The Somali Sea

Teach a man to fish
He’ll fight for a lifetime.

Taken to the high-seas, swathed in cotton—the rags of the sweatiest shops across the savannah—they wait with nervous hands, dirty with gun grease, gripping guns black with night and finally cry Soomaaliga into the nocturnal sea. Neither of the Caribbean order—Anglo and Netherlander privateers—nor akin to ancient Barbary slaver-corsairs, a new generation of Pirate blooms in the Aden. They executive kidnappers, global internalizers of cost, reflecting the lawlessness of capitalism, mutated by desperation, sailing the post-atomic deserts of revolution.

Ancient Romans sent naval patrols to quell the seas around the Horn, to clear the way for trade, but in vain: their remote scouts glimpsed only merchant ships, smoking with capture, whose crew would await ransom forever. The intimate knowledge of the sea and frequent disenfranchisement from international trade brought pirates out throughout the history of the land, interrupting Arab exploitation of Afrika and terrorizing the British merchant during the height of empire. Ya, all ships lost in the Aden are sacrificial offerings on the buccaneer alter of the Somali seafaring tradition.

But, untold by tradition, unfathomable desperation, utterly unemolliated, flows the deep saline veins of the pirate. Before the tributary rivers lead us to the ocean, let’s paint a picture of a land in chaos:

There is genocidal civil war in the Sudan between the Muslim North and the marginalized Animist/Christian South, Ethiopia’s indomitable poverty that they try to ignore through constant border crises and invading Somalia more than once, the marginalization of Eritreans ain their own land and cast abroad for subsistence while Yemen—the link to Asia—is so packed with treacherous rebels that even the likes of al-Qaeda can hunt American tourists in the desert for sport and Oman’s feudal sell-out oil Sultan Qaboos “rules by decree” of the United States, who has a military base in Djibouti, with its endless victims of rendition to Kenya, who has graduated from the rim of civil war to more civilized crimes, such as embezzlement.

And, in the center of the world, fractured Somalia, at the tip of Afrika, the tip of itself. Locked in perpetual struggle for freedom from Ethiopia (the only Afrikan nation to colonize another Afrikan nation), Somalia has also clashed with colonial forces from France, Italy, England, and even the US who were eventually successful in destabilizing Somali central authority, and arming extremist militias.

The UN and even the African Union have traditionally supported Ethiopian incursions into Somali sovereignty, deploying weapons and troops to further infantilize and alienate the culturally cohesive land. In the early 90’s, from the sea and air, US and European powers converged on Somalia and, under the guise of “protecting the delivery of food and other humanitarian aid,” initiated a long-lasting military presence. This culminated in the event known in popular culture at Black Hawk Down where American Special Forces killed hundreds of militiamen.

International political, economic, and outright military incursion since the Cold War have transformed this pastoral land into a mire of politico-social unrest, mass starvation and displacement, and extreme Islamist militancy. Since the break down of the Somali government, competing foreign interests have ushered in an age of neo-colonial exploitation, reflecting upon the choppy Aden the anarchy of capitalism. From the Karkaar mountains down to the Nugaal valley—Confederated Puntland has been opened up to Canadian and Australian oil exploration and the fatal petroleum trade. These mineral companies fuel regional unrest in order abuse laborers, importing weapons and militias to guard oil towers—chaos, chaos.

The ghettoes of Bosaso seethe while the quiet of the country starves, and in Eyl the sound of tires peels down hard earth roads, but the true injustices are felt at sea. Undaunted by the vesselless Somali Navy, foreign fishing trawlers from Europe and Asia have invaded the waters of the Somali Sea. They slowly began to push out local fishermen with their traditional, low impact nets, replacing them with miles of mesh and sonar tracking. Within a few years, illegal fishing practices like intensive bottom trawling had not only removed most of the culinary fish and various by-catch species, but destroyed their habitats and breeding waters. These fishing companies—who had already out fished their own fisheries—didn’t share their profits with the fishermen.

