Garowe, (WDN) - The Somali pirates that have wreaked havoc on the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years have been widely covered in the international media. However, little is known about the basis on the coast of the Horn of Africa where Somali pirates organize their activities. The most important center for organizing piracy in Somalia is the small town of Eyl which is located on the Indian Ocean.
What kind of place is Eyl?
Eyl, a small town by any measurement, is the headquarters of the district of the same name in the region of Nugal, which is currently a province of the self governing Puntland State of Somalia. As the name Puntland denotes, the area has a rich and magnificent ancient history. The civilization from which Eyl hails dates back to the days of Hatshepsut and Nefertiti of ancient Egypt: Eyl was once known for its Ostrich feathers and the products of frankincense - products that ancient civilizations placed premium values. Located below a range of mountains that face the Indian Ocean, Eyl is about 280 km from Garowe the capital of Puntland, with roads that are as rough as the beginning of settled people, the road that connects Garowe and Eyl has only about 80 km of tarmac road that is properly paved. To get to Eyl, one has to pass forbidding desert and bear the scorching infamous heat of the Somali peninsula.
The town is almost entirely surrounded by mountains and is divided into two main neighborhoods: the higher and the lower quarters. The higher quarter is known as Daawad and was named after the famed fort that the anti colonial Dervish movement had at Eyl during the beginning of the 20th century. The other part of the town is called Badey and it is the area that protrudes towards the coast.
Until the business of piracy blossomed, Eyl was a sleepy and backwater African village populated with impoverished Somali fishers. With no employment for its youth and no public sector to ease pressure from the day-to day-grindings, compounded by diminishing fishery resources, piracy has indeed emerged as a panacea to the regions ideal life, even attracting outsiders from other regions to accelerate the situation.
Here in Eyl, residents of the town are very small, however, when pirated-ships are anchored on its shores, the population numbers of the area surges exponentially. This often results in higher food prices and basic necessities for the locals. But, the pirates also bring along cash and their four wheel drive vehicles that breathe life into Eyl. The locals however generally complain from the lawlessness and vices introduced by the pirates. Particularly, the locals do not seem to enjoy all the attention the Western world is paying to their otherwise non-eventful day-to-day struggle.
There are two sentiments one would hear about the infamous piracy in the dusty streets of Eyl. There are those who do not like the pirates because, as one by-stander put it "they brought infamy to our town; all that pirates do in our peaceful town is rush out of town and spend most of the money they receive as ransom elsewhere, mainly by buying properties in the major cities of Puntland."
There are feasible surge of women population that came to Eyl seeking marriage proposals and other purposes from the pirates; and women come from across the Somali speaking communities, including Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland regions. Some argue that the pirates had made the Puntland region unruly. But there are those who believe that pirates are protecting Somali waters, despite the crude system of kidnapping innocent sailors. Those who support the acts of piracy are quick to talk about contamination of what used to be pristine coasts, the looting of Somalia rare reefs and the use of Somali seas as dumping grounds for toxic waste. They add to this the corrosion of the living standard of the local residents further compounded by the destruction of the fishery by illegal European and Asian trawlers who, according to some estimates, steal over $300 million per year of seafood from Somalia's coast.
In the absence of any meaningful national government in Somalia, many Eyl residents are doubly angry at the Puntland regional government whose leaders have failed to curb the piracy problem. Indeed the pirates themselves who are better armed and resourced, would tell you when asked, that they are not that concerned about the law enforcement agencies of Puntland. Eyl residents are cognizant of the fact that their local government is not capable to stop the pirates or deal with the bigger picture of illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste from countries across the globe.
The Puntland authorities have also stated on numerous occasions that they would curb the piracy problem on the high seas but need international help. The pirates that operate out of Somalia have received in excess of $50 million last year which is more than double the entire budget of Puntand. These ill-gotten gains have enabled Somali pirates to buy huge villas in Garowe and other main towns in the region and drive expensive cars. For now, Eyl at least seems to have been reduced to a lawless place where Pirates operate with impunity.
If military hawks at the Pentagon get their way, the issue of piracy may as well take the Obama administration's attention away from the Afghan-Pakistan terror domain. But with cool-heads at the helm of the State Department, Eyl residents may welcome a comprehensive policy approach to engage the Puntland administration in a meaningful way. The Obama administration needs to seriously engage the regional authorities in Puntland and Somaliland to put in place policies that are not bandage solutions but that deal with the root causes of the Somali piracy.
WardheerNews Special Report
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