In 2009, as part of my research for my Somali pirate documentary, Stolen Seas, which comes out in New York in one week and airs on DIRECTV the end of January, I traveled to a wasteland beyond my wildest nightmares: Dadaab refugee camp. I have been to some horrible places in my life, but this short trip to Dadaab continues to haunt me now three years later. I can't get out of my head, Yusef, our smart as a whip, fluent in English, 20 year-old Somali interpreter, who had spent almost his entire life trapped in this camp made up of mud huts and twig roofed tents. Yusef hoped to one day live in America. But I know that he has little if any real chance of ever leaving Dadaab. He is imprisoned interminably in one of the layers of hell, simply for being born Somali.
Yusef is part of an entire generation of Somalis lost in a world that has forgotten them. I started my film trying to tell the story of the pirates, which continue to this day, but soon realized the real story was of the pain of the Somali people.
For three years the Somali pirates enthralled the world. The phenomenon reached its apex in 2010, a banner year that saw numerous clandestine negotiations, brazen shoot-outs and Hollywood inspired naval showdowns. Somali piracy was sold as a major threat to the very foundation of global capitalism. The world's commerce, it would seem, was being held hostage by a bunch of rag-tag Somalis armed with AK-47s and bazookas. The pirates put Somalia back on the map. People started asking questions. Why was this happening? How can we stop it?
Today Somali piracy is on the wane. Some would say that it's yesterday's news. But its "defeat" has come at a ridiculous cost: billions of dollars a year spent patrolling the coast for a few Somali pirates. Imagine if that money was spent preventing the underlying conditions, which caused the piracy in the first place. Yes, there has been more attention paid to the Somali because of the pirates. Yet, once the Somali pirates became fodder for late night television, the world's attention moved on to newer more salacious disasters. There were several hijackings by pirates in 2012 (albeit down from previous years) but very few of these incidents have been covered. The story has grown stale, the market "saturated." While we grew bored with the pirates, the problems plaguing Somalia got worse.
When I traveled to Dadaab three years ago and met Yusef, there were 400,000 people living in the camps. Now the number is close to half a million. If Dadaab were considered an "actual" city, it would be the third largest in Kenya. In Dadaab, despite the valiant efforts of the UNHCR and various aid organizations this place is a dead end for far too many. Throughout Somalia there are over 1,000,000 IDPs (Internal Displaced People). This year alone 4,000,000 -- half the population of Somalia -- people are in urgent need of food and up to three-quarters of a million are at risk for immediate starvation. Yusef and his countrymen want nothing more than to live a life worth living. When people ask me why Somalis become pirates I can't help but respond, who among us would not do whatever it takes to survive, "legal or not," in those same conditions?
The pirates are horrible hooligans, but their desperate acts provided an opportunity for engagement and the possibility of real change in that part of the world. I say, for the sake of keeping the world's attention on Somalia, that we needed the pirates to raise awareness of the plight of the Somali people. But once we had this awareness, we have a role to play to in helping manifest change in Somalia. Whether it be through the support of NGO's working in the area or partnering with the Somali community to identify smart investments, let's take the opportunity the pirates gave us and use it to look for long-term solutions placing the country on a sustainable path towards growth and stability. We can't afford to ignore Somalia. We did that before and Somali pirates were the by-product. Next time the results of our apathy will be far more dangerous.
Some Organizations Doing Great Work in the Region:
Small NGO's doing interesting work:
Thymaya Payne is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His film 'Stolen Seas' is presented as part of 'Something to Talk About' by Brainstorm Media and DIRECTV's AUDIENCE NETWORK in theaters, on video and via satellite. For more information, please consult www.stolenseas.com or http://somethingtotalkabout.us/.