The journalist Michael Scott Moore has written two books. His second, Sweetness and Blood, traces the proliferation of surfing around the globe, from Israel and Gaza to the threat it poses in communist Cuba. His third was interrupted three years ago on the way from an airport in Somalia.
Moore was in Somalia researching a pirate gang whose trial he covered in Germany, when suddenly armed thugs surrounded his vehicle. For more than two-and-a-half years, he lived under the guard of kidnappers high on khat, a kind of stimulant, while his family tried to broker his release.
On Sept. 23, 2014, the pirates set him free. His account of the ordeal, “My 977 Days Held Hostage by Somali Pirates,” was published in The Guardian. He spoke with Latterly last year.
For so much of your captivity, you appeared relatively calm. Did you have some broad strategy for trying to stay in control?
No, I had to struggle for that. All the fury had to be internal — I could have been beaten for showing it — but sometimes it was an active discipline not to grab a weapon and do something self-destructive. I think the ideas that helped are described in the feature. They were religious and philosophical.
As a writer, was there ever a moment when you thought, “If I survive this it’s going to make a great story”? Or is that a flippant notion?
I did go with a book in mind, a very different book, so I kept my eye for material. But it was an ashen sort of optimism. There was no way to imagine a whole book, because I didn’t know how it would end.
How did you retain detailed memories over such a long time? Was there any way to keep notes or did you practice certain mental techniques?
I had three calm periods where I could take notes. Twice they were confiscated. The final period lasted a year, and I left with a small stack of notebooks. I took notes in German, which the guards couldn’t read. In English I drafted a novel about drones. Sometimes when I couldn’t take notes I would rehearse important conversations in my head.
I revised other books in my head. I had left for Somalia with two almost-finished books of fiction on my hard drive. To keep myself sane I ran through them in my mind and composed changes. I drafted and refined long paragraphs and passages of dialogue, which I then recited to myself at least once a day. I could probably write out the passages for you now.
I’ve read stories of other hostages who were beaten regularly, if not daily. Why do you think you weren’t?
I’m not sure. My guards were under orders not to beat me. The bosses may have feared that any hint of bad treatment could have triggered a rescue. That didn’t keep me from getting beaten, but it wasn’t systematic.
Remember pirates aren’t ideologues. They aren’t the same as terrorists in Syria. They do hate the U.S. for all the usual reasons, and the clan that held me, the Sa’ads, remember the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993 as an act of direct war with America. Gen. Aideed, the target of U.S. violence that day, was a Sa’ad.
Other pirate hostages have been tortured, as you can read in the Guardian piece. That was also not systematic. I think some people who become pirates just have sadism in them. It’s a criminal mindset.
How isolated were you from the outside world? What was it like to re-emerge after missing nearly three years of news and culture?
For a long time I had no news at all. I’m still learning what happened in parts of 2012 and 2013. For the last year I could listen to the BBC on a beat-up shortwave. Sometimes I heard friends of mine — authors from the U.S. or correspondents from Berlin. That was both good and bad. I liked to hear their voices, but it was maddening not to talk to them.
Europe and the U.S. are both richer and more frivolous than before I left. Or so it seems. When I landed in Berlin I had just shaved my beard — it was a huge relief to have a naked chin — but there was a surprising number of hipsters in my neighborhood wearing beards. To me they looked like hostages.
I’ve also noticed a massive technological drive in my generation — I’m 46 — to solve problems we don’t necessarily have. The craze for self-driving cars makes no sense to me at all.
You learned that your captors spent about $2 million kidnapping and holding you. That seems like a lot to me in Somalia; what did they spend it on?
Has the experience changed you professionally? Are you less likely to work in certain countries, or are you just more cautious?
More cautious, possibly. But it wasn’t thrill-seeking that sent me to Somalia. I became very interested in a pirate trial in Hamburg, and I took a considered risk that belonged to a larger project. I might approach another book the same way. But if if I went back to Somalia I think my mother would kill me.
How did your guards become pirates?
They had clan relationships to the gang. The bosses are paranoid about spies, so only trusted outsiders would join. Those relationships are normally clan-based. For me it was normal to meet the cousin, son or brother of a boss or another guard.
Several of my guards said they were related to K’Naan. I don’t know if that’s true. But he is a Sa’ad.
What would be the most effective policy action to discourage Somali piracy?
The most direct policy so far has been hiring armed guards for cargo ships. That practice didn’t lead to an arms race on the Indian Ocean, which some people feared back in 2009. Armed guards on a cargo ship can scatter attacking skiffs with gunfire, and those guns have made the pirate business model off Somalia too risky and expensive. The gangs are still intact, and they catch the odd reckless fishing boat; but as a rule they seem to be doing other things.
Weapons smuggling is big business for the same gangs in Somalia, and so is people trafficking. Remember a lot of the Africans floating to Europe across the Mediterranean are Somali. They have to reach Libya somehow. Some pirate gangs may be taking a fee for overland transit. Finding evidence is difficult; but when Somali migrants moved to Yemen it was pirate outfits that ferried them across the Gulf of Oman. They used the same skiffs. (Now Yemen is a mess, so the Somalis are moving back.)
Of course there are deeper issues — Somali men become pirates because they’re poor and addicted to khat. A khat addiction costs $10-$20 a day, which is an impossible sum in that part of the world. If you want to solve the nation’s economic problems I would suggest two drastic measures: Stop the khat flights from Kenya and Ethiopia, and let the women have more money and power. That’s what Christopher Hitchens recognized as a near-universal formula for easing poverty — giving money and birth control to women. At the moment it won’t happen. But it would help. The women in Somalia struck me as quite sensible and sane, very different from the pirates I met.