x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

How Somali pirates became Egyptian fishermen's catch of the day

Egyptian fishermen tell how they were held for four months before they seized the opportunity to overpower their captors and take back their boats.

BURG AL BURULLUS // There is nothing particularly swashbuckling about Adl Abdul Ati Mohammed Abaidi, 47, or Shahat Ragab Mohammed Morzi, 17. But a lack of seafaring swagger did not prevent the two Egyptian fishermen and 32 of their colleagues from fighting off a gang of armed Somali pirates who had held them for ransom for four months in the Gulf of Aden. When the fishermen returned home on Sunday morning to the tiny fishing hamlets that dot Egypt's north coast, they were greeted with a heroes' welcome. And it was in one such village, the dusty town of Burg al Burullus that straddles a narrow strip of land between Lake Burullus and the Mediterranean Sea, that Mr Abaidi and Mr Morzi told their story.

In mid-April, the 34 fishermen were sailing in the Gulf of Aden - about 56km from Yemeni waters and 130km from Somali waters - when they came upon an idle ship that was flying a Yemeni flag. As the two Egyptian vessels - the Mumtaz 1 and the Samara Ahmed - approached, the Yemeni ship dispatched two smaller speedboats that had been moored to its sides. The speedboat crews raced to catch up to the Egyptian fishing vessels while firing indiscriminately with automatic weapons.

It was a scary sight, said Mr Morzi. Unarmed and defenseless, the Egyptian fishermen stopped their engines and allowed the pirates to board - three on to the Samara Ahmed, where Mr Morzi and Mr Abaidi were working, 14 on to the Mumtaz 1. And it was then that Mr Abaidi met Omar, the stout, machine-gun toting leader of the pirate gang. "He came on board and he fired two shots into the cockpit of the boat," Mr Abaidi said. "Each one of the Somali pirates had a machine gun and he was pointing it towards any of the Egyptian sailors who would move."

Faced with such a desperate display of power, the sailors acquiesced. Omar and his gang looted the boat of its food, relieved the sailors of their cash and ordered the fishermen to prepare lunch. They then directed the Egyptians to set sail for the pirates' base on the island of Las Quray, three days' journey from where the Egyptians were first hijacked. "We just followed his instructions," Mr Abaidi said. "If the boat slowed down even by one mile per hour, he would hit you with his weapon. Even if the waves had slowed the boat, he would accuse us of lying."

Omar's gang told the Egyptians to weigh anchor about two miles off the island's coast, where they began to negotiate. At first, they asked the fishermen to come up with US$11 million (Dh40m) in ransom money, said Mr Morzi. When the fishermen called the owner of the Samara Ahmed, they were told that such a sum would be impossible. Gradually, the pirates' demands decreased. By April 26, about two weeks after the kidnapping, the ransom had dropped to $5m. But while the ransom diminished, the pirates' cruelty to the sailors became increasingly harsh. The fishermen's catch spoiled in the summer heat, and as their captivity continued, food for the 34 fishermen and 17 pirates grew scarce. Finally, on June 26, the pirates came up with an ultimatum, said Mr Abaidi. The sailors were to call their families to inform them that if the ransom was not paid within seven days, they would be killed.

The pirates were bluffing, but after that day, the food and water rations decreased substantially, said Mr Abaidi, even as the sailors were made to wait on their captors hand and foot. "The pirates had three meals a day, but we had one," said Mr Morzi, who said he subsisted mainly on rice for four months. "The food that was with us, they ate all of it. We didn't have anything." Despite the fact they were being held captive in waters rich with fish, the pirates prohibited the Egyptians from catching their own meals. The starving fishermen resorted to fishing under the cover of dark, dipping small hooks into the water to catch whatever morsels they could without waking the Somalis.

"When they saw us catching fish, they would yell and shout at us," Mr Morzi said. "They said the sea belongs to us and they didn't want to feed us. They told us that we were coming here to steal." Considering Somalia's recent maritime history, the pirates' accusation might not have been entirely unfounded. Since internal tribal conflict dispersed the Somali government in 1991, the fertile waters off the coast of this failed Horn of Africa state have turned into a free-for-all for "pirate" fishing. According to a 2005 United Nations report, illegal fishermen earn an estimated $300m each year from Somali waters. Some analysts say illegal overfishing and rampant waste dumping in the Gulf of Aden is what prompted Somali fishermen to take up arms.

Even so, the Somali pirates got the wrong guys, said Hassan Khalil, the owner of the Mumtaz 1. Both ships were captured far from Somali shores in international waters, where maritime law allows them to fish without a permit. For his part, Mr Khalil spent the better part of the four months of the fishermen's captivity quietly stewing on shore, taking frenzied calls and visits from his crew's concerned relatives and consulting with Egypt's General Intelligence Services, known as the Mukhabarat.

