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Fake Pirates, War Journalists and Old White Men

A couple guys on break or a dynamic security force? Depends on who you ask.  Afghanistan, Sutika-Sipus 2012.
I typically prefer to keep this blog limited to subjects of post-war reconstruction, but over the last few days I've been thinking a great deal about all the weirdos I've encountered along the way.  

Since 2003 I've been travelling or working in some fringe locations in the world, some of which are fairly dangerous, so its only natural that I've crossed paths with a lot of unusual personalities.  For example, Southeast Asia is full of old British men who all tout stories about their days at Oxford University, their years as a music producer touring the world, and their decision to return to the outskirts of Cambodia 15 years ago... but outside of potentially being wanted in 48 countries for arms and human trafficking, these guys seem relatively harmless over a beer.  Just don't make any future plans with them. But people that I encounter more often are the pseudo-journalists who have managed to change my perception of journalism, war, and Earnest Hemingway - and not for the better.

Today I stumbled across the article "The Somali Pirate Who Never Was," which exposes an ongoing
ruse of Kenyan-Somalis posing as Somali pirates for journalists.  The article cites Time Magazine and BBC documentaries as victims of this scam, and I find it completely believable.  Not because I have faith that the pirates to be such amazing actors, but rather because I have such little faith in war journalists.

To be fair, there are some exceptional war journalists out there.  I have massive admiration for people like Sebastian Junger who not only embed with combat units, but develop personal relationships with the subject matter and the people around them to tell the story.  But such individuals are rare.  So often when I read an article, I find it has more to do with presenting the writer as a badass than actually giving context or content.  How many articles start open with a sequence like the following:

"Driving down a dark, unpaved road in (insert conflict city here),  my driver pointed at a mud brick house and said 'we must be careful, because of the warlord (insert multi-syllabic Islamic name here) lives in that house.'  We barreled around the corner and stopped at a nondescript door when the driver nervously whispered 'we are here.  I stepped out of the car to discover an AK-47 only inches from my face."

Just one week ago a friend shared a German publication with me about the Gandamak Lodge, a bar and restaurant in central Kabul.  The article read nearly identical to what I just wrote.  Of course Gandamak, like most businesses in Kabul, has security guards, but its location is not a secret and travelling there is not an adventure.  I've also read articles exactly like this about countless African nations, refugee camps, border areas and innercity slums.  So what kind of journalist writes such over-sensationalized copy?

Every war zone or fringe location usually has one or two coffeeshops or hotels with wifi connections and decent espresso.  Inside are men and women with nice haircuts and stylish jeans, obsessing over twitter and talking about how awesome their lives are.  Most the time these individuals grew up in privileged conditions, attended reputable schools for international relations or political science, and without the burdens of student loans and lots of family support, set off to be tourists of the underdeveloped world, and occasionally publishing something between expat parties.

Thanks to the benefits of their upbringing they have a social network that facilitates access to top-tier publications and in the end, all they need to do is be somewhere to become journalists.  As for the coverage, it often doesn't stray to far from the coffeeshop, and that is the part that kills me.   Again, not all war journalists are like this, but there are plenty of the kind I describe to make your head spin.

Then there are of course the kind of journalists who "parachute" into town to swoop up a story.  I'd say this sort of coverage is often even worse because every small thing takes on exaggerated significance.  The child asking for money on the street becomes a symbol for the regional economy, the woman wearing a burka is suddenly representative of national women's rights, and the sleeping security guard at the corner store becomes a metaphor for lackluster national defense.  An entertaining story so often becomes more important than an accurate story.

I'll never forget when a friend in Juba Sudan told me that on the official day of constitutional independence, a large crowd of old white photojournalists trailed behind the central parade, documenting only the costumed dancers, but likewise looking like a parade feature themselves.  Of course they weren't there for very long, as they arrived in the morning and were on another plane that night.  I've witnessed similar reporters, often looking like he or she walked straight out of Williamsburg Brooklyn and into an IDP camp to photograph some kids pumping water from the ground and then leaving again, having contributed nothing to improve conditions but simply having been a voyeur.  Is raising awareness truly enough?  Could that person presence have contributed more to lessening the problems?

As for Earnest Hemingway, I always loved his writing and he was a childhood hero.  I also wanted to move around the globe, go on adventures, and be a good writer.  But today, I suspect I wouldn't have cared for his company.  When I read his work I sense that it is about him, its about looking like a badass and doing things specifically to have the story to tell others, not because the moment happened by chance.  What a shame.

