My favorite story of 2008; my story in 2009?

Since September, when Somali pirates hijacked a massive Ukrainian cargo ship, Western media sources have told the greatest tales a kid could hear. Played out in newsprint the old-fashioned way, with updates released slowly, over days and weeks, the stories have brought us pirates in skiffs and trawlers taking on grand tankers, cargo ships, and even passenger cruisers, events impossible to imagine from thousands of miles away and in life on land. No good guys and bad guys in these, for how could you root against the dozen rag-clad rebels who took down the giant in their waters? Forget that they’re criminals; they’ve got everything heroes have. And if you believe them, they’re fighting for justice. In a New York Times article from September 30, 2008, Jeffrey Gettleman wrote about the pirates who had seized the Ukrainian ship, and shared what they want. Check out, too, how this one was reported:

“We just saw a big ship,” the pirates’ spokesman, Sugule Ali, said in a telephone interview. “So we stopped it.”

The pirates quickly learned, though, that their booty was an estimated $30 million worth of heavy weaponry, heading for Kenya or Sudan, depending on whom you ask.

In a 45-minute interview, Mr. Sugule spoke on everything from what the pirates wanted (“just money”) to why they were doing this (“to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters”) to what they had to eat on board (rice, meat, bread, spaghetti, “you know, normal human-being food”).

He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

The pirates who answered the phone call on Tuesday morning said they were speaking by satellite phone from the bridge of the Faina, the Ukrainian cargo ship that was hijacked about 200 miles off the coast of Somalia on Thursday. Several pirates talked but said that only Mr. Sugule was authorized to be quoted. Mr. Sugule acknowledged that they were now surrounded by American warships, but he did not sound afraid. “You only die once,” Mr. Sugule said.

What a gig, huh? For the reporters, I mean. Gettleman or one of the others (likely Ibrahim, who contributed reporting from Mogadishu and is probably Somali) gets to call up pirates, and chats with the head honcho for forty-five minutes, during which time they have an earnest, intimate, and humorous conversation. Here’s how the article ends:

Mr. Sugule said his men were treating the crew members well. (The pirates would not let the crew members speak on the phone, saying it was against their rules.) “Killing is not in our plans,” he said. “We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.”

When asked why the pirates needed $20 million to protect themselves from hunger, Mr. Sugule laughed and said, “Because we have a lot of men.”

It doesn’t get better than that, but it did continue through the fall. In mid-November another huge ship was seized in the same waters, this time off the coast of Kenya, and another bunch of pirates found themselves with $100 million worth of crude Saudi Arabian oil. These two pirated ships were only a couple of the several dozen ships that pirates held at year end. Of course, modern piracy didn’t start in 2008. In fact, Atlantic writer William Langewiesche wrote a book in 2005, The Outlaw Sea, about piracy and the general lawlessness of the ocean, which I recommend for background on all of this. Piracy and general chaos at sea are nothing new, Langewiesche explains, but they may be worsening trends. Here’s a teaser, from page 46:

[R]oughly two-thirds of [global piracy is] concentrated in just one region — the area of the South China Sea, including the waters of Indonesia and the Philippines. The problem, in other words, would seem finite. Gazing at a map from the confines of land, one might think that with some sea and air patrols, and maybe the “expanded authority” to perform intercepts at sea, order could be imposed. But that authority already exists, and those patrols are being run, and the numbers have only wavered, and order has not come.

I may have a chance to go briefly to East Africa myself this summer. If I do, I’m calling up Jeffrey Gettleman and asking him how to do his job. I want this story. I want to write about pirates. Who knows if I’ll get anything good out of it (I probably won’t), but I want to chase.

Update 1/9/09: The Saudi oil tanker was just released for $3 million.

Update 1/12/09: Here’s a cool map of recent pirate attacks off the East African coast, from this (funny) article in The Economist.

Pirate attacks

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