Going Local and Diving Deep for Perspective
For a few years beginning in 2007, the world was captivated by news headlines about Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Riding in powerboats and brandishing AK-47s and other weapons, the ragged outlaws intercepted foreign vessels, took their crews hostage and demanded six- and seven-figure ransoms for their release.
To the distant public in Europe and North America, the pirates were modern-day Long John Silvers. To others, they were anarchistic threats to global commerce that had to be stopped. To Awet Weldemichael, an associate professor and Queen’s National Scholar in the Department of History, piracy was a chance to reveal the truth about a desperate people – and rediscover something about himself.
Born in 1976 in war-ravaged Eritrea, the young Weldemichael grew up with his family in a Sudanese refugee camp. There was no running water, telephone or electricity. Its impoverished residents eked out a living farming and doing whatever they could to put food on the table. Weldemichael’s father, a deacon and grassroots activist, helped found a school in the camp.
After the war ended, the family returned to Eritrea, where the teenage Weldemichael prepared to enter university. Then came the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which hordes of murderous ethnic fanatics slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis within weeks. One night, Weldemichael and his sister saw TV footage of an infant Rwandan refugee crawling on the ground. His sister remarked that he had looked exactly like that when their family had fled Eritrea years before.
That moment sparked a burning desire in Weldemichael to learn more about his own origins and the plight of his troubled country. Initially, he’d planned to study law; instead, he travelled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to study history. After three years, war broke out and he was deported back to Eritrea. He was later accepted to UCLA, where he completed a Master’s degree in African studies and a PhD in history. His doctoral thesis was a comparative analysis of the difficult, often violent, birth of Eritrea and East Timor to independence.
Much of what he learned at UCLA resonated on a deeply personal level. “It let me dig as deep as I possibly could to get an appreciation of the circumstances in which I grew up,” he says.
Stints at other universities in the US, Italy, Germany and France followed. Weldemichael was in Europe when Somali piracy escalated, as did its coverage. Having studied other poverty-driven conflicts, he knew the mainstream media were presenting a superficial, skewed picture of what was actually happening on the ground. So he travelled to Somalia to investigate.
Through his in-depth interviews in Somali coastal villages and towns, he learned that, initially, the “pirates” were artisanal fishermen who were simply trying to defend their traditional fishing grounds from foreign fishing vessels, which had destroyed their nets and traps and brazenly snapped up most of the catch the fishermen and their families relied on. To fight back, the fishermen took to boarding the intruding ships and trying their crews in ad-hoc village courts. The crews would be fined and the vigilantes, court and community split the proceeds.
Soon, however, the ship owners realized it was cheaper to pay the vigilantes up front to let the crews go, as it enabled the owners to avoid legal hassles and expensive delays. Not surprisingly, local crime lords quickly recognized piracy was a lucrative opportunity. The raiding and ransoms increased in scale, and once-peaceful seaside villages became overrun by ruthless thugs from Somalia and elsewhere who, says Weldemichael, “became a law unto themselves.”
The international naval backlash to safeguard shipping in the Gulf was swift but failed to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Vigilantes, innocent fishermen and villagers were crushed. While Weldemichael does not endorse piracy, he says “the solutions targeted the symptoms, not the roots of the problem.”
At Queen’s, where he arrived in 2014, he is continuing his piracy research, albeit slowly, from afar. It is slow, frustrating work, but Weldemichael remains hopeful that his work will help the still-troubled Somali coastal communities “to find a lasting, sustainable solution from within, supported from without.”
(e)AFFECT Issue 10 Fall/Winter 2016