The Victoria, a ship chartered by the World Food Programme, leaves the Kenyan port of Mombasa bound for Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, with French frigate Floreal in its wake.
“Craft to port!” the night watchman shouts as dawn slowly appears. On the Floreal’s sleepy bridge, the officer on watch grabs his binoculars. Two small wood crafts – skiffs – are drifting in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Somali and Yemeni fishermen use those boats. Pirates, too.
The officer on watch changes course and speeds up. “You have to react quickly,” he says.
False alert. The men in the skiffs are fishermen; they start hoisting their fishing nets out of the water at that moment.
The ocean is calm. There isn’t a single boat in sight, except for the Victoria, en route to Somalia and loaded with 4,000 tonnes of food supplies from the United Nations World Food Programme. The Floreal, a French frigate under European command, escorts her down to Mogadishu.
The two ships left Mombasa, one of the oldest ports on the eastern African coast, the night before. The journey should take at least three days: 72 hours spent on the lookout for pirates and ensuring the safety of the Victoria and her crew.
Buccaneers proliferate in the region. In 2008, they attacked 11 ships, commandeered 42 and took 815 sailors hostage, 242 of whom are still in captivity. According to the January 2009 Piracy Reporting Centre report of the International Maritime Bureau, the 2008 figures exceed all those published since the piracy acts were first recorded by the centre in 1991.
Not only did these pirates make over 18 million dollars in turnover between Jan and Oct 2008, they also allegedly recovered three million dollars at the beginning of January in exchange for the Saudi Super Tanker Sirius Star.
With the booty collected over the last year, the pirates have turned themselves into gangsters armed to the teeth. "Automatic machine guns, rocket launchers, GPS, satellite phone and even an Automatic Indentification System [AIS], " says Pit, one of the commandos on board. “Nothing’s too fancy!”
To fight this scourge which cripples one of the most important maritime trade routes in the world, the EU launched an anti-piracy naval operation called the Atalanta in December 2008. The mission currently has four warships - from Britain, France, Germany and Greece - and a single maritime patrol aircraft in the area. The US and other countries are also sending ships.
Waiting for action
From the bridge, Commander Gerald Menut enjoys the 180-degree view. The mission's third day is nearly over and the temperature is in the thirties although it's still early March. Nothing to report since the previous day’s false alert.
The 44-year-old commander gets up, giving his last orders before retiring to his wardroom for dinner. “The mission of escorting is relatively simple,” he says.
Altogether, 95 sailors bustle about the Floreal, alongside an unspecified number of commandos (the exact number is classified information). The buzzing of the machines covers all the various noises, creating a strangely hushed atmosphere. It’s almost too peaceful.
This is the crew’s fourth escort mission in two months. They have only seen pirates once, at the end of January while they were patrolling the Gulf of Aden. Aside from their escort missions, the frigates carry missions of control in some of the most dangerous areas around Somalia.
Approaching the Somali coast, tension rises
On the fourth morning, it’s dead calm. Yet, there’s a certain excitement in the gangways. In a few hours, the ship will be a few miles away from Mogadishu, an extremely dangerous area. Already, the Somalia coastline appears on the horizon. The marksmen position themselves in front of their machine guns. Under the heavy bulletproof jacket, the heat becomes unbearable.
The coast is riddled with pirates. In March last year, they did not hesitate to use a rocket launcher on a US Navy destroyer and on a cruiser.
On the rear deck, the commandos are boarding the zodiacs. They too are armed to the teeth on their way to meet soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) to transfer the responsibility of the Victoria.
The Floreal commander doesn’t know what happens to food supplies once they are unloaded. AMISOM soldiers don’t know either. They watch over the unloading of the supplies but once the WFP trucks are out of the port, it’s not their responsibility anymore.
But the food supplies’ journey is not over yet. Transported across the country, they will be carried across blockades watched by warlords and will risk attacks by looters. In January, two WFP employees were killed, shot between the eyes.
Commander Menut and his crew are heading back for Mombasa. Their mission, at least, is accomplished.