Somalia’s ‘pirate capital’ is its best kept secret

Until recently, the only foreigners who came here were ransom negotiators. But it could be a tourist paradise.

Those who have been here call it the Cape Town of Somalia.

The sun shines every morning, giving a gentle tan to any exposed part of the body.

The crystal stream that runs through it flows all year long, its banks turning lush. The blooming flowers attract butterflies of many types. Wild pigeons nest on the nearby trees.

A brown and sun-baked sandy road snakes around the countless bends of the town’s rolling hills, acting as a natural fence and giving panoramic views of this sleepy, hidden place.

Its remaining residents stand tall, slim and dark with pearly white teeth.

This is Eyl, the real Eyl.

To Hollywood movie afficianados it is a no-go town made notorious by the blockbuster Captain Phillips. But the reality of Eyl couldn’t be further from the scenes portrayed in the film.

Call it Somalia’s best kept secret.

Before piracy took hold, fishing was the main source of income in Eyl [Hamza Mohamed / Al Jazeera]
Before piracy took hold, fishing was the main source of income in Eyl [Hamza Mohamed / Al Jazeera]

It is early morning and a man with a greying hairline and sharp eyebrows welcomes us to a sparsely-furnished office near an old fort that used to house Somalia’s anti-imperialist hero, Sayyid Abdulle Hassan.

Muse Osman is the mayor. This soft-spoken man, in the job for four years, is on a charm offensive and is trying to sell his town to anyone who will listen.

Since the collapse of the central government some 24 years ago no one has been murdered here, he reminds us, reassuring that we are now in “one of the safest places on God’s earth.”

Dressed in a loose-fitting cotton shirt and macawiis – or sarong – there is no security team following him around, no kalashnikov or pistol in sight as if to hammer home his argument that we are safe.

“How do you tell the world or even your fellow Somalis that Eyl is safe, and that they should visit his town?” I ask.

The answer is quick and abrupt: “By telling the truth. If every journalist who visited us told the world the truth about our town, today we would have been flooded with tourists.”

“The last ship to be hijacked anywhere near Eyl was in 2009. Five years ago. We have moved away from that.”

Eyl is referred to, by many, as the Cape Town of Somalia [Hamza Mohamed / Al Jazeera]
Eyl is referred to, by many, as the Cape Town of Somalia [Hamza Mohamed / Al Jazeera]

The town’s population is mainly made up of women, children and old men. I ask where the men are.

A deep breath and then comes the reply: “People here used to live off the sea. But they (illegal fishing trawlers) have wiped the ocean floor of any living thing.”

To provide for their families they have been forced to move away, he tells us.

But on the days we were there, we saw what appeared to be fishing vessels in the distance.

Better-informed locals told us the vessels were at “bazooka-striking distance” but anyone who lifts an arm here is labelled a pirate and hauled off to a prison abroad never to be seen or heard from again.

Millions of dollars used to pass through this town thanks to ransom payments. Inflation rocketed and has never really recovered. Mainly small-scale fishermen, the locals are struggling. Long after the pirates have gone the effects of their illicit trade still haunts residents here.

Sun-seeking tourists are the mayor’s best bet but it will take some convincing before they venture this far and deep into Somalia.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera