HOBYO, Somalia (Reuters) - An extravagant convoy of forty 4x4s and four motorbikes escort a young bride to her nuptials at a sandy beach in the Somali village of Hobyo and are used to light up the twilight celebration.
Her pirate commander groom has no eye patch -- but a sword and knife hanging from his belt do create a swashbuckling effect.
“I am proud to be the leader’s wife,” said Sahra Ali.
Piracy is a big draw for many in the tiny fishing village, awash with ransom cash but lacking running water or power.
The impressive returns and flashy lives of the pirates mean that even children and young women want to jump on the bandwagon, either by joining one of the sea gangs or marrying a well-heeled pirate.
Ali is the envy of local girls, but she is all too aware that one wrong move by her husband means she could be a widow.
“After a week, he will go to the high seas and I am not confident he will return safely,” she said.
So far this year, Somali brigands have hijacked nearly 30 vessels, meaning 2009 could be even worse than last year, when pirates from the Horn of Africa nation seized 42 ships.
Foreign nations have finally taken notice and deployed their navies to the east African coast but even the threat of capture is not deterring some of the pirates or new recruits.
Walking along a sun-drenched beach in Hobyo, two men shake hands to seal a new joint venture deal in piracy.
They hope to combine resources and launch their own piracy outfit once they receive their ransom cut for the Greek-owned MV Ariana their gang is holding.
“This is a done deal. No more consultation,” said 28-year-old Roble in a loud and excited manner. “When I become an investor and I am successful on two or three more attacks, then I will retire, but not now.”
The village of Hobyo is awash with role models for aspiring buccaneers.
Roble said a former colleague retired early and invested his piracy dividends in the business of supplying khat, a mild leafy narcotic well-loved by many Somali men.
Flourishing business ensures he can afford the daily charter flights that deliver the perishable commodity from neighbouring producer Kenya.
“Thanks to him, we get khat everyday,” Roble said.
The trade is lucrative but Roble has written it off as a business idea. Friends tell him that his face was broadcast on television while he was on the Ukrainian ship MV Faina, one of the most high-profile hijackings off Somalia.
“I would like to do the same and join him, but some of my former colleagues scared me. I am very afraid to travel.”
The TV images also make it impossible for him to leave the country for Europe as a refugee. Another pirate forked out $16,000 to be taken to Sweden, he said.
While he wants to leave the dangerous trade after a few more attacks, there are others who will happily take his place.
Abdihafid, 13, dropped out of school, ran away from home and has taken up chewing khat and smoking cigarettes like the many brigands he sees in Hobyo.
“I want to be a commander of a pirate group,” he said. “I know I am far too young, but I will wait until the right time.”
Like many Somalis, Hobyo’s mayor says piracy has been fuelled by illegal fishing and dumping off the anarchic country’s coast.
Somalis say that because they have no navy or coast guard to protect their waters, trawlers from Europe and Asia fish there without permission and foreign ships carrying toxic waste dump their cargoes unchecked.
Although he agrees something needs to be done, Mayor Saed Aden said piracy is not the solution. “We have tried to expel them but we do not have man power or weapons to face them.”
Meanwhile, local girls are finding it hard to resist the monied pirates.
“I don’t want to marry a pirate but time is flying and pushing me to have a pirate boyfriend because he is rich,” said Halima, who at 24 is considered a bit too old to be single.
Writing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Giles Elgood
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