Illustrations by Brett Affrunti

After covering the 2012 trial of 10 Somali pirates in Hamburg, Germany, American literary journalist and novelist Michael Scott Moore was intrigued. He had listened to the defendants’—poor fisherman in a country that’s been blanketed in the darkness of war for many years—accounts of failing to defend their home waters from international fishing vessels pillaging the sea. Armed with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and an impartial mind, he went to Somalia to investigate how the Somalis fit into the history of piracy at sea. After several days in the field, Moore’s small caravan was ambushed by pirates; he spent the next 977 days as their captive. The Desert and The Sea, published last year and out in paperback May 28, is part memoir, part journalistic look into the failed state of Somalia and Moore’s frightening ordeal as a hostage. He was often moved under the cover of darkness from barren, desert prison houses to camps in the bush to avoid drones and other aircraft that may have been looking for him. The pirates—frequently high from chewing khat leaves, a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines—demanded a $20 million ransom, so he was allowed to make some calls from a satellite phone to negotiate his release. The following excerpt (edited for space) picks up as Moore and a fellow hostage are moved to a floating asylum of sorts, a hijacked tuna vessel anchored in the Somali Sea, all but ending Moore’s hopes for continuing negotiations for his release. Seized by fear and hopelessness, Moore does his best to keep his hold on reality as he slips into a dreadful state of boredom and despair.

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Under the Cover of Darkness

That night the pirates woke Rolly and me and hustled us into a car. We slept in the bush again, with Ahmed Dirie’s group of guards. Despite the pirates’ efforts to keep us out of sight, we were harassed by aircraft for almost a week. In mid-April—after days of playing tag with surveillance planes in the bush, moving camp almost every night—we packed up in the dark, and someone confiscated my notebook and radio. We drove for an hour and swapped vehicles among chaotic promises of freedom. “Make a good telephone call,” said one guard, obscurely. “Adiga, free!” But there was no phone call. Instead we sped toward the coast, and while I considered how it might feel to see my family and friends again, our driver steered crazily through the quiet houses of Hobyo, past dimly lit businesses and food shacks—where townspeople had gathered for late-night meals—and raced across the curving beach until the Land Rover came to a stop beside the water’s edge.

“What are we doing?” I said.

“Go, go, go, go.”

A skiff had drawn up under the moon. With our Thai sandals in our hands, we waded into the lukewarm surf. Pirates hopped in and told me to keep my pink blanket on my head, while the pilot puttered our skiff over crumbling whitewash, then higher swells, and around the seawall of rock, which Hamid [a fixer Moore met before his kidnapping], in a different lifetime, had insisted should be a loading pier.

Then the pilot opened the throttle. He pushed us faster over the swells, up and down, causing the hull to slap. The blanket slipped off my head. We spent more and more time in the air between each wave.

“Slow down!” I shouted in the wind.

One pirate motioned as if he expected me to fix my pink head covering. For that I would have to let go of the rail.

“Slow the fuck down!” I shouted.

The guards sat on a relatively stable bulkhead at the rear of the boat. We sat in the bouncing front. As we picked up speed, Rolly shifted his weight off our bulkhead and squatted in the hull, holding the rail with one tight-knuckled hand. He used his knees to absorb the motion of the waves, and I tried to do the same, but we flew over another swell and the boat dropped away from my butt. Our bulkhead floated downward, leaving me in the air. When we came together again, the bulkhead hammered my spine, and pain shot from my tailbone to the base of my skull. I collapsed into the bottom of the skiff. (“I see you go down,” Rolly said later. “You go down like a leaf.”)

The pilot brought his speed under control. I managed to sit up, but my back throbbed. We pulled alongside a ship, and someone hurled a rope. The motion of the rolling hull, together with the waves, bounced our boat like an elevator, and a pirate showed us how to climb up. Rolly did it first, standing on the skiff’s prow until a cutaway section of the gunwale lurched into range. Someone lifted him, he grabbed the gunwale, and a group of Somalis on the ship leaned over to grasp his shoulders and pull him aboard.