Black Flags and RPG's: Piracy continues to reveal massive problems, while the world misses the point.

The never ending attitude toward piracy off the Somali coast continues to astound me.  Somalia is a failed state with no government, no security, an antiquated economy undermined by climate change, no food supplies to feed its displaced population, and scares the hell out of aid agencies.  Yet we all talk about piracy as if that is the problem because piracy affects international trade.  Its obvious piracy is the consequence of desperate people living in a desperate situation, and if the global community cared about that situation, then we probably wouldn't have piracy.  If piracy continued to persist while the country developed, military intervention and security measures would make sense and probably have the desired outcome.

Everyday there is a constant deluge of absurd media generated about pirates.  Today CNN featured an article on ships containing a safe room to hide their crew while pirates run the show on deck.  They lock themselves in a bullet-proof room full of food and water and wait for help to arrive.  Or consider a personal favorite of mine, as BAE Systems develops a laser defense system to disorient would-be pirates from attacking with their AK-47s and RPGs.  There is also much fanfare over the development of a private military in Northern Somalia to police the waters and combat pirates.

In the meanwhile, the global economy loses anywhere between 7 and 12 BILLION dollars per year due to the impact and accumulated costs of piracy.   So yes, every one is losing money because some really poor men in rowboats are causing problems.

Perhaps one day, somebody, somewhere, will choose to invest a billion dollars into stabilizing the water supply or investing in the workforce of Somalia.  When more donors and nations realize the potential investment opportunity for such a geographically advantaged state,  perhaps they will consider investing in solutions rather than laser beams and naval fleets.  In that scenario, everybody wins, not just the pirates.

Somalia's New Army already has a History

Today a story was released by the associated Press that a 1,000 man army is in development in Somalia's northern region of Puntland to fight against Piracy.  It is funded by anonymous Muslim nations is operated by the private security organization Saracen International.  This immediately brings to mind two points:

1. Saracen International?  Seriously?  Saracen was a an ancient Roman term used throughout the Crusades in reference to Arab and/or muslim populations.  The name stuck around forever, one can even find it in Mark Twain's Pilgram's Progress as he travelled across the Middle East but it continued to be used in a negative fashion.  Considering it carries negative, perhaps even racist connotations, I'm surprised that a mercenary group would name themselves as such.

2. According to Associated Press, Saracen International is the rebranding of the mercenary/private security organization Executive Outcomes.   If you by chance have read the book Dogs of War, you are aware of the attempts by Simon Mann to seize and control distressed African nations.  After he staged a coup in the Canary Islands, he later used  South-African company Executive Outcomes to sieze territorial control in Angola in the early 90s.  Executive Outcomes, and Mann's other venture Sandline International, faded out of the mercenary business sometime around 2000.  However it looks like they're back in business.

In the meanwhile, unknown donor nations attempt to control the piracy problem on the coast, the primary conflict in Somalia continues to escalate and millions of people continue to search for safety.  In the last 3 years a section of displaced peoples from Mogadishu have been establishing a new settlement known as the Afgooye corridor.  Satelite photos have revealed an astonishing degree of settlement recently as the regional violence continues.   I also embedded additional videos below from UNHCR on the Afgooye Corridor.

Afgooye Cooridor, Ceelasha Somalia, October 2007
Afgooye Cooridor, Ceelasha Somalia, July 2010

UNHCR Video mentioning the Afgooye corridor.

Somalia: Land of Lost Opportunity



One of the longest inhabited regions within the world, Somalia is home to a longstanding history of trade and independence.  Never successfully colonized by a European power, yet always a major component within Arab trades systems, Somalia has the geographic proximity and definitive character necessary to become a vital actor within the global economy.  Yet entrenched within a prolonged history of regional and internal conflict, the burden of extreme poverty has forced this failed state into a precarious position.  With a population of over 8 million, the nation contains 1,277,200 displaced individuals, while 561,154 others have fled to other nations for refugee.  Within only the last 4 months, over 300,000 others have had to flee their homes in Mogadishu.  According to the BBC, within the last two years alone, 18,000 people have been killed.  After an extensive web search, I have been unable to locate a single estimate of the death toll within the last 18 years of its civil war.

