Bulgarian Journalist Elena Yoncheva: West Sees Somali Pirates as Lesser Evil than Islamists
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with Elena Yoncheva, investigative journalist from the Bulgarian National Television.
Elena Yoncheva has made top documentaries about a number of the "hottest" spots and conflict zones on the planet, including Chechnya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Columbia, among others.
Her documentary "Somali Pirates" was aired on the Bulgarian National Television on June 27, 2009, in three 40-minute episodes. Yoncheva became the first journalist to film a documentary in Eyl in Puntland, one of the major safe havens of the Somali pirates.
Her film was provoked by the hijacking of the Malaspina Castle ship with 16 Bulgarian sailors on board in the spring of 2009.
Currently, a total of 13 Bulgarian sailors are kept hostage by Somali pirates aboard the two hijacked vessels, Asian Glory and St James Park.
You have made documentaries about a number of the "hottest" spots around the world. What provoked your interest in filming the Somali pirates?
The immediate reason for my going to Somalia was the kidnapping of the Malaspina Castle ship (hijacked in the Gulf of Aden in March 2009 - editor’s note), which had 16 Bulgarian crew members out of a total of 24, and the captain was also Bulgarian.
This was a topic that was of interest to everybody in Bulgaria but there had been very little information about Somalia or the pirates, there had been no journalists who got in touch with the local people, including with the pirates.
How did you manage to get to one of the major havens of the Somali pirates - the port of Eyl?
Usually, as I approach a certain topic, I want to get the maximum out of it. But in this case I had serious doubts if going to this place was at all possible - for a number of reasons.
The main reasons was that I tried to find out which journalists have been to Eyl, and the only thing I discovered was that the only footage from this place had been shown on CNN, and it came from an American citizen of Somali origin who went there with a "camera", and made some general shots.
I did not believe that we would make it, first, because it is a pirate port, and the only thing the pirates value is the dollar. It was very hard for me to think of what motivation these people would have to accept journalists, to speak in front of them, and then to let them go.
So what was their motivation to speak before you? How did you manage to do it?
First, it was very hard for us to get into Somalia because the government of this part of Somalia -Puntland - does not want to allow journalists on its territory because the possibility that they will be kidnapped is very high. Over the past year, two journalist teams had been kidnapped, and the Puntland government did not want to have more trouble.
We negotiated for two weeks with people who could influence the local authorities into letting us get this permit - it is not really a visa, because Puntland is not internationally recognized. It declared its autonomy about 10 years ago.
Eventually, we got it, but we were only allowed in after we procured at least 10 security guards, who were waiting for us at the airport. This is the minimum precaution that a foreigner can take arriving there. As we landed in Bosaso, we had our guards waiting for us, and they were with us the entire time we went to Eyl.
The other reason journalists are not allowed there is the fact that the Puntland government does not wish to hear much talk about the hijackings, and thinks that piracy is not the major problem of that part of the world - that there are much greater problems such as the humanitarian crisis, the lack of employment, the illegal fishing; they believe the piracy topic gives their country a very bad image.
So, the conditions were very hard to work in since our topic was piracy but we had to be careful so as not to attract much attention to it. Literally on the second day after we arrived, the mayor of Bosaso called us, and said he knew that we were actually investigating piracy and asked us to leave the country.
We then tried to explain that our topic is actually wider, that it is the economy, etc, etc, and eventually we were allowed to stay longer.
We went to Garoowe, which is the capital of Puntland, where the President of the state is also located, we talked to him, we also met with two pirates. They don’t call them pirates there, they are known as "sea bandits".
We were looking for a way to get to Eyl where the Malaspina Castle with its Bulgarian crew was held. However, I should note that shortly after we got to Somalia, the ship and the crew were released.
Very often in such situations journalists make their way through contacts that they find on the ground. We found such a contact there who turned out to have a relative in Eyl, and we managed to get there with greater preparation and even more security guards.
It is a known fact that Somalia is one of the so called "failed states". What does the society there look like from within in terms of organization?
The country is organized entirely on a clan basis. It is based on clans, sub-clans, and it functions solely on the grounds of this structure. The President is elected in a kind of a local form of "democracy" - every clan has representatives who are eligible to vote.