I went up the same way. My back hurt, but the feeling of four men lifting me helpfully by the shoulders was a strange distraction. We found ourselves on a square deck lit with sharp white lamps, where dozens of Chinese-looking hostages lay on mats, arranged like dominoes. We had woken them up. The Somalis led us up a set of metal stairs and around to a forward section of the ship, where our two mattresses waited on the upper deck.

“Sleeping, sleeping,” they said.

I certainly wanted to be unconscious. But my sore spine kept me aware of the ocean wind and a large number of spidery, unknown pirate guards. My notebooks and my radio were gone. I wondered if the Somalis had moved us here to dodge a raid on land. If so, everything had to reset. Drones would have to find us again. Military plans, if any, would be redrawn. Three wasted months in filthy prison houses and the desert bush had themselves gone to waste. My breathing came fast. I still wanted forward momentum, progress, logic, but instead I felt the edge of an emotional hurricane, the whistle of a gathering panic. Several hours earlier I had indulged fantasies of freedom; now I was injured and stuck on a ship. For the first time in Somalia, but not the last, I considered suicide.

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One common story about the trauma of gunfire is that you feel the bullets at first like a spatter of rain. The body registers a brush of metal but recoils from the rest of the damage in a merciful cloud of shock. The burning horror comes later. On the deck of this wind-blown vessel I think my captivity first started to feel really hopeless. I couldn’t see well in the dark, my back radiated pain, and, with my notebook gone, I wondered how to sort out the confusion in my head.

The notes also represented a small pile of work, so my time on land seemed triply wasted. And the confusion of ocean elements didn’t help. I thought our vessel had started to move. Seagulls flapped into the wind under the strong deck lamps, not flying forward but scouting for fish in the artificial light; they seemed to glide and flap next to a sailing ship. I didn’t realize the vessel was straining against its anchor chain in a stiff current. It wavered back and forth in the water, so the moon changed position in the sky, and the flapping of the birds, with the shifting of the moon, gave me the false impression that we were moving north. This wrong idea infested me with a ferocious despair, and after a long sail to some forsaken part of the Somali coast, I thought, the pirates would no doubt assemble armies of men to defend this vessel of the damned; and it was time, at last, to check out.

The Ambiguous Asian Fishing Boat

The Naham 3 belonged to the vast international fleet of rusted boats that deliver sushi to the developed world. It was an old vessel, commissioned in 1982, registered in Oman but owned by a family in Taiwan. Asian ships like the Naham 3 and the Shiuh Fu 1 were common off Somalia. They caught tons of bigeye and yellowfin tuna near Africa and hauled the meat back to the Seychelles or Mauritius, flash-frozen, to be transferred to large freighters for the final trip to market. The fish could wind up anywhere in the world, depending on quality—from cans in American convenience stores to elegant markets in Europe—but the Naham 3, with its legitimate registration papers, caught fresh tuna for sushi bars in Japan and Taiwan.

Long-lining is factory fishing, but it’s not the same as trawling. A tuna trawler can shred coral reefs. A longline uses baited hooks on an industrial scale. Tony [a fellow prisoner on the vessel] and the other men explained how the Naham 3 worked. The line itself was a kilometer-long rope spun out by the moss-green Honda motor standing next to us. It had three wheels, like bare car rims. While the rope wheeled out, the men had to attach sink lines to it, using stiff clamps. These lines were called snoods. They had weights as well as a number of hooks, and each hook bore a single 6-inch mackerel for bait.

