SHARJAH // For six days the crewmen of MSV Al Kaderi feared a pirate attack as they sailed past Somalia. Just as the shore appeared on the horizon, the serenity of the sea was shattered by gunfire.
"We were not shocked. Just disappointed at our bad luck," said Mohammed Shabbir, the helmsman of the dhow which was attacked by pirates as it sailed close to the notorious pirate port of Hobyo, Somalia late last month. Attacks on dhows that travel the waters off Somalia are no longer a surprise for sailors. The Al Kaderi was one of eight dhows that were held by pirates there last month, their crews of nearly 100 men taken hostage.
The crew of the Al Kaderi, which finally reached the safety of the Sharjah Creek last week, told of their ordeal after being held for two days. The 11-member Indian crew was attacked by pirates on three skiffs. The sailors said 10 heavily armed pirates jumped on board and took control of their ship. "We had to stop the dhow and let them on board. They threatened us by firing in the air but they would kill us without any hesitation if we did not stop," Mr Shabbir said.
The crew showed where a bullet shattered the window of a cabin where a sailor was resting. A bullet is still lodged in the ceiling of the cabin. "A sailor was sitting right beside where the bullet hit. He could have died but they don't care about this," Mr Shabbir said. The pirates had one boat loaded with ammunition which they towed with the dhow. The sailors said the pirates all carried machine guns and hand-held rocket launchers.
"They started ordering us to make all kinds of food as if this were a restaurant," said Siddique Mohammed, the captain of the ship. "They were constantly eating all along. It appeared to us that they had not eaten for days." While the rest of the crew was locked inside a cabin, only the captain and helmsman were allowed out to direct the ship. "A route was given to us and we were ordered to follow it. The gun was constantly pointed at our heads. They appeared well co-ordinated and experienced in handling such hostage situations," the captain said.
"They kept us until all the food was finished. They finished the chicken, meat and milk. Also, the fuel tank was empty. Finally they left us after they took all our money and clothes. We were left with nothing." The owner of the dhow, Ghani Khanani, said his business lost electronic equipment worth at least Dh15,000 (US$4,083), but more importantly it lost fuel and time. "It's affecting business in both countries. Most often we transport food items like flour, sugar, oil and other things. Prices for these commodities shoot up in Somalia if we do not get there on time," Mr Khanani said.
Dhows such as Al Kaderi are not hijacked for their cargo but are used to launch attacks on bigger ships further from the shore. With the Gulf of Aden one of the world's most heavily patrolled waterways, Somali pirates have pushed further into the Indian Ocean, using "mother ships" as bases to strike at more lucrative targets. Most dhows are released after about 10 days, when fuel and food run out.
Theodore Karasik, the head of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said: "This is a growing trend and it shows that there's a change of tactic among the pirates." This new phenomenon of dhow hijackings makes the problem of piracy more difficult to tackle, he said. "They can use these dhows as camouflage in order to spoof the patrolling navies," he said. The targeting of the small wooden vessels has a significant impact in Somalia which relies on the dhows for imports.
Much of the country's commercially imported grain comes by sea from the Gulf, according to the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia, which is part of the United Nations. Any disruption of the commercial sea routes has the biggest impact on the poor, said Grainne Maloney, the interim chief technical adviser at the unit. Abdi Gulvad, who represents the Somali importers in Dubai, said that by attacking the dhows, the pirates are biting the hand that feeds them. "No one can understand why they are attacking the dhows that bring us food. If the dhows don't come, people will die."
Boat owners say they have no choice but to sail to Somalia as it is one of the few markets where their services are still in demand. Jagdip Ayachi, the owner of MSV Sea Queen which was hijacked late last month, said traditional trade routes for carrying dates between Iraq and India had dried up as cargo ships grab their business. Export bans on flour and sugar from India also have hurt their trade, he said. "At the moment Somalia is very important for us because there is business there."
The Indian Navy has banned dhows from the waters around Somalia and Yemen, but the boats have resumed sailing after recently hijacked vessels were released. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Loveday Morris