Among the Somali Pirates: Codes of Conduct, Life on Land

Unprecedented access to pirates in war-ravaged, poverty-stricken Somalia.

ByABC News
April 17, 2009, 9:21 AM

April 17, 2009— -- With rusted AK-47 rifles slung across their backs, the emaciated, barefoot pirates cruise the vast waters off the coast of Puntland, Somalia, into the Gulf of Aden in decayed motorboats, like sharks hunting their next meal.

These small bands have captivated the world's recent headlines and news cycles, with at least 79 attacks on boats in the past year, collecting an estimated $150 million in ransom money.

Today there's joy and anticipation for the family of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips. He's headed home to Vermont after being held hostage for five days by the Somali pirates.

These men, some teenagers, have managed to hold the world's most powerful navies at bay in a sophisticated operation far surpassing the outward, antique appearance of their tools.

They have also made one of the most essential shipping lanes in the region arguably the most dangerous route of passage on Earth.

Little is known about the pirates of Somalia, except that any ship worth a ransom seems to be fair game. In November, pirates hijacked the Saudi-owned Sirius Star, a super tanker three times the size of an aircraft carrier. They attacked the relatively small French luxury yacht, Le Ponant, with a crew of 30, last April. The pirates hold more than 280 sailors captive on an esitmated 15 ships. One thing is certain, as seen this past week with the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, these pirates aren't intimidated by a naval battle cruiser, and their actions can lead to deadly consequences.

To try to understand who these pirates are, why they started, and what motivates them, Finnish documentarian John Hakalax, along with cameraman Jussi Arhimaki, gained unprecedented access into the war and poverty-ravaged Somalia. With limited ability to get into the country, Arhimaki traveled alone deep into the dragon's den, to meet these pirates face to face.

"I made this documentary because I'm interested in people," Hakalax said in an interview with ABC News. "When I heard we had the possibility to do a documentary on the pirates of Somalia, I was curious what kind of people they are."

With the protection of a childhood friend and guide, a Finnish-Somalian with family connections to the pirates, and guarded daily by a small army of hired guns, Arhimaki was well aware of the danger involved.

"You have to have proper security, otherwise you will be in the back of a truck quite fast." Arhimaki said. "You really don't want to go anywhere without proper protection."

In a country where white men with expensive cameras symbolize money, Arhimaki traveled through the Puntland region with an especially big target on his back. The danger was not only the pirates he was going to meet, but the warlords, gun runners and even the military manning checkpoints on the roads.

"At the checkpoints, you never really knew, are these honest soldiers? Or is somebody else paying them, or are you their payday? There's always the constant threat to get shot at," he said. "You can hear gunfire going off daily."

Even his friend was approached at times with a scary request.

"I was probably the only white guy for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers," Arhimaki said. "People were all the time asking my friend, 'Can you keep that white guy for us? We want to kidnap him.' In a poor country, I'm referred to as money."