As the standoff entered its fourth month, Mr Khalil asked the Mukhabarat if he could travel to Somalia to try his own hand at negotiating. The intelligence officials agreed, and put Mr Khalil in touch with a former member of Somalia's absentee government. Together with a Yemeni government official, Mr Khalil and the Somali official entered the independent Somali province of Puntland by way of Djibouti. From there, they went to Somalia proper where they met with the pirates' families.

At first, said Mr Khalil, the families rebuffed them. So Mr Khalil decided to play hardball the Egyptian way: he cooked them dinner. "Every time we asked about their kids, they said their kids were very bad and that they had nothing to do with them anymore," Mr Khalil said. "Later, we started trying to make friends with the [pirates'] clan members by slaughtering cows, eating together and bringing them khat, just to be friendly with them," said Mr Khalil, referring to the narcotic plant that is traditionally chewed in Yemen and Somalia.

After a few days, Mr Khalil's charm offensive began to pay off. The Somalis brought Mr Khalil to the town of Las Gory, where he was introduced to some of the pirates' associates. When they asked for $4m, Mr Khalil replied that he could only offer $50,000. The negotiations had reached an impasse. But as the sailors, including two of Mr Khalil's sons, starved three kilometres off the coast, Mr Khalil continued drinking tea and chewing khat with his crew's abductors.

It took a few awkward meals for Mr Khalil's dinner-table diplomacy to work once again. At his request, one of the Somalis offered to take him on board the Mumtaz 1, where conditions for an escape were already materialising. On August 9, about four months after they were abducted, Omar's gang sold the ships - along with their Egyptian crew - to a new gang of younger, inexperienced amateurs. In the space of a day, all the heavy machine guns and light artillery belonging to Omar's gang disappeared from the ships. The new pirates carried smaller weapons, said Mr Abaidi.

Meanwhile, on August 13, Mr Khalil prepared to board his own ship. For the occasion, he chose a new outfit: the traditional loose-fitting Somali dress that Mr Khalil described as something akin to a large, wrap-around towel. It was a fashion statement that would further endear him to his sons' captors. But it would also hide the satellite phone that Mr Khalil had placed near his crotch. "When I walked on the deck, I saw the fishermen with their dirty clothes. They didn't have water to drink," Mr Khalil said. "I had a lot of sadness in my heart. I could hardly stop myself from crying. My eyes were red because I was tearing up."

Under the pirates' watchful eyes, Mr Khalil silently looked over the sailors before asking to use the washroom. The pirates handed him a portable toilet and a bucket for washing. As he left the ship, Mr Khalil whispered to one of his sons, Hamada, who was the captain of the Mumtaz 1. Mr Khalil told his son to look in the bucket, where he had left the satellite phone. After he had returned to land, Mr Khalil phoned his son to tell him what he had witnessed.

"Basically, I told them that the people you're with now are kids, they're amateurs," Mr Khalil said. "They were told to just wave their weapons at you. They put their weapons down when they eat, so that's when you should move." The coast, quite literally, was clear. The pirates on land would be travelling with Mr Khalil to their homes two hours inland. Two hours from now, Mr Khalil told his son, is when you should attack.

As the pirates sat down to eat lunch, the sailors on the Mumtaz 1, which was moored about 150 metres from the Samara Ahmed, put on headbands - the signal the fishermen had agreed upon as the moment to stage their coup. When the crew of the Samara Ahmed heard the fishermen aboard the Mumtaz 1 screaming the name of God, they raced to the upper decks, where the pirates were taking their meals. As the bulk of the crew subdued the pirates upstairs, Mr Morzi stayed below deck, where one of the pirates was still lingering. As the straggling pirate raced to the upper deck to help his friends, Mr Morzi tackled him on the staircase and threw him to the waiting arms of his fellow crew members. As his friends wrestled, Mr Morzi found a wooden pole to hit the pirate.

Ten minutes after the fight had started, the Egyptians had won back their boat. Several of the Somalis had jumped overboard, and eight were captured (they are now in Egyptian police custody). To the fishermen's knowledge, no one was killed. With haste, the fishermen steamed towards Yemen. But Mr Khalil was still on land in Somalia, and still within shouting distance of his new pirate friends. Sure enough, shortly after Mr Khalil heard from his son that the Egyptian sailors had liberated themselves, the Somali pirates arrived at Mr Khalil's hotel to exact their revenge. As it became obvious that no amount of tea, khat or conversation could solve this problem, Mr Khalil's Somali handler, the former government official, stepped in with his own guards. The pirates were forced to back off.

After three tense days spent waiting for word from the Puntland government that all was OK, Mr Khalil donned yet another costume. This time, he put on a traditional Somali woman's dress, wrapped his face in a veil and quietly left Somalia. mbradley@thenational.ae