Comedians have been having fun this week with the idea of old-fashioned piracy re-emerging on the Somali coast (enough of the Johnny Depp jokes). But Associated Press reporter Mohamad Olan Hassan filed a story with a strangely cheering tone for how Somali pirates can take their ill-gotten gains and "transform villages into boomtowns." You have to read it to believe it:
MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women — even hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food for their hostages.
And in an impoverished country where every public institution has crumbled, they have become heroes in the steamy coastal dens they operate from because they are the only real business in town.
"The pirates depend on us, and we benefit from them," said Sahra Sheik Dahir, a shop owner in Haradhere, the nearest village to where a hijacked Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100 million in crude was anchored Wednesday.
These boomtowns are all the more shocking in light of Somalia's violence and poverty: Radical Islamists control most of the country's south, meting out lashings and stonings for accused criminals. There has been no effective central government in nearly 20 years, plunging this arid African country into chaos.
Life expectancy is just 46 years; a quarter of children die before they reach 5.
But in northern coastal towns like Haradhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the pirate economy is thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms that have reached $30 million this year alone.
In Haradhere, residents came out in droves to celebrate as the looming oil ship came into focus this week off the country's lawless coast. Businessmen started gathering cigarettes, food and cold glass bottles of orange soda, setting up small kiosks for the pirates who come to shore to re-supply almost daily.
Dahir said she is so confident in the pirates, she instituted a layaway plan just for them.
"They always take things without paying and we put them into the book of debts," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Later, when they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot."
Mr. Hassan continues in a tone which makes you think AP is playing some kind of Onion-style prank. For example, the pirates treat their hostages well:
The attackers generally treat their hostages well in anticipation of a big payday, hiring caterers on shore to cook spaghetti, grilled fish and roasted meat that will appeal to a Western palate. They also keep a steady supply of cigarettes and drinks from the shops on shore.
And when the payday comes, the money sometimes literally falls from the sky.
Pirates say the ransom arrives in burlap sacks, sometimes dropped from buzzing helicopters, or in waterproof suitcases loaded onto tiny skiffs in the roiling, shark-infested sea.
It makes you wonder if this isn't a news story so much as a movie script with one of those Hollywood-endearing themes about robbing the fat and happy Western imperialists who ought to be sharing more of their stuff, like an African version of Robin Hood.