuracy that the pirates, bobbing up and down in their speedboat, couldn’t hope to achieve.

Bobby explained to me that the are trained not to shoot the pirates themselves, but to shoot the engine, thereby disabling the pirate’s boat. However, if the pirates get too close, the armed guards are, in theory, free to kill the would-be hijackers. This, so far, has never happened. The pirates, like most people, would rather go for the low-hanging fruit: unguarded oil tankers with a low freeboard (the distance from the water to the deck). But when all ships have armed guards on board, this situation might change drastically.

The armed guards, the patrols by British, American, French, Chinese and Russian navies… all this is made necessary by ONE THING: The United Nations inaction in Somalia. Now we’ve all grown up knowing that the United Nations is the most wretched hive of scum and villainy this side of Mos Eisley Spaceport. We remember the horrific Rwandan Genocide of 1994 in which 800,000 people were hacked to death with machetes in the space of just a few weeks. We remember the UN spokesperson – that mealy-mouth wench – saying it wasn’t genocide, it was ‘ethnic cleansing’. We remember the UN’s inaction in Bosnia, as Sarajevo was put under siege for months on end, or when they turned a blind eye to Ratko’s goons slaughtering hundreds of innocent teenagers. We remember the mass-murder in Kosovo, something that was only stopped by NATO (tellingly not the UN). We remember the dreadful civil war that would have engulfed the whole of Sierra Leone had one British commander not said ‘no more’. We’ve seen the tragic lack of balls when it came to the Lebanese civil war of the 80s, the Afghan civil war of the 90s or, coming up to do date with the failure to tackle Mugabe, Gaddafi, Al-Assad, Al-Bashir, Kim Jong-Il… instead allowing them to murder their own people with impunity (until their own people or old age despatch them off this mortal coil).

Since Somalia has no police, no judiciary and no prisons, it has not the capability to deal with its pirates. Kenya don’t want them, and neither do Yemen or Seychelles. The Royal Navy can’t keep hundreds of pirates locked up on board the RFA Fort Victoria for a six month tour.

I’m not calling in some wanky ‘Get Kony’ kind of way for something to be done by somebody, somehow. There is a simple roadmap that I could dash out on Microsoft Word in a few minutes. It would go something like this…

• From now on, anyone caught committing acts of piracy or attempting to commit acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean will be taken to a floating prison ship (a decommissioned and converted cruise liner) off the coast of The Seychelles. There they will be given a fair trail (streamed on the internet) and, if found guilty, sentenced. They will remain on the ship until their sentence is over. This will all be conducted (and paid for) under the auspices of the United Nations.

• Secondly, the United Nations will do what it does in East Timor: provide the army, navy, air force and police force for the Somali government. We’re not taking regime change here, we’re talking about keeping what little government Somalia has and giving that government a mechanism to do the job that they can’t do themselves – root out the war lords and bring peace. Working with African Union forces (already in control of vast swathes of the west of Somalia), this could end the reign of terror that has been in effect since the warlords took over in 1991.

• Thirdly, the de-facto state of Somaliland would be recognised as an independent state. They deserve it.

Fair? Undoubtedly. Do-able? Indubitably. Would it stop the pirates in their tracks? YES. YES IT WOULD.

My journey on the MV Kota Wirawan would take me up to the tip of northern Sumatra and then due west to the southern tip of Sri Lanka. We’d get phone reception on the first day of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Let me tell you why I’m not a republican…

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. GrahamStalker

    Now you’re trying to get the UN to build a prison ship to take you to The Seychelles. Really desperate, aren’t you?

  2. Doug McQueen

    Ah well! By the sounds of it, when you’ve finished this expedition and you can’t get a job because of the double-dip recession, you’re going to be an armed guard in the Indian Ocean. That’ll strike fear into the pirates !
    Best of luck, Doug and Anne xx

  3. Humayun

    Hi Graham,
    its 2nd mate from kota wirawan… howz ur journey going.. hope its completed up til now.. nice to read this page.. when r u going to upload videos of kota wiarawan..

Leave a Reply