by Yusuf M. Hassan**
Friday, November 13, 2009
Diyaarada way afduuban tahay. The four words, screamed by a mad man wielding a pistol in mid-air, are etched into my memory like lyrics in a veteran singer’s mind. This plane is hijacked.
It was Monday, November 2, 2009, and I was inside the new terminal building at Bender Qassim International Airport, located in the Gulf of Aden port city of Bossaso, the commercial hub of Puntland region in fragmented Somalia. We went through ordinary airport proceedings: I checked in one large bag, which was thoroughly searched by uninformed airport staff in my presence, and then proceeded to the Puntland Immigration Department (PID) office with two small carry-on bags. Two soldiers stood guard in front of the PID office and they politely asked me to place my bags atop a wooden table. As one soldier searched the contents of my bags – and even asked me to turn on my Sony laptop! – the second soldier kept a watchful eye of his surroundings and the short line of travelers forming behind me. Ordinarily, as a frequent traveler, I have long ago seized the intense urge to complain about the wearisome and repetitive searches at airports wherever I go, and the airport in Bossaso was no exception.
In the following minutes, I passed through the PID office, where my American passport was run through an automated system, which I was informed is linked to Interpol in a global search for suspects and fugitives, before being told to pay the US$20 exit fee to the airport cashier. As this mundane procedure takes place, my mind is preoccupied by thoughts and plans for the coming days and weeks, after I safely return home to the States. Naturally, my worst fear is the old propeller airplanes that fly between Somalia and the neighboring Republic of Djibouti, a transit point on my way to Dubai. Least in my head, of course, is the possibility of a hijacked plane.
The first bullet goes off. It leaves a deafening noise inside the plane, subdued only by the screams of four Somali passenger ladies in the front of the plane. Moments before that, when the taller hijacker – clearly the more violent of the two gunmen – rose up with a pistol in the air to scream the dreaded words, “Diyaaradda way afduuban tahay,” I had looked across the aisle to my right, where Daallo Airlines flight attendant Mohamed Deeq was sitting, to ask him the ****** question: “What is he doing?” Mohamed Deeq sunk deeper into his seat and whispered back, in a voice that filled me with terror, to confirm that indeed this was a hijacking. A million-and-one thoughts and questions buzzed in my head. Where are the parachutes? What do these hijackers want? Are they terrorists? How will the my family and the world remember me, long after my body is covered in a neat white cloth in an Islamic burial with prayers to Allah Almighty for His Forgiveness and Mercy?
In Arabic, silently and repeatedly, I recite the shahadah –“I testify that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” It is the earliest thing I learned growing up in a Muslim family. In times of panic, I find an irreplaceable comfort and refuge in these few words that the protection of artillery guns and well-trained soldiers cannot offer. In the middle of that chaos, I take a deep breath and order my heart and mind to accept death, for we must all face it one day. Subconsciously, I was seeking any possible exit from the plane of death.
The second bullet goes off, again blasting at the pilots’ door. The women and children’s screams continue to terrorize everyone on board – including the hijackers themselves! One woman in particular, who ran towards the back where we frighteningly watched the horrifying scene unfold, kept shrieking near my right ear, deepening the extent of panic within me and fuelling my screams for everyone to remain in their seats. Keeping the delicate balance on the plane in mid-air would be a key component of any chance of surviving a deadly crash. An older Somali man, whom I was later told owns a hotel in Bossaso, recognized the taller hijacker and referred to him by his first name, “Faisal.” I would never find out how the hotel owner personally knew Faisal, but during those horrific minutes I shared with 27 other passengers and three crewmen, it was a fortunate coincidence that helped confuse the hijackers in moments of pitched screams, cries and prayers.
