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General Duke

Garowe: Somalia Schools Its Former Pirates

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Government Enlists Job-Training to Bring in Erstwhile Buccaneers From the Sea




GAROWE, Somalia—On a recent morning in this dusty, inland town, Mohamed Indhagel stood before a group of haggard and rough-looking men and announced he no longer wanted to be a pirate.


"You know, eating food I bought legally and earning money legally is prescribed by Islamic law, so that's why I quit piracy," he said. The men, sitting at wooden desks in a classroom in a cement building, burst into applause.



It was a feel-good moment, familiar to all who have summoned the self-discipline to battle powerful temptations—whether alcohol, gambling or, as in this case, terrorism on the high seas. The class comprises about 225 former buccaneers from around the country who have entered a three-month program to train for a legitimate career. A few had been sent here after being jailed for piracy.



The prospect of multimillion-dollar ransoms off the horn of Africa have proved irresistible to scores of Somalia's young, poor and jobless men. Attempted ship hijackings world-wide have surged over the past two years, to 370 so far this year from 293 in 2008. Somali pirates are responsible for 39 of some 47 successful hijackings world-wide this year, said Cyrus Mody, manager of the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy attacks.



The surge in criminal activity has led to a desperate, global search for solutions. Foreign naval forces, like those from the U.S. and the European Union, have spent tens of millions of dollars to tackle the problem with warships that patrol the waters off Somalia's coast, which have deterred or thwarted some raids. On Monday, 10 Somali men and boys captured in April on a German freighter they allegedly pirated in the Gulf of Aden went on trial in Hamburg and could be imprisoned for 15 years if convicted of piracy. But the patrols have also led pirates simply to move farther out to sea, where so-called mother ships provide them with food and fuel.



Now, this $2.4 million rehabilitation program on Somalia's northern tip has joined the antipiracy fight. Launched last year and due to last three years, it is the brainchild of the Puntland government, the semiautonomous region in the north of Somalia where piracy began.



Sponsored by a Western nonprofit organization that requested that its name not be used, it aims to teach the men skills such as carpentry, construction and how to run a small business through a government vocational school.



Clan elders, government officials and religious leaders have backed the program, using Islam to encourage the young men to abandon a violent quest for easy money that often afforded them drugs, alcohol and women.



"This project's objective is to reduce piracy and get alternative jobs for the youth," said a Somali staff members of the aid group. In an interview, the staff member said past attempts by religious leaders to persuade young men to abandon piracy failed, largely because the leaders couldn't offer the men an alternate life to the illegal trade.



The program is especially important now, given that monsoon rains have passed, leaving calm seas that ease the way for pirates to stalk slower cargo ships in their skiffs.



Other countries have tried similar training groups. Saudi Arabia has a program to reform Islamic militants. Yemen, with U.S. funding, is building a similar center for Yemeni detainees returning from Guantanamo Bay. Two state governments in India are offering Maoist rebels job training and cash in exchange for their weapons. Rwanda also has attempted to rehabilitate Hutu fighters believed involved in the 1994 genocide.



At least 50 Somali pirates in Garowe have graduated from the program and now practice new trades, according to the aid group's Somali program director. Local program heads said six pirates have dropped out of the program and returned to piracy.



On this October morning, the ex-pirates gathered for general lectures, after which they divided into smaller groups for lessons tailored to the skills they want to learn. The room is decorated with antipiracy slogans. One said: "Our society says no piracy!"



Mr. Indhagel, wearing a white turban and a red India-made lunghi, a traditional cloth skirt, said he has been approached often to head out in skiffs seeking victims. When he was part of the pirate prowl, he spent his time chewing qat, a leafy narcotic, sleeping and speeding out to sea in quest of ships to hijack. Last year, he said, he earned $75,000, which he spent on qat, a small home and the ultimate symbol of pirate wealth: a Land Cruiser.



Another former pirate, Omar Abdullahi, entered the program after being picked up by a foreign navy last year and jailed in Puntland, where he said he was beaten and warned he could face the death sentence. He said he paid a bribe to secure his release.



When religious leaders from his clan came to his home eight months ago, Mr. Abdullahi was ready to listen to what them. Since then, he has graduated from the program and joined a local company to do electrical repairs.



"You see, I am not a pirate today, but doing a job that pleases everyone who knows me," said Mr. Abdullahi, as he balances on a pylon and repairs wiring on a Garowe street. "I am actually happy with this life."



Not everyone has managed to resist the lure of the sea. Abdikhalif Abdi, in coffee-colored jeans and a silky black shirt, said he quit the program because he missed being a pirate. In an interview at a cafeteria in the town, the 27-year-old smoked cigarettes and flashed his iPhone, saying he had become too accustomed to piracy's "endless money." "I wanted the rehabilitation and a career," he said. "But piracy drags you back into the sea."

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