SPOILER ALERT: This story reveals key plot elements of Captain Phillips. But it’s good and important and relevant, so you should read it anyway.
Less than 23 seconds into the Captain Phillips movie trailer and bullets are flying as emaciated Somali men in torn clothing toting machine guns storm the bridge of the Maersk Alabama. The men thrust their guns at Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, and his crew. After an adrenaline-inducing chaos of screams and gunshots as both sides fight for survival, the viewer can’t help but walk away from the trailer terrified of the Somalis.
Captain Phillips, in theaters this Friday, is Hollywood’s version of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama container ship where Massachusetts native Capt. Richard Phillips was taken hostage by pirates for five days before being rescued after Navy Seals killed all but one of the captors. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but also Hollywood propaganda at its best.
What you won’t see in the movie trailer and what the mainstream media tends to ignore is why Somali piracy started in the first place: foreign companies are illegally over-fishing Somali waters and dumping large quantities of nuclear and hazardous waste off of Somalia’s coast.
This is by no means a justification of violent piracy, but the pirates may have some justice on their side.
When the government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, the waters off of Somalia’s 2,000 miles of coastline, the longest of mainland Africa, became a free-for-all for foreign companies seeking to save millions by dumping nuclear waste with no accountability, and for fishing companies illegally trolling the waters for tens of thousands of tons of illegal catch each year.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the toxic waste has caused the population to suffer “acute respiratory infections, dry heavy coughing and mouth bleeding, abdominal hemorrhages, unusual skin chemical reactions, and sudden death after inhaling toxic materials.” And an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year. The illegal fishing by foreign companies robs an already starving nation a vital protein source and costs legitimate fisherman their livelihoods.
After begging the international community to take action to no avail, Somali fishermen say they had no choice and took up arms and speedboats to head out to try to dissuade the dumpers and illegal fishing boats, or to at least wage a “tax” on them by holding them for ransom. They call themselves the Volunteer Coast Guard of Somalia, and one poll shows they have the support of more than 70 percent of their nation.
“What they would do initially is whatever ships they thought were suspicious of crossing illegally into Somali waters, they would hijack them and hold them for ransom,” Somali rapper and activist K’Naan said in a YouTube interview. “Most Somalis will tell you they can’t readily condemn pirates. Nobody was there to protect them and the fishermen who was there would complain time and time again. It got to the United Nations Security Council and was ignored and thrown out. It was months after that that who we are now calling pirates, these men mobilized themselves, these fishermen got street militias from the streets and brought them on board into the ocean to protect the Somali waters.”
The 2004 tsunami unearthed physical evidence of the crimes as dozens of the once-buried barrels of toxic and nuclear waste washed onto Somalia’s shores, sickening residents with respiratory infections and even death.
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According to a UNEP report on Somalia, “the hazardous waste dumped along Somalia’s coast comprised uranium radioactive waste, lead, cadmium, mercury, industrial, hospital, chemical, leather treatment and other toxic waste. Most of the waste was simply dumped on the beaches in containers and disposable leaking barrels which ranged from small to big tanks without regard to the health of the local population and any environmentally devastating impacts.”
NATO forces, as well as those from other countries, such as Russia, India and China, continue to police Somalia’s coastline for pirates. Somali elders have reportedly asked for NATO assistance in combating the illegal fishing and dumping, but were told there was no mandate for that.
According to NATO, in 2011, 147 merchant vessels were attacked and 22 were pirated. So far in 2013, just two ships have been attacked with none successfully pirated. While the number of attacks is at an all-time low, the illegal dumping and fishing continues and many criticize the foreign naval presence for the failure to control it.
“The UN and the EU, the US, NATO, all of them are sending naval forces to the Somali shores, to our region, so that they may defeat pirates, but nobody’s talking about those ships that are dumping nuclear toxic waste on our shores because they are still doing it,” says K’Naan, who has a song, ‘Somalia,’ written specifically about the plight of the pirates. “If you want the piracy to stop, stop dumping nuclear toxic waste in our country, it’s a much more heinous and sinister crime than piracy could ever be.”
We must continue to question Hollywood and the West’s narrative toward the Somali Pirates, and all events of history for that matter. As the Internet continues to crumble decades of mainstream media propaganda, all it takes is a little Googling for one to uncover both sides of the story. In this case, we must ask, had it not been for the toxic actions of the Western world, would the Somali pirates even exist ?
RYOT NOTE: We here at RYOT love covering the dark, underreported sides of stories in order to bring you perspective. A big shout out to Amber Lyon for telling the untold story about the genesis of Somali Pirates. We also enjoy providing you with effective, relevant ways to take action. Somali Fair Fishing is dedicated to creating a sustainable fishing industry in Somaliland that benefits the entire population rather than just rich, overseas corporations. Click on the gray box alongside this story to learn more, donate and Become the News!