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Translator's Tales

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2010

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series. Part one was published on Aug. 1.

"Ready! Aim! .... FIRE!""

The crackle of gunshots ripped through the air, and small spouts of water exploded on the horizon as the machine gun's artillery skipped along the surface.

We were being given a demonstration of the Norwegian Battleship HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen's 12.7 mm heavy machine guns, used if necessary to ward off attacks from Somali pirates. It was a pretty impressive display; so impressive, actually, that it frazzled our cameraman Radwan to the point that he was too scared to even film it. This resulted in exasperated cries from Sahal, the RTD Djiboutian journalist: "WHY aren't you filming!? Next time, I'm throwing you over the boat!"

The day had barely started, and already our press conference on Operation Atlanta, the European's anti-piracy naval force, was off to an exciting start. I, along with the Djiboutian media team I was translating for, had just finished an hour-long press meeting with the ship's commanders, where they briefed us on the history, strategy and successes of the operation's efforts. After the heart-pumping machine-gun demonstration, we were then guided around the ship, being shown the cramped holding cells where they would place pirates upon apprehending them.

A two-sided coin

The issue of Somali piracy creates mixed feelings in Djibouti. Discussions with my Djiboutian friends and colleagues revealed that many Djiboutians understand the potential threat the pirates have on their country. As Djibouti's industry relies heavily on its port, the country would receive a major economic blow if the shipping industry began abandoning the Red Sea for other routes.

However, my students pointed out another side to the coin. Somalia, Djibouti's neighbor, is an extremely poor country, and piracy has brought a rather appreciated economic boost to a nation long lacking a steady flow of income. The pirates' prolific spending creates work in Somalia for everyone from construction workers and ship builders, to cooks and businessmen. In addition, surrounding regions like Kenya have reported better numbers on their fishing catches since piracy has surged. In short: piracy has actually shown measurable benefits to the people of this region.

A different demeanor

After lunchtime, we were treated to military exercises where special forces officers would zip by on small speedboats at full speed, apparently demonstrating their supposed superiority against the pirates' rudimentary skiffs. Each time a boat sped by, the ship's captain, Morten Sandquist, a very stately and proud man (in a way only a ship captain could be) would chuckle and proclaim, "Well, boys will be boys". Sandquist also liked to begin discussions with, "Well, for myself, as a warrior..."

In fact we were treated like royalty the entire day, somewhat oddly actually. As an American, I'm used to the armed forces carrying themselves with the sternly paranoiac air that suggests that even the mailman could attack you at a moment's notice. So you can imagine my surprise when, while on board the Fridtjof Nansen, I observed officers walking the halls in shorts and flip-flops who practically jumped out of their uniforms to answer our questions. At one point, the Deputy Chief of Operations, Major Marten Granberg, was literally apologizing that he couldn't answer some of our questions, and promptly invited our whole Djiboutian team to Atlanta's headquarters in Middlsex, England, for an interview with their directors. I was blown away. Imagine receiving open invitations to the Pentagon for face-to-face meetings with Robert Gates. You're right, it wouldn't happen.

Is there a solution?

It does appear that Operation Atlanta has been making an impact. Since its launch in 2008, there have been zero attacks on ships carrying supplies from the World Food Program. Additionally, there has been some modest success in helping free other captured vessels. However, piracy has become such an ingrained industry here that a true solution will require more than just a naval presence; it's going to require enough stability and job creation in Somalia that their people have other means to make a living besides stealing ships.

As the press conference drew to a close, we realized that we needed to head back to shore after the ship had been at sea all day. We then descended down a 40-foot rope-ladder off the ship's side to a speedboat where we were then transported to an 85-foot sailboat that took us on a luxurious cruise back to Djibouti. Additionally - and quite fashionably I may add - we were escorted the whole way back by Norwegian special forces due to our being in "risky waters". As I reclined on the bow of the boat and gazed out at the orange sun setting over the Red Sea, I marveled at how, when it comes to Djibouti, there is never a typical day at the office.



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