My life as a Somali pirate hostage
In late 2008, Daily Telegraph correspondent Colin Freeman travelled to Somalia to investigate a spate of piracy attacks that were terrorising shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Along with a Spanish photographer, Jose Cendon, his aim was to track down some of the pirates and secure an exclusive interview.
But the pair were double crossed by their body guards and what followed was a nightmare 40 days in captivity. They were forced to march into the desolate hills they were held in a succession of caves by a gang of armed men, all paranoically high on the amphetamine-like local plant, khat. The gang’s hideout was attacked by rival pirates, Freeman was subjected to a mock execution by one of his captors, and was haunted by the constant lingering fear of being handed over to Islamists who would undoubtedly execute him.
On 5 July, Frontline Club will host a discussion with Freeman, who is now chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph. He will be discussing his experiences in Somalia, and talking about his new book Kidnapped: Life as a Somali pirate hostage with award winning journalist and filmmaker Inigo Gilmore.
Here we publish a short extract from Freeman’s book — a compelling account of one of his many days held captive in a dark cave somewhere on a mountain range of northern Somalia…
The cave must stretch about a hundred yards into the mountain. Its mouth, which catches the sun from mid-morning to late afternoon, is as wide as a house, while its innards taper into a narrow passageway that plunges downwards into pitch darkness – a meandering, cobwebbed tunnel that grows danker and gloomier with every step.
A few days ago, on a particularly idle afternoon, the man we call the Old Bastard and some of the other guards went exploring; they must be the only potholing team in the world to carry AK47s, but no helmets or ropes. They found an exit on the far side of the mountain and walked back up the valley, triumphant, hours later. I did not share their excitement. I’d hoped never to see them again.
Forgive my malice. Plotting unpleasant ends for my captors is one of the few ways to pass the time in this grim place, where every minute seems like an hour – except for those when I’m savouring one of my precious cigarettes. Since the Old Bastard began threatening me a few days ago, I’ve had him bitten by a poisonous scorpion, struck by lightning, murdered by his own men, and eaten alive by the baboon pack down in the valley. If a rescue mission was to shoot him dead, that would be good too.
Sadly, I don’t believe that armed rescue missions are on the agenda. We are being held in a mountain range on the pirate coast of northern Somalia, stashed away like buried treasure, but without the map where “X” marks the spot. Northern Somalia is one of the remotest, emptiest places on the planet. I’ve barely seen a village, road or other human landmark since the day we were kidnapped.
Besides, even if someone did know where we were, I don’t fancy the prospect of another shoot-out in the cave. As we learnt last week, solid stone walls are terribly prone to ricochets.
My stomach is feeling queasy. Probably the result of last night’s goat stew, or possibly our drinking water, which comes out of an old diesel can. Caveman’s Belly is one of the drawbacks of modern Stone Age life, not something they ever mentioned in The Flintstones. I can’t understand how they could have left it out: with so little else to do, answering the call of nature is one of the big events of the day around here.
So, the drill: first I grab my shoes, checking for spiders, scorpions or other poisonous vermin that might have climbed in. Then, stand up, with care. Lying on a thin mattress all day, you often get dizzy when you first get to your feet. Now, off to the bathroom, or at least the spot at the back of the cave that is reserved for that kind of thing. Thankfully, we still have a few tissues. The gang has told us that we will soon have to start using sticks and rocks.
On the way back, I pause halfway down the tunnel, where a section of the rock wall runs flat and smooth. If I were a caveman living here thousands of years ago, this is where I’d paint a picture of my clan out hunting an antelope. I pick up a shard of rock. I too am going to leave my mark here, something more permanent than a few cigarette butts. What shall I draw? A matchstick-men version of the kidnappers, with José and me as the quarry? Sadly, that will take a while, and if I linger here, the gang will think I have tried to flee down the pothole. Instead, I settle for some bog-standard graffiti: “CF was here, 18/12/2008”.
I stagger back to the mattress, and tell José what I have done.
A good move: we manage to squeeze at least 10 minutes’ worth of conversation out of it. This is the longest we’ve talked for a while.
Perhaps some archaeologist will discover my scrawl here in thousands of years’ time, I say. Or perhaps some other poor hostages will be dragged up here in years to come, and add their name to mine. Or, maybe, in 10 or 20 years’ time, if Somalia becomes a safe place to visit again, I will be able to come back, hire someone to help me find this cave, and see it for myself.
If I ever get free, that is.
Reproduced by kind permission of Colin Freeman and Monday Books.