Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Saturday, 29 November 2008

'Mummy, can I phone the pirates?'

One of the biggest frustrations facing journalists is being unable to get through to people on the phone. But as Mary Harper discovered, contacting the Somali pirates on the Sirius Star turned out to be child's play.

Sirius Star off the coast of Somalia (US Navy image via Getty Images)
The pirates on the Sirius Star put the phone down on the BBC

It was a cold, dark, wet and miserable Sunday afternoon. I was in my car, driving my 12-year-old daughter and her friend back from a birthday party. I was tired and fed up from being in the car.

"Mummy, mummy," trilled a voice from the back. "I want to phone the pirates."

My daughter had heard me repeatedly trying to get through to the Somali pirates on board the Sirius Star.

They usually picked up the phone but put it down again when I said I was from the BBC. My obsession with getting through to them had reached the point that I had even saved their number on my mobile phone.

"Mummy, mummy, please can I phone the pirates for you?"

"No."

"Pleeeeez."

By this time, with rain battering my windscreen and cars jamming the road, I was at the end of my tether.

"OK", I said, tossing the phone into the back of the car.

"They are under P for pirates."

Giggling with pirates

"Hello. Please can I talk to the pirates," said my daughter in her obviously childish voice.

I could hear someone replying and a bizarre conversation ensued which eventually ended when my daughter collapsed in giggles.

Our last resource is the sea, and foreign trawlers are plundering our fish
Daybad, Somali priate

This was a breakthrough. Dialogue had been established.

The next day, I went to the crowded office in Bush House in London where the BBC Somali Service is based. I told them the story.

"Let's try now," said producer Said Musa, who, dare I say it, looks a bit like a pirate himself. He has a wild look about him with flashing eyes and a swashbuckling saunter.

He dialled the number. A pirate answered. "I'm sorry," he barked in Somali, "the boss pirate is sleeping. He was very busy last night keeping watch for possible attackers, night time, you know, is the busiest time for us. Call back in two hours."

Calm hostage

A pirate, who called himself Daybad, spoke in Somali, calmly and confidently. He said Somalis were left with no choice but to take to the high seas.

"We've had no government for 18 years. We have no life. Our last resource is the sea, and foreign trawlers are plundering our fish."

The pirate said the crew was being treated well.

"They can move from place to place. They can sleep in their own beds, they even have their own keys. The only thing they're missing is their freedom to leave the ship."

Suddenly I heard a voice speaking English.

"Hello. This is the captain of the Sirius Star speaking."

The captain, a Polish man called Marek Nishky, sounded surprisingly composed for a hostage.

He said he had no reason to complain, everybody was OK, and the pirates had allowed the crew to speak to their families.

As my questions became more challenging, he became more nervous. I could almost see the pirates standing around him. He said we would have to finish our conversation, and politely thanked me for my concern.

The phone line went dead. But we had it, recordings of the pirate and the captain, and the interviews were broadcast all over the BBC.

Gun law

The Somali Service at Bush House is behind most of the stories you hear about Somalia on the BBC.

It consists of a tiny group of people, far away from home, from a country torn to shreds after nearly two decades without a functioning central government.

That means no proper hospitals, no schools and no safety. The gun means everything in Somalia.

Pirates on board the Ukrainian ship MV Faina, and its cargo of tanks and military hardware, off the Somali coast.
The Somali Service enjoyed a real scoop with our interviews but who knows if it would have happened if my daughter had not persisted and pressed P for Pirates

One member of the team showed me photos of the concrete bench outside his house where his mother used to sit to make tea. It was splattered with blood.

The house had been hit by a shell the day after his family left for the relative safety of the north. Neighbours had been killed.

Who knows whether the property was targeted because of its BBC connection.

Despite their concerns about what may be happening back at home, the people in the Somali Service are the most hilarious, irreverent bunch of people in the building.

They smoke like chimneys, and laugh uproariously at the most unsuitable jokes.

They tease me mercilessly. I was worth dozens of camels when I first arrived at the BBC as a fresh-faced young woman, they say, while now I may only be worth one or two camels, or maybe just a half.

The Somali Service enjoyed a real scoop with our interviews.

But who knows if it would have happened if my daughter had not persisted and pressed P for Pirates?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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