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Taste of freedom
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 08 - 2009

Doaa El-Bey looks at the lessons to be learned from the release of 34 Egyptian fishermen held hostage for four months off the coast of Somalia
Four months after they were captured by Somali pirates 34 Egyptian fishermen are expected to arrive in Suez this evening, or tomorrow at the latest. Their ordeal, which began in April, ended when they managed to overpower their captors. They are sailing home in their own vessels, with eight of their captors held in the boats' refrigerated holds.
Conflicting versions of the events leading up to the sailors' release have appeared in the press. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said Egyptian and Yemeni officials had already drawn up a secret plan for their release, while Ahmed Rizk, assistant secretary for consular and expatriate affairs, said the release came after the ministry contacted the owner of the vessels, but provided no further details beyond that "our embassy in Sanaa, consulate in Aden and embassy in Djibouti are closely monitoring their progress".
One press report suggested Egyptian security agents played a key role in the operation, convincing the pirates that a ransom was about to be made paid. One of the pirates who managed to escape and was contacted by news agencies said that the fishermen had fought their kidnappers with machetes, tools and some of the pirates' own guns, killing two of their captors.
Whatever the circumstances of the fishermen's release, the incident has thrown light on the circumstances that made them undertake such a hazardous journey in the first place. The 34 fishermen who sailed to the Yemeni and Somali coasts to fish came from Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate, where 20,000 families depend on fishing for their income. Traditionally they plied the waters of Lake Borollos, rather than the high seas. But, says Ahmed El-Gazayerli, head of the Fish Stocks Committee in Borollos province, fish stocks in the lake have been severely depleted by incompetent management practices.
"Although the lake was declared a natural protectorate in 1998 it has suffered from over fishing as well as from the detrimental impact of unlicensed fish farms," El-Gazayerli told Al-Ahram Weekly. Now the fish stocks are insufficient to support the families that depend on them for their livelihoods.
"The government should care more for its citizens and provide them with much needed jobs," says El-Gazayerli.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been criticised for leaving the families of the fishermen in the dark, failing to update them with news about the captives.
Fisherman Abd Rabu El-Gazayerli told the Weekly that he and other locals went to the foreign minister but were told they would have to collect any ransom on their own. He also said that while Kafr Al-Sheikh Council gave each family of the kidnapped fishermen LE2,000, and the Ministry of Social Affairs gave them another LE500, the amount did not cover the basic needs of families over a four-month period.
"We had to collect money from poor locals, some of whom contributed sums as small as 50 piastres. Then we were thrilled to hear that the fishermen were free. The government should be proud of them. They have raised the name of Egypt up high and showed courage in insisting to return on their boats like heroes," said Warda Mahmoud, sister of one of the detained fishermen.
The fishermen declined an offer by the Egyptian authorities to fly them home from Yemen.
The fight between the fishermen and the pirates took place off the coastal town of Ras Qorey on the Gulf of Aden. The 16-member crew of the Samarah, and the 18-member crew of the Momtaz 1, were taken hostage after they accidentally strayed out of Egypt's territorial waters. (see p.7)


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