Recently my friend Ian’s buddy from Canada finished up a two week visit here to Busan. He is a Canadian naval officer and had just completed six months on the seas in a NATO posting. His ship was diverted from the Mediterranean to the Somali coast in order to shield World Food Program (WFP) vessels from pirates. A Greek cargo ship was hijacked on Sunday and the International Maritime Bureau issued a notice from their head office in Kuala Lumpur (close to the Strait of Malacca – formerly the world’s most dangerous shipping lane) that attacks are again on the rise after a cool down at the end of 2008.
With these pirates getting worldwide attention I was eager to break out my rusty interviewing skills and sit down with him to discuss his time off the Somali coast. Thankfully, he was real accommodating. On a lazy Sunday after a serious late-night session of karaoke the night before we met up at our local jim-jil-ban. We kept alternating from sauna to ice room and here’s the interview. His name and the name of his ship are omitted.
Mike Hager (MH): So you were stationed in the Mediterranean with NATO, what were you doing there?
Ian’s Friend (IF): Yes I was part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 1(SNMG1), the NATO contribution to the overall collective security in the Mediterranean.
MH: And you guys were just the closest to Somali when the pirate attacks increased?
IF: We were originally tasked to send a Canadian ship with the SNMG1 to the Mediterranean, which at the time was concerned with supporting Operation Active Endeavour , in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001. This was basically a security force meant to stop the illicit trade of people and arms that could be used for terrorist operations… What ended up happening that led to the subsequent redeployment of [my ship] to Somalia to support WFP escorts of food aid into Mogadishu in response to numerous pirate attacks against WFP vessels… We weren’t actually tasked with combating piracy but we would have gotten involved if they attacked us.
[We switch from the ice room to a sauna, this one was a bad choice as there were a trio of ajummas having a hen party at the entrance and the dome-shaped ceiling served to amplify their nattering]
MH: So you were in Somali waters for six months?
IF: What ended up happening was we started on our original mission with NATO but we got re-tasked and went to Somalia for roughly three months. Then we had a bit of an engineering failure so we ended up coming back to Europe in order to repair in France and finished our NATO commitment there.
MH: During that time did you engage any pirates?
IF: We didn’t engage any pirates, but there were quite a few sightings of vessels that had already been taken by pirates. The thing was we weren’t going to risk the crew’s lives by antagonizing these guys or maybe going through a rescue mission because we didn’t have the resources that some of the other countries in the area have. We don’t carry commandos or have marines on board.
MH: You wouldn’t have put on the war paint?
IF: Haha not me, no.
MH: I heard a Dong Won boat, a huge Korean company, recently got captured- it was a tuna fishing boat- and it made me think about the vast overfishing of the area because the lack of protection from the Somali state [sic]. Was that a visible issue? Did you see foreign fishing boats everyday?
IF: Well, that’s basically the crux of the whole piracy issue. You have to understand that these guys, the modern-day Somali pirates, went through in a series of generations they developed from the normal fishermen in the area who started defending their own fishing spots and graduated into actually attacking other fishing boats… and then taking the fishing boats and the crews and ransoming them off. As the situation ashore got worse and worse they realized it was one way to have a lucrative lifestyle for themselves and their families. The modern pirates today call themselves the “Somali Coast Guard,” and the support the receive from shore is just extravagant.
MH: I guess they were fighting when no one else would.
IF: They’re heroes in their communities. They’re building things with the money they ransom off – which is in the millions- all that money goes to themselves, their families and supporting the local economy. The whole community basically benefits from these guys.
[We have switched back into an ice room where two giggling teenage girls ask if they can take cellphone pictures with us. “REAL LIVE FOREIGNERS HOLY SHIT!”
Coming from such a multicultural place as Vancouver it never ceases to amaze me how blown away some Koreans are by a visible foreigner.]
MH: Have they now moved on from attacking fishing boats to targeting the easiest vessels?
IF: Well the most money is being made in shipping, so they go for the largest commercial cargo ships that they can. Typically what happens is they’ll take a vessel and they’ll tow it back into a town that’s friendly to them. They’ll start the negotiation process with a company and after what is usually a long negotiation process they come out with a deal.
[Switch back to the sauna]
MH: Did you see the MV Faina go by and was it business as usual?
IF: Yeah, we saw it pass but we pretty much knew it had already been taken. So we were powerless to do anything… we didn’t have the resources to actually deal with an actual hostage situation. It was better to let another country in the area who had troops on board – trained for that kind of thing- deal with it.
MH: And those countries are France and the US?
IF: Yes, largely, France and the United States have the personnel on board. It depends on what ship is in the area, but at the time [when the MV Faina was first hi-jacked] there were two American destroyers and a French destroyer.
MH: Your escort ran from Mombasa, Kenya to Mogadishu?
IF: Yes, we were based primarily out of Mombasa and we would make the two-day trip to Mogadishu with our charge. Just make sure that they got in [unloaded their food aid] safely.
MH: You never deviated and went further North?
IF: No, there were occasions where we were prepared, if necessary, to go to other locations. That never ended up coming up, but the contingency plan was there.
MH: Thanks a lot, let’s get out of this sauna!