A rare visit to a location deep inside the tropical forest of Mahé, in the Seychelles archipelago, where a prison has been established to hold the captured Somali pirates wreaking havoc in the Indian Ocean. Once captured – and land-locked – the pirates change their ways.
A PIRATE’S PRISON TUCKED INSIDE SEYCHELLES PARADISE
By Paolo Colonnello, La Stampa
Along the granite mountain covered by tropical vegetation, the steep path leads to a courtyard surrounded by three warehouses and a light grey building overlooking the sea. All around this one sqaure-kilometer facility are tall wire fences, watchtowers, and armed men. Welcome to the pirate prison of Mahé, where sea-faring criminals are being held in the middle of the forest of the Seychelles islands.
When we arrived, the accused Somali pirates — Jahamal, Shaif, Mohamed, each in their early 20s – were eating lunch. They wore blue detainee uniforms. “But we are all fishermen,” they said with a laugh. These young men have been convicted without even know their sentences.
Maxim Tirent, the 56-year-old French-born director of the prison, explains that the inmates have been brought here from all over the Indian Ocean. “By now, there are too many,” he says. “Once they are identified with pictures and fingerprints, some are just waiting to be repatriated.”
The most recent arrivals were seized three weeks ago by a British Navy frigate, which left them on the island. “When they are at sea, they are fearless and arrogant, but here they behave well,” explains Tirent. “They are submissive and quiet. They spend their days working to fix the streets, or praying. They’ve never caused any troubles.”
Currently, the prison holds some 500 detainees, including many accused of drug-related crimes. Among the total prison population, there are currently 88 wanted for acts of piracy, many from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The Seychelles has become a strategic international outpost against rising piracy in the Indian Ocean. It is the hidden side of this tropical haven, which is beloved by tourists for its natural preserves and beautiful beaches.
Piracy has become a scourge for international commercial interests. Salvatore Puma, the Italian general manager of the exclusive resort Constance Ephelia of Mahé, said that during last Christmas vacation the local hotels “could not serve fish, because the fishermen refused to go out to sea, too afraid of being attacked.”
Slums at sea
The pirates always follow the same approach. They embark on a big boat that carries four or five small speedboats tied to each other, able to launch an attack once their prey is spotted.
Mogadishu pirates are young, fierce and resolute. Often they are tied to paramilitary groups, allegedly funded by terrorist organizations that provide them with weapons. Piracy of the 21st century is anything but romantic, manned by young thugs ready for violence if necessary, as there are in every slum in the world. They are recruited from the poorest of African cities, among those desperate enough to spend days in the middle of the ocean, to kidnap and rape just for a stereo or a cell phone.
The other day, in the tourist harbor of Mahé, two repairmen of Technofluid seacraft arrived from Sicily in order to fix two speedboats stolen by Somali pirates. The boats had been riddled with bullets, their stereos, televisions and computers stripped away, chairs and couches torn out. “It is just vandalism,” said Giuseppe, the owner of the company. He was able to get back the boats and their kidnapped crews after one full year of negotiation, which ended with a ransom payment.
The war against piracy is a priority for Seychelles islands. Local newspapers write about it every day. “We estimate that piracy costs between $7 and 12 million a year to the international community,” the country’s president, James Michel, told the weekly magazine Vioas. “The pirates cost 4% of the Seychelles GDP, including direct and indirect costs for the loss of boats, fishing, and tourism, and the indirect investment for the maritime security.” He added that between 2008 and 2009, local fishing – one of the country’s main national resources – had suffered a 46% loss
So far, tourism has not suffered too much. Still, the government had to forbid speedboats from travelling between the different islands of the archipelago.
In the last two years, though, help has arrived from abroad. The Arab Emirates sent five patrol boats, the United States gave a drone, China offered two patrol planes, Luxemburg provided a speedboat, and Italy continues to send more and more Navy boats to patrol the coasts. Still, Michel says it’s not enough. “The violence of the attacks has increased,” he told the interviewer. “By now, we are sure that the line between piracy and terrorism is blurred.”
Image: US Navy