Since the early 2000s, pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have hijacked hundreds of ships and held thousands of crew members hostage for ransom. According to National Public Radio, in 2012 a journalist covering a story on a pirate gang jailed in Somalia was captured on dry land by pirates and held captive for more and two-and-a-half years.
The man is a citizen of both the United States and of Germany and although he covered a trial of pirates in Berlin, he decided to travel to Somalia to explore the world of pirates there. Despite taking precautions while traveling, he was seized and held hostage and often moved around frequently. The following story highlights some of what he went through, including trying to escape, contemplating suicide, forgiving his captors and eventually being freed.
Traveling to Somalia
In early 2012, journalist Michael Scott Moore traveled to Somalia to write about a pirate gang jailed in Hamburg. The gang had been captured two years prior when they attempted to hijack the MV Taipan, a German cargo ship near Somalia. Moore had reported on the case for a publication called Spiegel Online, headquartered in Berlin, and he contemplated the idea of writing a book about the jailed Somalis.
Moore traveled with Ashwin Raman, an Indian-born filmmaker whose previous documentaries on Somalia had won several awards. After 10 days there, the duo had almost finished their work, although Moore had to some work to complete and Raman had nothing to do and wanted to leave early. Moore explained to The Guardian that it was against his gut instinct to let Raman leave since they agreed to do everything together, and because it might not be safe for him to hide in the hotel by himself. Yet, Raman left anyway.
Moore decided to accompany Raman to the airport and then head back to his hotel. Since the road to the airport could be dangerous, the men spoke with Mohammed Sahal Gerlach, a Somali elder, prior to their trip to provide them with security. Gerlach came recommended after he successfully guided a German TV correspondent through the same region about eight months prior to their trip. Gerlach assured the men that they would be safe and that his friend, the regional president, would send them a personal car.
A Somali gunman wound up riding with them and the driver to the airport but once they got there, they had to wait for the terminal to open. As they sat around having tea, one of Gerlach’s friends, Yassin, happened to mention Moore’s name and a young Somali man glanced over from a table nearby. “You are Michael Scott Moore?” the man asked.
He told Moore that he saw him on the Internet and that he was “famous.” At that moment, Moore knew his cover had been blown. After he saw Raman off, he began the trip back to his hotel and as they were driving, a truck approached with a cannon aimed at their windshield. A dozen men jumped off, swarmed to Moore’s side of the car, began firing rounds into the air and tried to open his door. …
Right Before Capture
… Moore held it shut but they cracked his wrist with their rifles, pulled him out, and beat him on the head. Gerlach was also beaten, although not kidnapped. The gunman in the passenger seat didn’t fired a single shot. As Moore tried to wrap his head around what happened, he felt a “reflexive horror” for his family about the burden that he was about to become.
Moore was taken to an outdoor camp where the pirates blindfolded him and led him to a foam mattress. Although he was dazed and bloodied, he saw other Somali gunmen and other hostages. “I saw very little. Without my glasses, I am drastically nearsighted, and I spent my entire captivity, more than two and a half years, in a fuzzy state of near-blindness,” he explained to The Guardian.
For the next several months, Moore ate bread, a can of tuna, occasional cooked pasta or rice, and water — a diet that caused him to lose 40 pounds. It became clear that Gerlach’s relatives had turned on him when one month after his capture, the guards hauled him in a Land Rover to a remote location to meet the pirate kingpin, Mohamed Garfanje. The person who Moore met handed him a phone, with an American translator on the other line.
$20 Million Ransom
The translator/negotiator told him, “The man who just handed you the phone is Mohamed Garfanje.” The negotiator’s voice was sane and strong and after a brief conversation, he connected Moore with his mother in California. He recalled that hearing her voice after so long felt like music to his ears, but the call took a sour turn when he learned that the pirates wanted $20 million as ransom.
Two-and-a-Half Years in Captivity
His mother didn’t have that kind of money and he wound up spending two-and-a-half years in captivity. At times he was on land and other times at sea. One time he was even on a 160-foot tuna boat and he tried to escape over the side at night. Moore knew the boat he was on wasn’t in great shape so he figured the pirates wouldn’t be able to turn around once they realized he was missing.
Plans to Jump Ship
Hoping the pirates would leave him behind in the water, he realized he had nowhere else to go. Moore made the decision to get back on board and eventually, the pirates found him using searchlights. “By that point, everything was pretty desperate and pretty hopeless,” Moore explained during a podcast called Fresh Air. As time passed, his mother wound up being the negotiator on the phone with the pirates, since her number was the only one he remembered.
Teaching Yoga at a Prison
His mother was visited by the FBI and she was informed of what was going on with her son. Once Moore realized that he was going to be held in captivity for a while, he asked for a yoga mat. “I tried to do it out of eyesight of the pirates, because I figured it would just sort of baffle them or make them laugh, and that’s exactly what it did,” he said. But after some time, they would come with sort of cardboard flats, makeshift yoga mats and started to do the same postures.
Life and Death
He basically held his own yoga class and he eventually started to correct their postures. During his time in captivity, he thought about life a lot and also death. Moore’s father died when he was 12 and it wasn’t until later that he learned it was by suicide. The fact that his father shot himself was on his mind a lot while he was in Somalia. He found himself in a situation where he may have to make a similar decision.
The idea always struck him, especially due to the fact that he was surrounded by weapons all the time. He often wondered if he should steal one of the guns from the pirates and escape that way, but he realized that he would quickly be shot dead by guards. There were always guards surrounding him, a minimum of seven of them at all times. For a while, Moore felt he had to make a daily decision to stay alive.
Suicide Might Solve Everything
It became especially difficult for him knowing that his mother was going through a crisis at home as she was suffering to come up with the ransom money. There were also military plans in place and Moore knew that somebody somewhere might actually risk their life to come and get him. “And I thought well, suicide could solve all that. You know it could end the problem at home and save any SEALs the incredible risk of trying to come get me. All these things went through my head,” he said.
Deciding Against Suicide
“At some point, I made a conscious decision to forgive my guards, to forgive the most immediate people that were causing me pain. This was an incredible mental transformation,” he said. Once he reordered his brain in that way, he no longer had that impulse to kill himself. It was a daily discipline and a daily practice of reminding himself, but it seemed to work.
Negotiating the Ransom
“And it was also a good thing that I had pen and paper at that time so I could write and I could distract myself, but that mental orientation was absolutely crucial,” he said. Little did Moore know that after two and a half years, his mother had negotiated his $20 million ransom down to $1.6 million, and she eventually raised enough money to free her son.
It all happened very suddenly and Moore didn’t actually know what was going on. He also didn’t believe that he was about to go free, even though the pirates kept telling him that he would be. They had told him many times before, so after months and then years of hearing it, he stopped believing them. But one day a car arrived in the afternoon, which was slightly unusual.
“Michael, we’re going to take you to the airport,” a man said. While he didn’t believe it, he packed his things and sure enough once he got in the car, he was told that he wasn’t going to be taken to the airport. Instead, the men told Moore they were going to drive him into the bush and hand him over to some other Somalis. “I thought, fantastic. You just sold me to another gang … So I was angry again.”
But this time, Moore wasn’t being packed in a car with a bunch of other men holding their rifles. There were only a couple of English speaking translators. He was handed to another Somali who got his mother on the phone and the negotiator said, “Michael you’re going to the airport and your pilot’s name is going to be Derek.” While he didn’t immediately feel free, Moore explained that it was a progressive process. “It was one step at a time, towards not feeling quite so oppressed,” he said. Moore detailed his experience in his memoir, The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive On The Somali Pirate Coast.