It is a received wisdom that this very condition of the failed state is the major reason for the piracy. Where are the roots of the piracy in Somalia, in your view?
Piracy in Somalia started in rather curious way, and we actually tried to use this as an argument -you know, as part of the wider picture - in order to get to talk to some of the pirates.
Because, indeed, for 20 years now, Somalia has been in a state of civil war, and practically no one controls the coastal waters of the country, and Somalia has one of the longest coastlines in Africa -over 3 500 km. Also, those waters are known to be very rich in fish. But since this is a "free-for-all" zone, no one controls those waters, no one controls the fishing there, no one collects fees.
At one point in the 1990s, the local Somali fishermen felt robbed of their rights, and as a sign of protest took over an Egyptian fishing vessel, and demanded that they keep the vessel as compensation to their fishing losses. The Egyptians gave in, and the Somalis saw that this could turn into a profitable business in its own right. So from an act of protest, it has turned into business.
The pirates have no central authority or a spokesperson. Their groups are formed regionally, in accordance with the geographic positions that are convenient for anchoring ships off the coast.
However, they do have a man who is believed to be their informal spokesperson who talks to the media from time to time, and who continues to insist that the ships are being hijacked, first and foremost, because of illegal fishing, and second, because of the illegal dumping of chemical and toxic wastes off the Somali coast by foreign ships.
Of course, even if these were the initial reasons, we can now see that the pirates hijack mostly commercial ships which only transit those waters.
So this activity has in fact transformed into full-fledged piracy in a rather interesting way?
It has been transformed into real piracy but this does not mean that there aren't any pirates who hijack, as a sign of protest, ships they suspect carry toxic waste or fish illegally. This is also still there, still part of the picture. But it has become a secondary concern, and it is not talked about much because it is also a very hard thing to prove.
Some critics say that this Somali piracy problem is exploited and manipulated by western companies and western media in order to cover up precisely the issue with the dumping of toxic waste off the Somali coast. Do you think the coverage of the Somali piracy issue in the "Western" media is fair?
It is fair to the extent that the facts are duly noted - the actual acts of hijacking. But since there are no journalists or witnesses on the ground - and this is quite understandable - the coverage is not so detailed.
It is a paradox that over 25 naval vessels are patrolling in the Gulf of Aden - this is the most powerful sea police since World War II, the most powerful states on earth, and they still can't do much.
Of course, they capture pirates or fishermen suspected of piracy, but afterwards the suspects end up in Somali, Ethiopian, or Kenyan prisons, and are set free. At the beginning there were attempts to try them in Europe. But it is prohibitively hard to prove that those are in fact pirates.
First, depending on where they were captured - in territorial waters or sea waters - different laws apply. Second, very often - and this I was told by some of the pirates themselves - whenever they are out in sea, and they see a naval ship coming to inspect them, they throw out all of their weapons and devices in the sea, and when they are caught, there is no evidence. That is why the navies have resorted to using pictures as evidence.
The moment the pirates board some ship, the hands of the navy patrols are tied because they cannot risk the lives of the hostages.
Last year, French forces managed to save a hijacked yacht with two French families on board, with kids, who were on a world cruise, and one of the kidnapped men was killed during the rescue operation. So this carries huge risks.
Another reason, in my view, that media coverage of Somalia might be scarce or lacking in detail is the fact that the so called "residual Somalia" with the capital Mogadishu is controlled by one of the extreme Islamist groups Al Shabaab, who are believed to be as extreme as Al Qaeda, and some experts think this is an extension of Al Qaeda, and that there are camps for training Al Qaeda operatives and fighters in Somalia.
There is no presence of Americans or Europeans in "residual Somalia". Last year, an American congressman tried to land in Mogadishu to meet with members of the transitional government, and his plane was shot at, and had to turn back.
One more reason not much is being done against the pirates is that, however, paradoxical that might sound, the pirates are the lesser evil compared with the Islamists. The Islamists have gone underground in Puntland. They carried out two suicide bombings against a military base in Bosaso, which is actually an anti-terrorism training camp of one of the great powers. Two suicide bombers penetrated the base, and blew themselves up.
But there are no active Islamist groups in Puntland, and according to many, this is presumably thanks to the groups controlling the pirates. The Islamists do not approve of piracy and the pirates, and the other way around.
