Q&A: Return to Somalia

Kidnappings, pirates and chronic instability, producer Sudia Musa visits Puntland.


The army is trying to ensure stability at sea but more than 120 acts of piracy took place in 2008

Sudia Musa is a British journalist of Somali origin who recently returned to Somalia to film a documentary on piracy for Al Jazeera. She spoke to Fatma Naib. 

Q: As a Somali, how dangerous was it for you to go and film there?

We went to Puntland and it is relatively safe there compared to southern Somalia.

I felt safest in Garowe, the capital of Puntland. The city had constant security patrols in the evenings and the government appears to have a tight control over it.

It definitely helped to be a Somali rather than a foreigner; mostly because I could understand what was going on around me. Our cameraman was Kenyan and wherever we went, people would point out that he was not Somali. People were also questioning whether I was Somali and they would ask about me while I was there, not thinking that I would understand.

Al Jazeera gained exclusive access to pirates based in the Puntland region of Somalia

We had an excellent Somali journalist on the ground as our fixer; he is a popular and well-connected figure.

Since security was of utmost importance, we had guards with us at all times.

The size of our convoy would vary depending on how dangerous the place was.

In terms of travelling to Somalia it is vital to have proper planning, knowledge and contacts for any region you are visiting.

Somali society is based along clan lines, and one has to be careful in navigating them. 

What difficulties did you encounter – expected and unexpected?

Eyl, the pirates’ haven, is the place that made me feel the least safe but also relatively in awe of the entire experience. It could easily serve as a location for a pirate film and clearly fit the requirements for a pirates’ hideout.

It is a very remote town in rocky terrain without proper roads and the best exit route is by sea. 

Wherever we went – because of the size of our convoy with the security guards, contributors and contacts – we attracted crowds. And any crowded situation in Somalia is not safe because you don’t know what to expect.

We were carrying heavy and valuable equipment with us and that could easily make us a target. You stay on high alert at all times because kidnappings are quite common.

What was your initial reaction to the pirates when you met them?

A bit incredulous, because they were so willing to speak to us without hiding their faces. And they are skinny Somali men that at first glance don’t appear to have the strength to carry out such missions.

What struck me as very odd was the self-righteous attitude towards the issue of piracy. Most of the pirates we met saw no fault in their actions and I found that hard to grasp. 

As a female journalist, did you encounter any challenges working on this story?

It was difficult being the only female travelling with several men, especially in a conservative society. I attracted attention wherever I went because of my status as the only female around. The conservative dress code was also tough, as I wore an abaya and veil throughout the entire shoot.

In depth

 The pirate kings of Puntland 
Q&A: Return to Somalia
 Q&A: Piracy in the Gulf of Aden
Timeline: Somalia

Life inside the den of Somalia’s pirates
 Lucrative raids lure Somali youth
 Meet the pirates

Filming in hot climates and wearing so many layers of clothes was a physical challenge for me. It was unusual for me to be constantly conscious of how I looked, careful not to cause offence. Fixing my scarf, holding the tripod and making sure not to trip over the abaya made the whole experience a bit tougher than usual.

Another challenge was being constantly ignored. Instead of addressing me directly people would address me through Mohammed Adow, the Al Jazeera correspondent I was filming with.

I understood the cultural issues and was relatively amused by it all. Over there it is unusual for a woman to be out with a group of men who are not related to her. My situation was difficult for many to comprehend and those who questioned whether I was Somali were often silenced when I answered them in their own language.

Oddly, the few females I interacted with were quite scathing and would not allow me to photograph them.

Having travelled to the heart of Somali piracy, what would you take away from this trip and what changes have you noticed in Somalia?

The country has become far more conservative since I was last there several years ago. Somalis have always been devout Muslims but I noticed a significant rise in conservatism that is not associated with Somali culture. It was surprising to see so many women covering their faces in the port town of Bosaso. 

Increasing numbers of Somali women are wearing veils that cover their faces

Despite the challenge, this trip allowed me to see areas of Somalia that I’d never seen before.

Visiting a remote village gave me my first glimpse of Somali nomadic life.

My father grew up as a nomad, herding goats and camels. He used to tell me about life in the country; the difficulties of having only one meal a day, of limited access to water and no schooling.

For the first time I was able to put an image to all the colourful stories he would tell about his childhood. On a personal level that experience was priceless.

But I think the main thing I will take away from visiting Somalia is the sense of hopelessness felt by the people. There is a fatalistic attitude, many feel they have nothing to lose and that is dangerous.

How interested were you in the piracy story and why?

I first became interested in the story about a year ago when it had not yet become headline news but at that time I recall security being an issue.

Within months the story started to gather momentum and piracy became a topic readily associated with Somalia.

As more stories emerged about crazy hijackings, I became increasingly fascinated with the issue of piracy.

I found it interesting that the media was so fascinated by Somali piracy but was not addressing the real issues on the ground – two decades of chronic instability.

The child in me was attracted to the whole pirate fantasy – walking the plank, men with hooks for hands and parrots on their shoulders.

When the opportunity came along to head out in search of pirates, I ran with it and joined our reporter Mohammed Adow in Somalia.

Pirates Haven, an exclusive film from Puntland, can be seen on Al Jazeera from Wednesday June 17 at the following times GMT: Wednesday 1430; Thursday 0630 and 2330; Friday 1630; Saturday 1930; Sunday 0030 and 1130; Monday 0300; Tuesday 1230

Source: Al Jazeera

More from News
Most Read