The greatest atrocity committed against the Somalis to date, though, remains the illegal disposal of nuclear waste off of their coast. Slow poisoning has claimed the fish that survived the trawls and the people brave enough to eat them, wreaking untold havoc on remote parts of the Horn. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami dredged up the rusty barrels of nuclear jetsam, to a magnitude of 9.3, flinging them onto inhabited lands so that the people can die or radiation sickness, dreaming of a blue ocean and pure soil.

Western and Soviet colonial backed Somalia saw the rapid forced settlement of numerous nomadic tribes from Somalilaand, Puntlaand, Ogaden, and the south. Groups that used to be able to move with the rain and avoid draught now wait to die, each prizing only his gun, lost to their traditions and their freedom of movement. They were forced from the seas, where the fish that are left are poisoned by the atomic refuse of more “civilized” nations.

Millions of Somalis are now dependent on foreign food programs, which come and go with the political tides. When their rations are hijacked by US armed militiamen, skeletal parents are forced to make the incomprehensible decision, which child to stop feeding so that the other children can continue to have nourishment, waiting for the day when they are felled, too weak to work on stick legs, watching the next child foam at the mouth and fade in their arms, on the hard earth.

Ransom, gentlemen—have you heard of Robin Hood? Islamic warlords taught the displaced fishermen to sharpen their alienation, to take back their waters from the horrors of this world. They took up AK-47s, sweet Kalashnikov, spark of revolution, drum of the fiery rhythm time, rocket launchers that are blessed to hit Black Hawks and grey frigates dead on. Armed albatross, environmental freedom fighters run the black-market, rich for the time being from selling Chinese goods that were meant for Europe and guns that were meant for Sudan.

The dust-barren streets of Eyl crawl with the headlights of SUVs at night—the veins begin to pump when the ships come in. Speeder boats run up the beach amid growing shouts as the seized tankers are anchored in the shoals. Hostages and contraband are hauled ashore through crowds of clamoring businessmen and pirate-marines. Western and Chinese ships pace impotently across the distant horizon. Armed with the most advanced military technology in the history of the world, Western and Chinese warships supplemented by the most powerful private security specialists pace impotently aside the Puntish maritime border between capitalism and peace.

As the tides of 7.62mm shells wash ashore and money filled parachutes fall from the sky, Somalis are claiming their voice. In a world structured around large-scale exploitation, they ask for only tithes for their suffering and each hostage freed can tell you that the pirates are justice.

Somali society is shifting once more towards a state of independence and maritime satiety. Aimé Césaire said that real tradition is dialectical—the Somalis are mobile, no longer in the doldrums of the drought plains, waiting for UN food shipments. We see it on the front page and sailors see it down the barrel of the rifle pointed in their face, a narrowing labyrinth: Pirates, Islamists, and civilians forced to the gun to protect their starving kin know no bounds.

-Michaël Veremans

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One Response to The Somali Sea

  1. jaguarpress says:

    Hunter Keil Robinson said…


    Thanks for this solid and poetic piece of writing. It is sadly predictable how corporate media has ignored the root causes of Somali “piracy”, and indeed, the employment of that word for what Somali fisherman have engaged in, immediately frames the issue in terms of third-world “criminality” versus American/corporate lawfulness. So far as I know, no mainstream voice in this country has had the ethical courage to identify the cause of this “piracy” as Western brutality in the form of trawling, overfishing, and toxic waste dumping.


    10/16/09 2:24 PM
    Michael said…

    It’s because most mainstream media, whether right or left, seems to be concerned with maintaining America’s facades more than telling the truth. When news isn’t critical, isn’t it just propaganda?

    Yes, mass famine is a relatively new phenomenon in Africa, due to poor colonial policies and the post-colonial policy of international food-dependence for “poor” nations.
    10/16/09 4:56 PM

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