The Islamists think that piracy breaks Islamic law, and it seems as though the great powers think that it is better to have the pirate groups in place to which several millions are paid as ransoms, which is not that big of a deal keeping in mind that everybody along the commercial sailing chain has insurance. The only ones that really suffer from this whole thing are the sailors, the ship crews. So the pirates seem to some states to be the lesser evil in Somalia.
Because the only efficient thing to do against the pirates is to tackle them directly - either by invading with military forces on the ground, or by giving a lot of money to the local government so that it can take drastic measures. But the very risk appears to be that if the pirates and their groups are destroyed, the Islamists might replace them in control of all of Somalia.
Does there seem to be a likely scenario in which pirate warlords and Islamists join forces, or the Islamists take control of the piracy activities?
Not for the time being. There have been rumors of the pirates giving a share to some Islamist groups but this is not confirmed. Then, the anti-terrorist group in control of Puntland seems to be very efficient. This is a military force that is very well armed and trained by foreign experts of a great power nation so technically this is a territory free from Islamists.
You could ask: why not go into Somalia with ground forces eliminating both pirates and Islamists?With two wars in progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans would not open a third front elsewhere. What is more, the wound from the pullout of their forces in Somalia in 1993 is still fresh. Everybody has seen the movie "Black Hawk Down".
As far as the dumping of toxic waste off the Somali coast is concerned, I think that it is more of a consequence of the state of the country rather than an initial reason for piracy. It is exactly because of the failure of the Somali state that there is anarchy and that no one controls the coastal waters.
What do you think is the best solution to the Somali pirate issue, from the standpoint of the international community? Because it seems to be becoming something of a Catch 22 situation...
Well, since no one is really losing money from the whole thing... the only real losers are the weakest actors - the sailors - who undergo intense psychological shock when they are held captive for 1-2-3 months. The pirates don't harass them physically but they do use various means to keep them under control and instill fear, and the living conditions are terrible.
Did you meet any of the kidnapped sailors in Somalia, or any other hostages?
No, I met with the Bulgarian captain of the Malaspina Castle ship here in Bulgaria. And I know from him that the pirates would sometimes shoot in the air to scare the hostages into submission. Because the hostages have no information from the outside world, and when they are very desperate, they could decide to try to escape.
There are usually 20-25 pirates on the hijacked ship, who are very well armed, all the time. Usually, the hijacked ship is anchored about 2-3 km off the Somali coast so that it can be supplied by motor boats.
There are several teams involved in taking care of a hijacked ship. One team is made up of the armed men on board. The other one is on the coast providing supplies but not for the kidnapped sailors because most of the time they consume the supplies that they already had on the ship.
I have even seen footage of how the pirates who guard the ships are supplied with live goats that they kill and cook aboard. They are also supplied with the drug khat - a kind of grass that is imported from Kenya or Ethiopia, the one from Kenya is more expensive. It has been banned in Somalia since 2001, I think, but it is sold everywhere.
And then there is also another team on the coast which negotiates the ransom by mobile phone. They keep in touch with the owners and operators of the hijacked ship.
The ransom money comes in a rather paradoxical way. At the beginning, it was brought by another ship but the pirates decided that this was too risky, so now there is a Kenyan company that provides this service. They use small airplanes to drop the boxes with the ransom money - into the water around the kidnapped ship. Not on the actual ship because the boxes would break, and the banknotes would disperse.
After that the pirates get the boxes out of the water, and usually make a hostage crew member open the first box in order to make sure that there is not an explosive inside it. So this entire procedure is very straightforward.
And what do the Somali pirates do with the ransom money? Where does it go?
This is very interesting. This is an extremely poor country filled with refugee camps. This is true for both Puntland and "residual Somalia".
Somaliland in the northwest is in a better condition, it is a former British colony. Cases of piracy there are a lot fewer, and security is better. That is why most journalists who want to cover Somalia go to Somaliland. It is also an autonomous region with a government and a president of its own. But journalists are a lot safer there than in the other parts of Somalia.
Despite the horrible poverty, there are drug markets where a pirate - as they themselves told me -could spend up to USD 1 500 a night in order to buy drugs. So there are those khat markets. They don’t smoke this drug, they chew it.
