I suggest that the self congratulatory pats on the back- by the IMO, IMB, UKMTO, Western naval forces, ship owning nations and labour supplying countries- start becoming a little more muted and a lot less hearty than they have been for the last couple of months, because that time of the year is upon us once again: the South West monsoons are nearing the end.
These monsoons are an annual event, as we all know, as is the smug drum beating of that part of the maritime establishment that has accomplished little in the war against piracy and its associated terrorist groups. That does not stop them from letting the world know that they are winning the war against piracy every year; buttressed by statistics of reduced attacks, they have used the high winds and rough seas of the monsoons to propagate the big lie- that it is mainly their actions that are responsible for the improved situation. All kinds of statistics are used to try to prove a non-existent point every year; this year has been no exception.
Even so, this year has been slightly different, because the drum-beating brigade has no longer been able to ignore the main reason why pirate attacks have reduced- armed guards on ships. They have been forced, therefore, to grudgingly give these escorts a little credit without conceding that their own thunder should be stolen.
It is quite possible that Somali piracy may be on the decline for other reasons. Military actions on land have created setbacks for the Al Shabaab, the terrorist group linked to pirate warlords. Pirates may have themselves moved on to other lucrative businesses like kidnapping. Those armed guards mentioned earlier have certainly played a huge role- much bigger than publicly acknowledged by the priggish brigade- in making many a khat charged wannabe pirate rethink his options. And the UKMTO and its forces have played a part too- albeit a much smaller one than they give themselves complacent credit for.
In the end, though, whether Somali piracy has reduced or not will be known over a much longer time, not over a selected monsoon bad weather period that keeps the pirates in their villages or busy attacking dhows close to land, facts that are used to distort statistics and promote falsehoods by the mutual back-slappers.
With a little respect, I suggest that the pompous brigade take action on other statistics instead of wasting their time on the monsoon piracy numbers. For example, the statistic that one in five hostage seafarers today (44 out of 218) is being held not aboard his ships but on unknown locations and in unknown conditions on land. They should be more concerned about the bloody developments connected with the boxship Albedo- taken in late 2010- that confirm that pirates are becoming more virulent and violent.
The Albedo affair has, in fact, many implications that the entire industry has chosen to ignore. Taken with 23 crew almost two years ago, Indians amongst them, 7 Pakistani crewmembers- including the Captain- were released in July this year after family members and civil society groups in Pakistan negotiated and collected a $1.2 million ransom- a first, and a disturbing development: the Malaysian owners simply had no money. One Indian crewmember died during captivity- the Captain confirmed, after his release, that he was shot dead to pressurise the owners.
“He was a new seaman. None of us will ever forget how easy it was for them (pirates) to kill,” Captain Jawaid Khan said. “They then told me, ‘The countdown has begun. We will start killing one by one.’”
At one point, sixty-year-old Khan was trussed up with rope and lowered into the sea as trigger-happy pirates sprayed bullets around him. At other times, they would fire just above his head. The entire crew lived in an empty swimming pool, sometimes for 72 hours without food, water or sanitation.
"Sailors were beaten with pipes and gun butts, and locked in containers. The pirates tore at the skin of their palms with pliers," says Abu Dhabi's 'The National', after talking to Khan after his release.
Fourteen crewmembers are still hostage as I write this, including one Indian.
And, while all this was happening, nations in the West were pushing to stop ransom payments or make them illegal. Does this brigade really intend to encourage pirates to sell crews back to their own families, one by one, piece by piece? Do we really want to torture seamen's mothers and wives as well, forcing them to listen to their loved ones being tortured over a phone call?
“I want to cry every time I think about him tied up and shot at,” Captain Khan's daughter Nareman says. “ And he hasn’t even told us everything that happened".
By the way, the released Pakistanis brought back a letter from their 15 colleagues still hostage on the Albedo. "Help us, please save us," the letter says. "If you are not able to do so, we will die automatically ... we are malnourished and are facing many other difficulties. We are drinking contaminated water and don't have anything proper to wear. It is very hot in the day and cold in the night. It is so cold we cannot sleep at night. Many of us are getting sick."
My colleagues, many of us ashore would be getting sick too; it is just that we are busy patting ourselves on the back when we should be kicking ourselves a little lower down.