Magazine

Somalia: What is it like to be kidnapped?

  • 29 June 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Suspected pirate boat

The growing menace of hijacking and kidnapping by Somali pirates has governments around the world desperate for a solution, with British MPs again discussing the issue. But the fate of the hostages and of Somalia itself is getting grimmer, writes foreign correspondent and kidnap victim Colin Freeman.

There are two conceptions of the pirate.

One lives in children's imaginations, flavoured by illustrated storybooks and Johnny Depp. The other wields a Kalashnikov rather than a cutlass.

It was the modern-day version of the buccaneer that I was investigating when I was kidnapped in Somalia in 2008.

Abducted at gunpoint in the pirate port of Bossasso in the Puntland region of Somalia, my photographer Jose Cendon and I were imprisoned in a mountain cave, surviving off goat meat and rice, receiving occasional death threats, and dodging bullets one day when our captors had a gunfight with a rival gang.

Image caption Freeman and Cendon were well-treated, but now many hostages are not

As the days turned into weeks, our fears of succumbing to illness of either body or mind grew ever greater. The worst part, though, was the crushing boredom of Stone Age life.

Our only distraction, apart from talking to each other, was a short wave radio, and much as I love the BBC World Service, listening to it all day gets a little repetitive.

Frightening though it was, however, our ordeal was indeed child's play compared to the sufferings of the thousands of sailors taken hostage as Somali piracy has boomed in the past three years.

The average length of time that ships are hijacked for now is five months, while some are kept for up a year.

As I write, hundreds of sailors are in captivity, and although they are generally kept on their boats rather than transferred to caves on the mainland, living cheek-by-jowl with gunmen who are often drunk, high on drugs or plain aggressive is not pleasant.

More worryingly, pirates are starting to abandon their one-time "code of honour", under which sailors were generally not hurt as long as they did what they were told.

In a bid to get shipping firms to cough up ransoms faster, gangs have started torturing their hostages, sometimes hanging them by their wrists from ships' masts, sometimes throwing them overboard and dragging them by a rope through the sea.

One Indian sailor I recently interviewed told me how a fellow crewman was stripped naked and locked in the ship's walk-in deep freeze for half an hour, at -17C.

Unsurprisingly, many such victims suffer lasting psychological trauma.

All of which makes Jose and I feel very lucky with hindsight. Our guards - the odd death threat notwithstanding - were generally reasonably cordial, feeding us more rice and spaghetti than we could eat, and chatting in pidgin English about Arsenal and Chelsea (even among the outlaw fraternity of the Somali mountains, the international language of football is widely spoken).

As a result, the only psychological wounds I emerged with were a lifelong loathing of goat meat risotto, a cigarette habit I'd previously kicked in 1992, and the trauma of appearing at a press conference with a beard that would have had even Ben Gunn reaching self-consciously for a razor.

My release, which came after weeks of round the clock negotiations by everyone from fellow journalists and diplomats through to Somali clan elders, felt nothing short of ecstatic, twinned with a sense of profound relief that neither of my parents had suffered a heart attack due to the stress.

While in the cave, though, there were some distinctly dark moments of the soul. Especially once Jose and I ran out of things to say to each other (which took about a fortnight) leaving us with only our own thoughts to occupy ourselves.

For it is then that you realise that your mind, already tired and stressed, is not the limitless sanctuary you might expect. Rather than passing the time with intellectual, life-affirming insights, I increasingly found I could only manage things like listing old pubs I'd visited in my youth, and ranking the girls I knew in order of attractiveness.

So much for that university education and all those books I'd read over the years, I thought to myself, staring blankly at the cave wall. Not only am I a scruffy, smelly hostage, I'm a dullard as well. And how much longer before I ran out of thoughts altogether, and the descent into some kind of madness began?

For a start, all the talk that the only way to fix the piracy problem is to fix the problems in Somalia itself strikes me as a little glib. Somalia has been ignored by the outside world for 20 years now, and at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I sense no appetite for the kind of immense Iraq or Afghanistan-style commitment that would be required for outside intervention to stand a chance.

Meanwhile, the pirate attacks are continuing at such a rate that some sailors' unions are now threatening to boycott the Horn of Africa region altogether.

Image caption The Puntland region has problems with piracy

The shipping industry, likewise, is fed up with Western navies releasing captured pirates because of a lack of courts willing to try them.

Some shipping bosses I know now talk darkly of pressing for "a more military solution". They don't quite like to say that the navies should just blow them out of the water, but they do argue that in the past, that was how the "pyrates" of old were defeated.

Somehow, I can't see human rights groups ever approving that, although oddly enough, it might have backing from the one other group of people whose future is jeopardised by piracy.

Somalis themselves are mostly horrified at how an entire generation of their youth is being enticed into a lucrative criminal lifestyle.

They recognise that as the hostage-taking culture spreads from the sea to the land, any visitors will be at risk, be it aid workers, foreign investors or journalists like me.

And as long as the country is bereft of the outside help it so badly needs, those pirate pieces of eight - or, to be more precise, those crisp bundles of $100 bills - will remain a tempting way to earn a living.

Colin Freeman is chief foreign correspondent on The Sunday Telegraph and author of Kidnapped: Life as a Somali pirate hostage.