America briefly involved itself within Somali during the Clinton administration as part of the UNISOM task force, wherein the UN and the US worked side by side to stabilize the nation and push it toward prosperity.  Yet as the lessons of contemporary asymmetrical warfare continue to repeat, the United States was unable to utilize its advanced technologies and formal combat interface against the flexible resistance of criminal war lords and Islamic fighters.  Evacuating with great haste, the US left Somalia in a state of greater despair than prior to its arrival. As America's internal allies were left behind, new targets for violence by local militants.  I have several friends, and have met many others, who were victims of this abandonment, as their American affiliation left them subject to torture and persecution.


[caption id="attachment_13" align="aligncenter" width="523" caption="Woman walking across Somali desert"]Woman walking through Somali desert[/caption]


Today the most popular headlines pointing toward Somalia are concerned with the fleeting acts of piracy on its coastline.  Sexy and adventurous, America and Europe have embraced the romantic notion of piracy as a subject of pegged legs and black flags rather than a tragic externality of poverty.  Piracy has been approached as problem to be solved with coast guards, naval fleets, and armed escorts.  I suppose that at least some degree of international interest has been directed towards Somalia and the struggling efforts of its president, Sherif Sheik Ahmed, to bring stability to this nation.  Thus far, this approach has been severely misguided, as piracy is not the problem, it is simply a consequence of greater issues.

A brief review of the CIA World Fact Book should illuminate many of the complications facing this struggling state.

[caption id="attachment_16" align="alignright" width="151" caption="Woman at Water Tap"]Somali woman at water tap[/caption]

• Population median age: 17.5           (U.S. 36.7 years)

• Life expectancy at birth: 49.3         (U.S. 78.11)

• Total population literacy: 37.8        (U.S. 99%)

• GDP per capita: $600                    (U.S. $49, 900)

• Exports: $300 million                    (U.S. $1.291 trillion)

• Telephone Landlines: 100,000        (U.S. 163 million)

• Mobile phones: 600,000                 (U.S. 255 million)

• Internet host: 1                              (U.S. 316 million)

• Airports with paved runway: 7        (U.S. 5,146)

• Roadways: 22,100 km                    (U.S. 6,465,799 km)

• Paved roads: 2,608 km                    (U.S. 4,209,835 km)

• Merchant marine: 1                         (U.S. 422)

• No national military

• 1.1 million internally displaced people

• Exchange rate of 1438.3 Somali Schillings (SOS) per 1 US Dollar


Such strong indicators of poverty do not stand in isolation, but operate in conjunction with an array of human rights, public health, and social complications including: gender based violence, ongoing conflict, absence of codified law, and humanitarian accessibility.  Furthermore, in recent years, aid workers have become targets within conflict, reducing the capability for aid delivery.  Today, Somalia has become the worlds greatest humanitarian struggle, with the highest concentration of famine.

I understand that successful nations see little reason to address these problems.  Western States wrongly perceive international development as a zero-sum game, while not recognizing the advantages of equitably distributed wealth.  The location of Somalia however places it directly within the heart of all oceanic shipping and traffic, making it a primary point for penetrating the underdeveloped markets of Africa from either Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.  Its globally distributed population provides immediate financial and economic linkages for the transfer of wealth, ideas, and education.  With investment within its agriculture and animal husbandry resources, North African and the Middle East can access a new food source, as their own water supplies continue to deplete.

If nations want safer waters, the last thing they need to do is approach the problem by means of military solutions.  The problems are better solved by engineers.  With only 2, 608 km of paved roads, governments could easily facilitate the growth of supply chains and resource networks by means of simply pouring more concrete.  With only one merchant marine vessel, governments could create a "rent-to-own" or large scale government micro-finance industry to prompt the growth of regional sea trade.  There is no need to invest in speed boats to further piracy, but instead to supply large shipping vessels that will ignite and industry for the current "pirates" who have no income, no resources, and no opportunities for self advancement.  Expanding the mobile phone networks will further distribute a form of flexible infrastructure for trade and business creation.

Nonetheless, at the root of all these ideas remains the demand for security.  How does that happen?  Although the answer will continue to be explored herein, one thing is certain.  The solution is not found within isolation, by ignoring the problem, and by only treating symptoms.  Remedies can only be achieved through direct engagement, communication, and an active approach to problem solving.  Until then, Somalia will always remain in chaos.

[caption id="attachment_14" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Somali Child in Market Place"]Somali Child in Market Place[/caption]