Romance of the ransom

To outsiders Somalia is a remote and forsaken land, drenched in blood, clogged by diseased refugees and doomed to irreversible destruction and hopelessness.

But one town in my country is a seaside oasis of pleasure, tranquillity and glamorous beaches—as well as cardboard boxes crammed full of hard United States dollars.

This is Baraawe, south of Mogadishu, in Somalia’s southeast corner, home to daring bands of sea robbers, deceptive fishing canoes and, overlooking the port from a distance, heavily armed foreign frigates.

The town is the ultimate movie-style fantasy; an Eldorado in a troubled land where the pirates are heroes, distributing in Robin Hood fashion the wealth they crudely accrue at sea.

They might be ‘heartless terrorists and renegades” to the outside world, but the mothers in Baraawe dream of giving their daughters in marriage to the pirates. No wonder then that pirate weddings have become hugely popular and semi-official attractions on the town’s weekly calendar.

‘Welcome to Baraawe: land of the connected, land of the playful” reads the huge Arabic sign on the road into the town. And for a moment when you arrive you have to pinch yourself to remember that you’re still in Somalia.

There are no potholes, no crumbling roads, no broken TV and cellphone towers. The Italianate seaside villas are lavishly painted, not pockmarked by bullets. The town has become the fourth pirate capital of Somalia.

Multimillion-dollar ransoms have transformed it in just five years from a forgotten fishing village to a thriving commercial centre selling expensive watches, motorbikes, electrical gadgets and even swine flu vaccine, as one merchant-smuggler boasts.

Speakers from seaside verandas blast Bon Jovi hits and the streets are crammed with people buying the freshest tuna fish at the beachside market.

Cellphone towers and even an internet kiosk give a semblance of quasi-governmental order, provided by a mix of clan warlords and heavily armed pirates.

The pirates are ambitious young men in their early 20s, former fishermen and well-trained ex-police officers—and they’re the talk of the town. Young boys barely into their teens see no sense in seeking even a basic education; neither do they want to follow most Somalis into exile by making the great trek to Kenya or dhow-boating across the Horn of Africa to Dubai.

Talk to them on the streets of Baraawe and their eyes brighten up as they describe counting ‘the greens”. The area has one of the heaviest concentrations of small ammunition, rocket grenades and heavy machine guns in Somalia—yet peace and tranquillity prevail in Baraawe.

‘‘Instead of turning onm the throats of our fellow Somalis like they do in Mogadishu, here our guns bring the wealth and secure the town,” boasts ‘Terrenco”, a self-styled pirate ‘colonel”, who says he has 12 years’ experience in the business.

Throughout the day you can see boatbuilders matching the industriousness and craftmanship for which Sicily is renowned: they’re making a smart killing by rushing to satisfy their clients impatiently waiting to enter the sea.

The cash-intoxicated pirates willingly part with $8 000 (about R60 000) for a small kayak—a pittance for them considering that one Dutch shipping and freight company recently handed over €800 000 (almost R9-million) in ransom.

So Baraawe’s mothers urge their budding teenage girls to marry the buccaneers. Not that the girls themselves need much motivation: going down the aisle with a pirate guarantees endless food on the table, luxury dresses and saving your family from starvation and destitution.

And pirates as young as 20 have up to five wives: one excited buccaneer boat driver recently boasted about the $3 000 (just more than R22 000) he’d forked out for his fourth and newest wife.

If you happen to see a pirate wedding procession on a Saturday in Baraawe, you could be forgiven for thinking that a Western VIP must be in town.

Outrageously shiny new Porsche Cayennes are sandwiched by pricey Harley Davidson diesel motorbikes manned by excited pirates brandishing advanced weaponry in a defiant and triumphant show of macho-man pride.

It’s a simple show of pirate brotherhood on both sea and land whenever one of them ties the knot. The sea dollars provide lusty feasts of beef, Thai rice and potatoes freely for the whole town.

You might be jolted for a moment by Kalashnikov rifle fire cracking through the wedding tents, but laughing wedding ushers will reassuringly calm you with a bottle of Bells Scotch whisky. The sound of guns, you learn, is routine when pirates marry: a 17-bullet salute is the sea-venturing tradition.

When the time for presenting the wedding gifts arrives, the role of pirate dollars in oiling Baraawe’s economy during the global cashcrunch becomes even clearer. Wildly smiling pirates—young and old—outdo one another in throwing flashy Blackberrys, six-CD hi-fis and gold necklaces into the gift dishes.

Excited (and intoxicated) men in camouflage kit dance with wads of new greenbacks on their heads before dropping their loot spectacularly into the dishes. Her Majesty’s Chancellor of the Exchequer would turn green and hot with envy.

Perhaps the pseudo peace-building summits held in plush foreign capitals to seek solutions to Somalia’s woes should take a tour of Baraawe.

How unbridled fun and ease thrive as an oasis within atrocity, horror and death would at least make for some crazy report-backs from delegates.

Rafik Muhammad Dhana is a student who grew up in Baraawe and recently spent time in the town visiting his family

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