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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Toronto man who lived with Somali pirates reveals his adventures in new book


The Canadian Press

July 19, 2011
A June 1, 2009, photo of Canadian author Jay Bahadur posing with Somali villagers in Dhanane, the semiautonomous region of Puntland, Somalia, while researching a book about piracy.
TORONTO _ Jay Bahadur admits his parents probably wanted him to move out of their house and "do his own thing." But hanging out with pirates in the world's most dangerous country was not exactly what they had in mind.

Eager to break into journalism, the 27-year-old Toronto native, who had never been to Africa, made some phone calls, got in touch with some local journalists, and in January 2009 left his parent's home in Chicago and hopped on a plane to Somalia.

What he learned and witnessed during the three months he lived among the Somali pirates is documented in his book, "The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World," that is being released in Canada and the United States on Tuesday.

"I always intended to break into journalism by going abroad and just writing freelance," Bahadur said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"My original plan, before I thought about it for a minute, was to just go on my own and kind of stumble onto a pirate group and hope that they thought I was a little crazy ... and took pity on me," he said with a chuckle.

The only person he was counting on was a local journalist he had spoken with on the phone but had never met, and whose father had just been elected the president of Puntland, a semiautonomous pirate-infested region in northern Somalia where piracy originated.

"I was nervous about whether I would be extorted for money, or held up, or kidnapped or what not."

And there was good reason to worry.

Just four months prior to his arrival, another Canadian freelance journalist had been kidnapped by gunmen in Somalia while travelling to a refugee camp.

Amanda Lindhout, along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan and their Somali translator, were held for 15 months and their abductors demanded millions of dollars in ransom for their release.

"I chose Somalia because originally what I wanted to do was go and cover an election that was happening in northwestern Somalia," said the University of Toronto graduate.

"And then the piracy thing happened and that was a lot more exciting story and a lot better way to get my name in print, so I essentially made a few calls to universities and to local journalists there and I ended up partnering with a local journalist."

In his book, published by Harper Collins Canada, Bahadur describes the evolution of piracy in Somalia _ from the self-proclaimed "coast guards" pretending to protect their country's waters from foreign invaders, to the deadly, organized, multi-million dollar enterprise that has become today.

One 'myth' he says he hopes his book will debunk is the assumption that international criminal organizations and terrorist groups are behind the network of Somali pirates.

"The fact of the matter is, Somalia is perfectly capable of doing it on its own.

"I did a detailed study of the economics of the piracy from the pirate's point of view _ a mission might cost as little at $10,000 dollars to launch, and that kind of money is certainly available within the country, especially now when these ransoms are coming fast and furious."

He says piracy is a home-grown movement that doesn't need outside funding.

"They say there are about 15 to 30 key investors, people who are actually mapping the networks.

"It's more like some (Somali) expats going home and trying to make some money on the side by financing piracy missions."

Bahadur thinks that such "misconceptions" help shape the multibillion dollar fight against piracy.

However, he admits that his conclusions were drawn from stories that were 'filtered" through people surrounding him, all members of a clan in power, often while sitting around chewing a narcotic drug called khat.

As for the book deal, the young Canadian, who says he gave a Toronto Blue Jays baseball T-shirt as a gift to a pirate leader, admits the timing of his trip certainly helped him find a publisher.

"Shortly after I got back from the first trip (March 2009), the Maersk Alabama incident happened and that kind of drove interest in the book and it sold shortly after that."

On April 8, 2009, Somali pirates boarded Maersk Alabama, a container ship en route to Kenya. The hijacking ended when U.S. navy sharpshooters killed two pirates holding the ship's American captain.

In the summer of 2010, Bahadur was invited to share his findings on Somalia piracy with officials at the U.S. State Department. His articles on Somalia were published in many newspapers, including The New York Times, The Times (London) and the Financial Times.

Asked about his future in journalism, Bahadur says he's now turning his attention to citizen journalism. He is starting a website _ that he hopes will be a home for all newsworthy YouTube videos _ and hopes any publicity he gets from the book will help generate interest in his new project.

"I tried to skip a few steps successfully so far in journalism ... to become editor-in-chief," he says with a laugh.


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