Mohamed Deeq was singled out as a member of the flight crew. The hijackers ordered him to speak with the Russian pilots and to land the airplane in Las Qorey, a small coastal town west of Bossaso. The hijackers say they wanted to take two hostages – German journalists on board the plane – and that the rest of us Somalis would be set free in Las Qorey. Desperate criminals risked all our lives to kidnap foreigners for ransom and to satisfy their lustful impulses and habits fuelled by dollars and produced by an environment in Somalia where decades of political collapse, lawlessness and violence has helped erode the standards of an ordinary civilization.
But true heroes rise up to challenges, especially in moments marked by panic and absolute terror when the life of innocent persons is at risk. However reluctant, Mohamed Deeq stands up and walks down the aisle towards the hijackers. There is a small doorframe located between the passenger seats section and the pilots’ door. Later, Mohamed Deeq would inform me that he spoke in Russian with the pilots through the door, telling them of the the two armed hijackers asking to be taken to Las Qorey. But he told the pilots to return to Bossaso. They agreed and told him to be careful.
The ground was very close. Maybe so close that my mind toys around with the idea of jumping off. But one of the hijackers, the violent Faisal, recognizes that we are back at Bossaso’s airport. With Mohamed Deeq still standing there, Faisal fires bullets number three and number four at the pilots’ door. I can see Mohamed Deeq is ducking low to avoid the bullets. He grabs a wooden doorframe and places it between himself and the hijacker, who places his elongated hand over the wooden doorframe and fires bullet number five. The plane seems to shift left and right, the panicky passengers scream in unison in a tone filled with terror and desperation. There is a brief struggle at the front between them, with Mohamed Deeq trying to grab the hijacker’s gun but failing. The pilots fly the plane up higher now, away from the ground, as if we are on our way to Djibouti. In minutes, my heart begins to tremble as we begin flying over the sea. Later, I would understand that it was the pilots’ clever attempt to trick the hijackers by pretending to fly towards Las Qorey. At least, this attempt stopped the dreaded sound of gunshots in mid-air.
I look at the second hijacker, searching his face for a reaction, but he has a stunned expression on his face and looks as afraid and clueless as the loudest shrieking voice in the airplane. Somehow, Mohamed Deeq manages to talk some sense into the hijacker, Faisal – who temporarily withdraws the gun and allows the Daallo Airlines employee to walk away, towards us in the very backseat. A big-body guy volunteers to break-down the door. Another man suggests that Faisal use the side of the gun to knock-down the pilots’ door. The women scream, begging the hijackers, asking the shorter hijacker: “Do you not fear Allah?” In those moments of panic, the hijacker’s reply was as surprising as the hijacking itself: “Yes, I fear Allah,” he replies. He then recites the shahadah.
Remember, the second hijacker never fired a bullet or even raised his gun at the passengers. He simply stood in the front seat, left side of the aisle, and eyed the dangerous situation with apprehension and a shared fear of destiny.
If this thing touches the ground, I am jumping off. This was the thought that dominated my mind in the moments before the pilots expertly landed the plane back at Bender Qassim International Airport in Bossaso. As passengers, we kept screaming at the hijackers, especially Faisal, who had grown more nervous and was jumping between one window to the next, seeking a ground sign for confirmation. “This is Las Qorey,” was the common chant. We said repeatedly it. I believed it was Las Qorey. The only reason I looked out the window was to estimate the distance to the ground. Once this airplane lands, I am jumping off. Las Qorey or not.
Faisal, the hijacker, gets on his mobile phone. From the question he asked, I knew who he was talking to: Do you see us? He was speaking to an armed gang waiting in Las Qorey to take the two German journalists as hostages, hide them in remote mountains and demand ransom worth millions of U.S. dollars. We kept screaming that the plane was going to crash on the ground. These screams helped confuse the hijackers, until the shorter one finally sat down to prepare for a rough landing. Faisal kept screaming on the phone over the plane’s engine blare and the passengers’ riotous shrieks and looking out the window, seeking a sign…until he saw one.