In the water, the baited snoods hung from the longline at 10-foot intervals, suspended on the surface by round yellow floats. The ship, in effect, laid a kilometer-long curtain of bait in the water. Then it moved off some distance to do it again. At the end of the day, it made another round to collect each curtain, and then the men’s work started in earnest. The rope wheeling back through the Honda motor would drag the snoods over the gunwale, heavy with fish. It was somebody’s job to cut each tuna free and slide it down a fiberglass tray to let other men carve out the hook, gills and guts. “See that bench?” Tony said, pointing at a fiberglass bench against the wall where a half-dozen hostages sat. “That is a tuna tray.” Every day they fished, the men had to assemble sections of this tray system, and each massive tuna would slide from the conveyor belt into the fiberglass maze, losing its gills and its insides, acquiring a loop of rope through the tail, until someone dangled it from the hooked fish scale to record its weight. Then it went into the freezer.

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Each tuna weighed between 50 and 80 kilograms, and the ship, at the time of capture, was carrying around 100 metric tons of fish. It was half-full.

The economics of tuna were brutal, and some business owners could be little more than slave drivers. The Naham 3 had valid labor contracts, but some crewmen still felt hoodwinked by their terms of employment. A Singaporean staffing agency called Step Up Marine Enterprise had recruited the Filipinos. “When I signed up, I didn’t know I would have to fish near Africa,” Tony said. He thought it would be a boat in the South China Sea. His recruiter had offered a good wage and an impressive plane ticket to Singapore to finalize the contract. The Step Up office, though, turned out to be a cramped room in a flashing Chinatown mall known as the People’s Park Centre. The agents there said Tony would have to fly to Mauritius, an island off Africa that he had never heard of, to board a long-distance industrial vessel and fish the Indian Ocean if he wanted the job.

“What if you said no?” I asked.

“Then I could go home.” His eyes rounded. “But pay my own ticket!”

The hourly wage disappointed him. Some days there was nothing to do, of course, and while they sailed from one fishing spot to another, the crew found time to read, watch TV or weave thick white hammocks. (Two swinging hammocks near the tuna bench were Arnel’s [a fellow prisoner] handiwork.) But when they had to fish, which was often, they worked 20 hours a day. They ate 15-minute meals. Tony shook his head at the deceit. Four hours of sleep a night! The Step Up people hadn’t mentioned that. “We make two hundred and fifty dollars a month,” said Arnel, still using the present tense, because, even as hostages, the men expected to be paid through the end of their contracts. He added, in a sweet, ironic-dolorous tone, “Small money!”

Step Up Marine Enterprise later changed its name on the shop at the mall, and its owner, Victor Lim, was charged with trafficking Filipino sailors in another case. Other Naham 3 crewmen would tell similar recruitment stories. And now they were hostages in Somalia, where pirates were happy to treat them like thieves.

A number of pirate bosses had boarded the Naham 3 when it anchored in Hobyo, and they beat the Chinese crew with broom handles. They interrogated the Filipinos, who spoke English. “One man aimed a rifle at me from behind,” said Ferdinand [a fellow prisoner]. “Another asked how long we had been in the Somali area. He said, ‘Since December, right?’ I said no—it was only a few days. But they didn’t like this answer.” So the interrogator ordered his gunman to blow off Ferdinand’s head. “I make my prayer to God,” Ferdinand told me, “and the man pulled his trigger.”

There was an explosion, and a flash, but the rifle was loaded with blanks.

Asian and European ships have exploited Somalia’s rich fisheries for decades. They’ve exploited the ill-defended waters of almost every African nation, up and down both coasts of the continent, and this foreign heist of live fish represents a disgusting crime against people who can hardly feed themselves. The crime is exacerbated by trawlers, which rake heavy nets behind them and essentially bulldoze the bottom of the sea. Illegal industrial fishing can make refugees of traditional fishermen in places like Madagascar, Kenya, São Tomé and Senegal, where seafood matters to the culture.

Pirates Can’t Fish. Or Cook.

