By Liban Obsiye
“Between the devil and the deep blue sea” by Colin Freeman is a book about luck, tragedy, and the enduring spirit of mankind to dig deep into their moral fibre for the good of others in times of extreme hardship. The word ‘others’ is important here because the key protagonists of the story have no direct relationship with the many kidnapped seamen who fall victim to Somali pirates during the height of the epidemic between 2008-2012.
The book tells the true story of Colonel John Steed, a retired British army officer, who obsessively leads a private hostage rescue mission to free ships from Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan and their diverse international crew from the ever-tightening grip of Somali pirates. He finds it a lonely task. The United Nations, for whom he worked on a piracy project as a lead officer, does not want to be too involved because ransom payments are involved. The governments of the captured crew men all practice diplomatic silence. And the owners of the three ships disappear and cruelly neglect their duty to the hostages and their families.
Instead, Steed enlists the support of the best London City lawyers (remarkably working pro bono) and a smart, tough, and savvy internationally renowned hostage negotiator who breaks his own rules to see the mission through with Steed. What makes all of this more remarkable is that Steed had a near death experience with a heart attack scare and suffers from poor health throughout the period he is working on freeing the hostages. His base of operation is also a tiny flat in Nairobi and his weapons of choice are a mobile, email, a few contacts, and the good will of a few supporters.
The story is truly thrilling and fast moving. The novice Colonel Steed and his core team whom he wins over a period of time have to directly negotiate with pirates, raise ransom and negotiate ransom money and facilitate payment, including drop offs and direct delivery to the pirates in imaginative ways. Many of the hostages sadly lose their lives, while others try desperately to survive: one even learns the Somali language to engage the pirates and gain intelligence on their thinking and plans. What the book does brilliantly is brings characters, places and events to life with excellent description and back stories, which makes the reader feel as though they are there with them throughout the story.
Aside from the gripping story line, the book is written in a way that casts no judgement. Colin Freeman appears to want to tell the story the way it happened and in its rightful context. The good, the bad and ugly are all there with some brave, honourable, and heroic Somali characters playing a key role too in saving the hostages lives. This is amazing for a man who himself was kidnapped by Somali pirates when he was covering the piracy phenomena as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, a major UK newspaper. The book also presents and explains the complex and exclusive world of shipping, which most readers might otherwise find boring, in a simple and accessible way that keeps readers engaged. More importantly, this story is not simply about Good vs Evil, as Freeman acknowledges that poverty, under-development, and illegal fishing were among the main early motivations of Somali piracy before it arguably became a lucrative business for a few. In Freeman’s book, these few include criminal gangs, international brokers, community leaders and, most surprisingly, a businesswoman who invested her savings from selling the stimulant Khat to finance of one of the hostage operations in return for a share of the ransom.
This book is a must read for those who seek to understand the complex history and environment in which piracy exploded in Somalia in the years from 2008 to 2012. This book in its own way shines a light on the entire unfortunate piracy saga in Somalia through amazing real-life stories of the victims that sadly died, some who survived, those that sought to help both groups and those diverse perpetrators whose difficult life experiences and environment defy easy categorisation.
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