Somalia’s anguish: Nation in ruins needs the world’s help.

Halkaan ka akhri

Somalia’s anguish: Nation in ruins needs the world’s help

by Kayse Jama, guest opinion

Saturday April 25, 2009, 7:25 PM

Coastal defense of fisheries then became piracy

As a young child, Friday used to be my favorite day. In the Muslim country of Somalia, Friday is our holy day. We would get up early in the morning and take the bus to the Mogadishu beach for a day of soccer, cooling down in the ocean when the weather got hot.

Picnicking families enjoyed the scenery. Fishermen emerged from their small, wooden, engine-less boats, throwing the catch of the day over their shoulders, holding on to the tails. Men and women rushed toward them, hustling to get the best deals on fresh fish. This is a Somalia of long ago, in a country now abandoned.

That’s not the image most Americans have of Somalia.

 

Here in my new country, people think of Somalia and they think of “Black Hawk Down.” Or, these days, it’s about pirates. People ask me, “What do you think of the capture of that U.S. ship?”

Kayse Jama

What can I say to this? Like any Portlander, any American — like anyone with a heart, really — I am happy that Capt. Richard Phillips and all his crew members have returned home safely and are with their families. At the same time, as a Somali American, I see things a bit differently because of the Somalia I know.

Even in the Diaspora, we know Somalia intimately because, although news organizations do not cover Mogadishu or Hargeisa or Bossaso, our families have cell phones. Even nomads and camel herders have them. And there are a plethora of Somali news sites online. Somalis in Hashi’s Halal Market on Northeast Killingsworth and the elders sipping cappuccino at the Italian coffee shop at Northeast 15th and Broadway understand the root causes of piracy.

For ordinary Somalis back home, life is so different than it was before the fall, when the country fell into civil war in the early ’90s. The beaches no longer bustle with families or fishermen. Now large metal containers seeping toxic waste wash ashore along with thousands of dead fish. More and more babies are born with deformities, their pictures readily available online if you know where to find them. International companies with large vessels have been seen fishing in Somali waters during the past two decades.

Even if the Somali people knew international fishing standards and regulations, or understood the destructive fishing practices these companies use, there is no functioning government or coast guard to stop them.

The poisoned and overfished waters have deprived local Somali fishermen of their livelihoods. Many have reported harassment, others outright attacks by foreign vessels. The multinational forces patrolling the seas cannot tell the difference between criminals and fishermen, treating all Somalis as if they were pirates. Small boats are met with violence and their nets cut off. The fishermen return home, unable to feed their families.

None of this is news. Somali civil society organizations and local authorities have been complaining for two decades with no response from the international community. In order to defend their coastline, local militias and Somali fishermen collaborated to stop these criminal activities by capturing vessels and demanding compensation from the owners, originally in the form of fines. The scheme quickly shifted to 21st century piracy. But why?

The ordinary Somali believes that the country’s current piracy problem has a direct correlation to the illegal activities committed against them, the lack of an international response and the absence of a centralized Somali government.

Since 2000, there have been three transitional governments established in Somalia. Two of those governments have failed, and the third is struggling. Basic services such as education, employment, security and health care do not exist. Should we be surprised that youth turn to a centuries-old tactic such as piracy if it yields a chance of a normal life, even if it also means a 50 percent chance of death?

If we want to resolve piracy at sea, the international community has to employ approaches that resolve the destitute situation on land. Far less time and money could be spent on this effort if the focus was put on helping the current Somali unity government develop its security forces. Instead of militarizing Somali waters with foreign ships, let’s train and equip local police and a functioning navy, and sailors who can at the same time take home a paycheck and proudly defend their country.

At the same time, the international community needs to provide resources and technical assistance for the Somali government to take full control of the country, enabling it to provide basic services to its citizens and opportunities for youth to find alternative ways of earning income.

To build trust among the Somali people and the world they feel abandoned them, open an international criminal investigation to identify and punish corporations and governments that dumped their waste in Somali coastal waters. Stop illegal fishing and help local fishermen to re-establish their industry.

In return, the Somali government and its people must help the international community to completely eliminate piracy and hold offenders accountable. If done in a transparent manner, these solutions can finally create sustainable peace in Somalia. Without these basic steps, no international force will be able to put an end to Somali piracy.

I want to imagine the beaches in Somalia can again become the busy hubs of local commerce they once were, with children playing soccer in the sand and families jostling for fresh fish. With the world’s attention on my forgotten country, long-awaited peace and justice may be possible.

Kayse Jama is a Somali-born refugee and the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Intercultural Organizing (www.interculturalorganizing.org). He has been living in Portland since 1999. Reach him at kayse@interculturalorganizing.org or 503-287-4117.

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