Catching Pirates With A Kind Of Neighborhood Watch Piracy thrives in largely lawless Somalia. But the self-ruling region of Somaliland is slowly trying to build the rule of law and a sense of civic duty. The result: Ordinary citizens occasionally catch pirates and turn them in.
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Catching Pirates With A Kind Of Neighborhood Watch

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Catching Pirates With A Kind Of Neighborhood Watch

Catching Pirates With A Kind Of Neighborhood Watch

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Let's go next to Somalia, where piracy is thriving in part because of the lack of a functioning government. Pirates can return to shore knowing that there's no real authority that's going to come looking for them. But one part of Somalia, a self-ruling region called Somaliland, is slowly trying to build the rule of law - and a sense of civic duty.

Ordinary citizens occasionally catch pirates and turn them in. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on Somaliland's pirate neighborhood watch.

(Soundbite of crashing waves)

FRANK LANGFITT: Somaliland's windswept beaches look out on the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's most dangerous stretches of water. Just last Friday, a pair of pirate skiffs tried to overtake a chemical tanker, according to the International Maritime Bureau. The week before, another skiff fired on another tanker.

(Soundbite of radio)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

LANGFITT: Suleman Ahmen Aden is a fisherman on these sun-beaten shores. He's lying beneath what looks like a lean-to made of garbage, listening to an Islamic religious show on his transistor radio. On closer examination, the lean-to is actually Aden's fishing raft. It's made of wood and Styrofoam lashed together with rope and wire. When the winds subside, Aden launches his raft into the waves.

Mr. SULEMAN AHMEN ADEN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I row with paddles, he says, more than a mile out to sea.

Aden, who wears a long black beard and a red-checked scarf around his head, says he rarely sees pirates this close in.

Mr. ADEN: (Through translator) We saw some once, a year ago. Their boat engines were stuck, so they had to beach here.

LANGFITT: Aden said the pirates were armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s. Despite their fearsome reputation, Aden says he wasn't afraid of the pirates.

Mr. ADEN: (Through translator) They were so tired and exhausted. They'd been in the sea a long time, floating and sailing without food. We pretended we were welcoming them and that's how we arrested them.

LANGFITT: Aden offered them tea, then alerted the Somaliland coast guard.

Pirates, though, are not always so easy to subdue. Omer Ahmed is a clan leader in Karin, another coastal town. He says last year local villagers captured more than a dozen suspected pirates. One citizen's arrest came after a tip that a suspicious boat was heading their way. Ahmed said residents fanned out to look for the vessel.

Mr. OMER AHMED (Clan Leader): (Through translator) The pirates came off the boats, onto the beach, and went into hiding. And then came out and we chased them. We even fought them, but were able to overpower them.

LANGFITT: Ahmed said villagers traded a few gun shots with the men, who then surrendered.

When people think of Somalia, they imagine Mad Max on the Horn of Africa, but the country is more complex. Somalia is actually divided into three different parts. To the south is Mogadishu, an urban warzone. To the northeast is Puntland, a semi-autonomous region and hotbed of piracy. And to the west, Somaliland, a fledgling democracy that sees itself as an independent country -though no one else does.

Scholars give Somaliland high marks for fighting piracy. Stig J. Hansen teaches international relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and has studied piracy since 2005. He says Somalilanders have a national identity and a sense of duty which inspires them to crack down on pirates.

Professor STIG J. HANSEN (Norwegian University of Life Sciences): That means that it's very hard for the pirates who are operating inside Somaliland.

LANGFITT: Hansen says people here also arrest pirates because they want to impress the outside world, in hopes of gaining diplomatic recognition. But he says sometimes Somalilanders go too far and arrest innocent fisherman from Puntland, a neighboring pirate hotspot.

Mr. HANSEN: They are stereotyping. They're basically claiming that all these are pirates, but there are innocent people there.

LANGFITT: Life is harsh along the Gulf of Aden. Ali Samater Abdi herds camels in the dunes near the beach. Three years ago, he had more than 100 camels. Drought has killed most of them, leaving just 15. So Abdi, who wears a torn white T-shirt and matching Somali sarong, has turned to fishing.

Mr. ALI SAMATER ABDI: (Through translator) I have no equipment to fish, or boats, nothing. When I cast my net in the sea, I just sit on a piece of wood and paddle and catch as many fish as I can.

LANGFITT: Some days Abdi catches two fish; other days four. He keeps a couple for his family to eat. Then he walks three hours in rubber sandals to the Somaliland port city of Berbera, where he trades them for vegetables. The quickest way for Abdi to turn his life around would be piracy. One good hijacking can pay a pirate 35 to 50 thousand dollars - a fortune in this part of the world. I wondered if Abdi had ever considered it. His answer was swift.

Mr. ABDI: (Through translator) Pirates are bad. It's an issue that is bad for the country and for the world. As I result, I will never be one.

LANGFITT: Of course, not everyone in Somalia feels that way. Year after year, month after month, piracy continues to grow. Last week, pirates seized a German-owned cargo ship with 10 crew. It was the 15th hijacking so far this year.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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