Courage and commitment

Remarkable yet realistic: Puntland’s President Farole speaks to the media.Twenty years ago, Abdirahman Farole fled civil war in Somalia, finding refuge for himself and his young family in Melbourne.
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As much as he came to love Australia, he remained intent on returning to help rebuild his shattered country. In 2008 he was elected president of the semi-autonomous Somali state of Puntland.

The first item on his agenda: tackling the pirates who had hijacked scores of ships off the Horn of Africa and held hundreds of sailors for ransom.

His efforts soon began to bear fruit, with Puntland’s security forces capturing pirate leaders and forcing pirates out of long-established strongholds. But the fight remains far from won, with grinding poverty still making piracy an attractive option for desperate men.

A new Australian documentary, The President vs the Pirates, provides rare insight into Farole’s work and the problems he faces – not least the constant threat of assassination by the Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab.

Wayne Miller, the Walkley Award-winning journalist and former Victorian and federal police officer who was the documentary’s field producer, admires Farole’s courage and vision, but is well aware of the difficulty of his task.

”He ran on a platform of anti-piracy, and the records show pretty clearly that piracy was off the chart and it’s now dropped quite dramatically. He has put a ban on female genital mutilation, so for him to stand up and do that in the face of a lot of very ancient views on that is pretty impressive,” Miller says.

”He’s very big on education, very big on trying to stimulate the economy, but he’s got a lot of problems in the sense that, when people are suffering from poverty and there’s no infrastructure, people want instant results.

”And for him to be travelling around and trying to bring in all this change when people are constantly trying to kill him is pretty extraordinary.”

Miller knows the problems facing Somalia, having spent 2½ years working with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as a police adviser to the Puntland government and working on an anti-piracy media campaign fronted by Islamic and clan leaders.

One difficulty is explaining to the population the basic concept of a multi-party democracy. A highly significant scene in the documentary- and one whose significance might be overlooked by Australian viewers – is of a ceremony at which Farole invited leaders of newly formed opposition parties to speak.

”He [Farole] is trying to change things that have been there for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” Miller says. ”Democracy is a completely foreign concept because if you’re in a clan you do what the elder tells you, and it’s been that way since time immemorial.”

Other problems, the documentary shows, will be far more difficult to resolve. Foreign trawlers engaged in illegal fishing don’t just steal the fish Somali fishermen need to survive; they also make a point of destroying their nets. Last month a cyclone killed up to a million head of livestock, leaving farming families destitute and at risk of starvation – and farmers all that much more likely to turn to piracy to survive.

Miller says he wanted to make the documentary to give Somalis the chance to explain the situation and their hopes for their country in their own words, unfiltered by the sometimes inaccurate perceptions of well-meaning outsiders.

Somalis from all walks of life, in both Somalia and Australia, provide insights into their lives. These include Farole himself, fishermen driven to the edge by foreign trawlers, a poor subsistence butcher who lost a son to piracy and a foreign prison, and an old oil well driller named Ali who has worked around the world and still has a twinkle in his eye, even as he tries to find a job in Puntland at the age of 99.

Miller admires the courage and resilience of Somalis who have fled their country, as well as those who have stayed.

”When you’re exposed to their cultures and the turmoil and dealing with things like death and poverty and famine on a daily basis, just extricating yourself from that and staying alive is a massive achievement,” he says.

He hopes Farole’s story will help viewers realise not all refugees to Australia actually want to stay.

”In their heart of hearts they’d all like to be in the country that they love and they belong to, but circumstances are that they can’t live there,” Miller says.

”I think if we had a much better understanding of what they’ve been through it’s going to make it much easier for them – and also much easier for us.”

The President vs the Pirates: SBS One on Sunday, December 29 at 10pm.

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