Seafood plays a less important role in Somalia, where the culture is more nomadic than seafaring; but the crime is real, even if pirates tried to extend their sense of grievance. Most pirates I met, for example, seemed vaguely aware of a 200-mile “exclusive economic zone.” International law tends to draw two borders off the coast of any nation—12 nautical miles from shore, and 200. The 12-mile limit represents territorial waters, and foreign fishing within that margin is a crime, outright theft of food. The U.N. also recognizes a 200-mile “exclusive economic zone” for most countries, where it would break treaties for foreign interests to fish or, say, drill for oil. The legal hitch for Somalia was that no government in Mogadishu had ever claimed the 200-mile zone under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “Somalia doesn’t have an EEZ because it’s never claimed an EEZ,” a U.N. expert told me in early 2012. Some foreign vessels therefore came in to exploit this stretch of water, and some pirates claimed to defend it.

The Hobyo pirates, in any case, had captured the Naham 3 hundreds of miles off Somalia. The nearest landmass was the Seychelles’ Bird Island, more than 700 miles from Hobyo. The Taiwanese owners and captain had made the dicey but not illegal decision to fish near pirate-infested waters. They may have overfished—the owners were later fined in South Africa for landing too much tuna with a similar vessel in their fleet—but the Naham 3 had not been stealing Somali fish. It was innocent, as far as any industrial vessel could be innocent.

The crew felt these tensions keenly. Later in the afternoon, three pirates came down to the work deck, and Abdinuur, the machine gunner, wanted to try some recreational fishing. The crew fell silent. Someone baited the line. We watched him hurl it out. Abdinuur wore a gold-colored watch high on his wrist; he could be flashy and arrogant, but he had no patience, no feeling for a meaningful tug. Soon, in a panic, he tried to reel in the line. His thin arms flailed; the gold watch glinted in the sun. All the hostages laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked Tony.

“Pirates can’t fish,” he said.

Later, from our mattresses under the conveyor belt, Rolly and I watched a Vietnamese man toss out the same fishing line and pull up a fat, fire-red snapper. He wore a round straw hat in the mounting sun. We saw him clobber the fish with a knife.

Rolly frowned. “You must not kill a fish like this,” he said.

“How do you kill them?”

“You must cut their necks,” he said, and drew a finger across his own. “Is better.”

I shuddered. Rolly went on watching with professional interest. “We anchored over a reef,” he said.

A pirate upstairs pointed at a crewman and yelled, “Fish, Somali!”—a direct order, meaning “Prepare fish for Somalis.” Three hostages cleared tools from the top of a dark box built into the deck, which resembled a workbench. They lifted off the metal top; vapor rose from below. With gloves and a hand hook they wrestled out a massive tuna and thumped it onto the rubber deck mat. It was iron-colored, with snowy eyes, 4 or 5 feet long and plump as a sow. D-shaped holes were carved where its gills had been. Someone produced a circular saw, and two men leaned on the fish to steady it with gloved hands while the other started a lateral cut through the side. The blade whined and tossed an arc of pink dust.

The strips of meat and silver skin went clattering like metal bars into a pan filled with seawater. When the meat had defrosted, a small team hacked the strips into smaller pieces. Tony then disappeared to cook them in the kitchen for the pirates’ lunch.

Feeling that the negotiations for his release were indefinitely suspended—and desperate to get off the boat—Moore bides his time and jumps off the deck in a last-ditch effort to escape his captors. He is quickly pulled back onto the Naham 3. Both on the boat and after he’s moved to yet another prison house in the bush, the pirates keep up the illusion that his release is imminent. “Hope was like heroin for a hostage,” Moore writes, “and it could be just as destructive.” Moore made a decision around this time that probably saved him from suicide or being killed from trying to shoot his way out (the khat-chewing pirates would callously leave rifles around): He would forgive his captors and at the same time, give up hope of rescue. It freed his mind and his soul. He would eventually be released after his mother and friends were able to raise $1.6 million, a penance of the original ransom. 

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From the book The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast by Michael Scott Moore. Copyright © 2018 by Michael Scott Moore. Reprinted by permission of Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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