“Ba’aa, waa Boosaaso,” he says. Oh no, it’s Bossaso. The airplane’s tires touch the ground gently and the pilots were slowing down with incredible expertise and steadiness. Thinking fast, I knew the hijacker wanted to rush to the back, to hold everyone at gunpoint, and perhaps order the pilots to take off again. I look to my right, at Mohamed Deeq. Jump, I whisper. I don’t remember exactly the following moments. There was hardly a second between the moment Mohamed Deeq gets up from his seat, that I followed. It took him half-a-second to pry open the backdoor. Neither Mohamed Deeq nor I used the metal stairs that automatically fold down. Neither Mohamed Deeq nor I waited for the airplane to come to a complete standstill. We both jumped out. I would later feel plenty of pain in my right foot and upper leg.
Once on the ground, I see the first soldier. He is creeping up, AK-47 assault rifle at the ready, eyeing me suspiciously. I raise my hands in the air and scream at him in Somali: They are inside. Two guys with guns. Shoot them. I rush behind him, so that I can get a view of the airplane and avoid being shot in any possible crossfire. A girl jumps out. Followed by Faisal, the hijacker. He is unarmed. The second hijacker jumps out, throws his gun in the sand. Mohamed Deeq sneaks up on the shorter hijacker from behind and knocks him down.
I see the soldiers are confused. My body is shaking with unimaginable rage. I rush towards Faisal, who is attempting to run away on foot. I find myself punching him, an exhilarating adrenaline rush surging through my veins with the force of the Asian tsunami. Later that night, safe and sound at my hotel in Dubai, I would feel regret for attacking the hijackers, who later became victims of the passengers. Puntland’s laws should be enough punishment for such dangerous criminals.
We survived. Alxamdulillah – Praise Allah.
Poverty in Somalia is breeding desperation. The failed hijacking of the Daallo Airlines flight is the first case of ‘sky piracy’ – evidently, the hijackers are members of pirate gangs. Somali pirates have profited tremendously from generous ransoms collected since an extraordinary spike in sea piracy since 2007. Generally, these gangs consist of young men who came to age in a world of lawlessness and desperation, and join the profit-seeking gangs hoping to hit the jackpot and emerge out of poverty.
The Puntland government’s crackdown on pirates on land, combined with NATO-led naval patrols off the Somali coast, has helped reduce the number of pirate attacks from the levels of 2007. However, these gangs continue to conduct spectacular hijackings in the high seas, notwithstanding the international naval warships on patrol. These attacks are fuelled by the ground situation in Somalia – a country that is politically fragmented, parts of which have been paralyzed by chronic insecurity to the point where Nairobi, Kenya, is the international community’s point of operations for Somalia for nearly two decades. The extreme poverty and lack of direction on the ground fuels desperate acts by armed youth, seeking opportunity in a land of destroyed dreams, plundered potential and helpless households.
The world’s effort against piracy should adopt a comprehensive approach that deals with the root causes of pirate attacks – not just tackling the after-effects, such as a military standoff whenever pirates hijack a foreign vessel and the subsequent drama until the ransom is paid.
A comprehensive approach would seek a political settlement for the disintegration and political collapse experienced in Somalia since 1991. A genuine political settlement, that at least satisfies the majority of Somali stakeholders, would pave the way for the gradual restoration of security and the opening of educational and economic opportunities for the young Somalis who are despairingly drawn to acts of piracy, terrorism and other forms of criminality. Provided with security and economic opportunities, coastal communities would spearhead the fight against pirates feeding off the public sentiment that Somali territorial waters have been violated by foreign trawlers, who are accused of illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping.
However, if the current trajectory of pursuing temporary military-based solutions to piracy is followed, I fear that the continued desperation in Somalia will ultimately inspire new trends of insecurity that continue to threaten global and regional interests.
In a country like Somalia, where guns are abundant and poverty breeds desperation, the emergence of sky pirates should not come to us as a surprise.