There are markets for gold where they would buy gold for their wives. Then, they also buy jeeps, because this is the only decent means of transportation as there are literally no roads. And the pirates also buy houses. If they already have a house, they would buy a house for their second wife, for their third wife, etc. Thus, it is very easy to spend the ransom money.
Is your next film going to be about Yemen, which is right across from Somalia on the other side of the Gulf of Aden, and faces rising instability?
Well, there is some information that Yemen is also involved in piracy because the pirates carry out their raids in the Gulf of Aden with motor boats that cannot go very far. They do not set off from the coast with motor boats to hijack ships.
They often strike deals with fishing vessels of other nations, and some of those belong to Yemeni fishermen. They board them as if they are fishermen. When they see a suitable target, a commercial ship, they get into their motor boats, and take it over in 5-10-15 minutes.
How do they do that? Some of them open fire with their machine guns against the deck, and others board the ship using ladders with hooks. They pick ships with lower decks. The commercial ships don't have the right to carry weapons on board - except for the Israeli ones, and - I think - since last year - the American ones.
So everything happens in a very simple and quick way, and there is no hope unless there is a naval vessel that can get there within a few minutes after the captain gives the SOS signal.
How is Somalia different in comparison with the other hot spots that you have made films about?
Well, I cannot compare this place with any other. First, I have never worked with security guards. It is weird, it is a paradox, and it is not appropriate for a journalist to work with security guards, and with so many of them - 10, even at one point 15 men. This seemed to me like a movie plot.
You can't expect a journalist to make an efficient investigation when they not only have guards, but they are also being told by the guards what they can or cannot do, or where they can or cannot go.
We even had occasions in which we would go to interview a pirate, telling the security guards that we had been invited for dinner, and then the guards would figure out that we would be meeting a pirate, and would bring us back by force. This was one thing about my work in Somalia that really stands out.
The second thing is that it is extremely difficult to find arguments to convince the actual pirates that they have to speak in front of your camera. As one of them said to me, it is like having him - the cat - invite over a mouse, treat the mouse and interview, and then let the mouse go.
In this sense, I cannot compare Somalia with any other conflict zone that I have been to. In most cases, no matter what image the main characters have, they always need the media in one way or another. Many of them are vain, others really believe in their cause, and think that it should reach more people, whereas the Somali pirates are actual pirates, for the most part they have no other goals except for making money. They call foreigners "walking dollars". That is why doing this documentary on Somalia was extremely difficult.
Doing what you do, what was the most dangerous place or a situation you have ever been into?
One such situation was in Iraq during the US-led invasion seven years ago. Just several hours before the American forces entered Baghdad - from where you must have seen that famous footage of the tearing down of Saddam Hussein's statue, I was kidnapped there in the city together with two Portuguese journalists.
Before our eyes, there was an argument between the military who took us hostage. One group said we were spies and we should shot dead immediately; the other group said we are journalists but we represented the American-led coalition, and they should keep us hostage. This was a situation in which I did not think I would get out of alive.
The second such situation was in Somalia. As we were leaving Eyl we got into a gunfight with the pirates, actually. Our guards got into a gunfight with a man on the only road out of the town, who then called in reinforcements
We were trapped in a house, where we spent the night. I really did not think that we could make it out of there. I did not see why they would let us go! At 4 am we decided to make an attempt to break through the siege. We sent out one of the cars, they came back quickly and said the road was clear, so at 4:30 am, keeping our fingers crossed, and with a lot of fear in our hearts, understandably, we got out of there. I don’t know if they got bored and left, or if they just decided to let us go. It is probably the latter.
Which foreign media have shown your films?
This film about Somalia was interesting because our team of the Bulgarian National Television was really the first team of journalists to get to the town of Eyl. The BBC people came in shortly after us, and then, the next day after we arrived in Eyl - a team of Al Jazeera came. I would not say that we are better, we probably just got lucky. The people from Al Jazeera were very surprised because all three of them were native Somalis living in Qatar - a reporter, a producer, and a cameraman.
So, out of this film about Somalia which aired on the Bulgarian National Television in three 40-minute episodes, I made a rather lengthy report that aired on Deutche Welle. Of my other films, for example, the one about North Korea was shown on about a dozen European TV channels.
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