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Interview with a pirate

How not to be a pirate — and how to catch them.

BERBERA, Somaliland — The slight figure of Farah Ismail Eid is a far cry from the swashbuckling, murderous image of a pirate of the high seas.

The scourge of piracy along the Horn of Africa's coastline has caused shipping firms to pay millions of dollars in ransoms and has taken several lives. The mighty U.S. Navy and other major powers have deployed warships and frigates to patrol the waters of the Gulf of Aden, but still the pirates succeed in hijacking cargo ships.

Yet the cash-strapped state of Somaliland is taking the fight to the pirates. Somaliland's tiny Coast Guard fleet has arrested 36 pirates, including Farah Ismail Eid.

Eid and his crew of four were the first to be caught back in September by the Somaliland Coast Guard. They are serving 15-year terms at Mandheera prison, a British-built colonial-era jail set among Berbera's rocky hills and hot wind swept scrub (see map below).

By his own admission Eid was never a very good pirate. On his first attempt, Eid’s 25-horsepower skiff was easily outpaced. The second time, with a bigger engine, his boarding ladder proved too short. On the third attempt Eid was caught before he even left Berbera port.

Speaking from the jail, Eid said he only turned to piracy because of the problems caused by illegal fishing by big international operations and the dumping of toxic waste by foreign ships. He said those abuses drove him from fishing to piracy, prompting him to load his boat with guns.

“We did not bring this problem; this problem was brought to us,” said Eid, 38, who comes from Eyl, a coastal Somali town that has become known as a pirate lair.

“I believe the title of pirates should be given to those who come to our waters illegally,” he said.

Wearing an oversized secondhand T-shirt, plastic sandals and a "macawis," a strip of printed fabric wrapped around his waist, Eid smoked cigarettes and chewed on green wads of khat, a popular narcotic leaf, throughout the hour-long interview.

“The fish we caught used to be enough for the local people and enough to sell but now there is not even enough to eat,” he complained. “Illegal trawlers took all the resources which we relied on; they broke our boats and destroyed the coral.”

Then, he said, foreign ships started dumping toxic waste in Somali waters. Eid recalled going out fishing one day to find shoals of fish floating on the surface. “We thought we were lucky! We collected the fish and stored them in refrigerators, then later we discovered they were like plastic.”