“A Daily Decision Whether I Should Live or Die”

Surf author Michael Scott Moore talks about being held hostage by Somali pirates

tktk
Michael Scott Moore, in a proof-of-life photo during his captivity.

Michael Scott Moore, surfer and journalist, familiar to many surfers as the author of Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World With Some Unexpected Results, was captured by Somali pirates in January, 2012, and held for ransom for nearly three years. He was released last September, and has only recently begun opening up to the media about his ordeal. I spoke with Moore on the phone last week.

***

JH: How much had you considered the possibility that you might be taken hostage by pirates before you’d even left for Somalia?

MSM: Of course I thought about it, and I was traveling with one other journalist, an excellent documentary filmmaker named Ashwin Raman, who’d been in Somalia before. We both settled on a man who was a good contact for security. We had sat down and thought about how to keep everything safe. It just didn’t work.

JH: Is there any preparation that you can do mentally for the possibility of violence or kidnapping before you go to a place like Somalia?

MSM: There are journalist training programs, but they’re only so good. The most valuable thing I could have learned beforehand would have been how to mount a hunger strike. I mounted hunger strikes several times when I felt I was being mistreated. That’s something you have to prepare yourself for, psychologically. I had to mount shorter strikes more than once before I could control my own thoughts and mood. I did three or four, I think.

JH: Had you been to places that were that war-torn or just flat-out as dangerous as Somalia before?

MSM: Yeah, in 2009 I went to Gaza, which had recently been bombarded. That was a little nerve-wracking, but not nearly as dangerous. I went to Northern Iraq just to gather material, but I didn’t wind up doing anything with that. I’m not a war correspondent, but I’ve been to some tough places. I think for even Ashwin, though, Somalia was a totally different thing.

JH: Piracy and your kidnapping aside, was it just a day-to-day a frightening place?

MSM: Yeah, it just seemed tense and unsettled. You could feel that you were an outsider just from walking down the street. There’s a xenophobia that you could really feel. People walk around with guns and you hear stories of people that had been abducted during the civil war so you know it’s dangerous. But, people go there, people go in and out of the place. Our security man had taken a German TV journalist there before. Traveling safely in Somalia isn’t unheard of.

JH: Once you’d been taken hostage were you expecting a rescue attempt?

MSM: No, not at first. There had been rescue attempts near where I was captured but they were rare. Days after I was taken SEAL Team 6 came and rescued [kidnapped American] Jessica Buchanan. It took a while for me gather what was happening, but once I realized what had gone on with the SEALs, I hoped that they would do the same thing for me. Because if they didn’t, it was clear that I was in trouble and that I was going to be there for a long time.

JH: Were you captured by the same group that you were researching?

MSM: I’m not sure about that. The men that took me were from a group that worked mostly further south, near the Seychelles. The group that I was there to write about would have hunted to the north. It took me a long time to figure it out but there was definitely some crossover in clan relationships. I realized that the northern group were probably the same guys who tried to capture the Maersk Alabama [the subject of the Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips]. At least one of my guards said that he was related to the pirate [from the Alabama] who was brought back to New York and arrested.

JH: Did your research into piracy in general give you an idea of what to expect for yourself once it was clear that no one was going to come rescue you?

MSM: I knew that the pirates didn’t want to kill me, because generally they try not to. But on the other hand while I was there I heard of people that had been killed by them, including the captain of a fishing boat on which I was held. I was kept on a fishing boat about a mile off the port of Hobyo for five or six months. I knew in general they tried not to kill hostages but that I’d be dead if they wanted it. Aside from that, whatever I learned before I was captured was purely intellectual and I don’t think that was much preparation.

JH: If you had to pick the most unpleasant, painful part of your ordeal, was it physical, emotional, or was it both?

MSM: It was both. They didn’t torture me. They hit me a few times and injured me, but I think the length of time I was held was worse. Part of it was the hunger was so bad, and the emotional part was so bad. But the length of time is what really wore me down.

JH: What did they feed you?

MSM: Beans and boiled potatoes. The beans would have sugar on them for flavor. When I got out I had a weak immune system, and a severe protein deficiency. We got meat maybe once a week or less, and those were good days. You could feel the difference.

JH: Were there other hostages with you? Were you able to fraternize and talk?

MSM: Rolly [a fellow captive from the Seychelles] had a friend named Marc, but we saw him only occasionally. Rolly and I could talk, and that was great. It was much better to be held with others than alone. When I was on the boat I got to be friends with the crew too.

JH: After being there for three years, did you end up making friends with any of your captors?

MSM: Oh sure. You have to get along with someone. About half the crew didn’t hate me, so I could get along maybe with four out of seven of them. The others were just indifferent, they didn’t like outsiders.

JH: Were you able to take notes?

MSM: Yeah, so the last year I was able to take notes and keep them. I took notes for a period twice and those books were confiscated, but the third time I kept a stack of notebooks and was able to take those back. Those are invaluable.

tk
Moore on a hand-carved Tambua near Sao Tome in 2008. A happier African memory. Photo: Buckley 

JH: How aware of the ongoing ransom negotiations were you?

MSM: I got rumors from one of the guards I was friendly with, but I never sure what to believe. In the end I didn’t believe what I was being told. One guard would tell me I was going free almost once a month. So I learned not to get my hopes up.

JH: Was there a point that you ever thought you weren’t going to get out of there?

MSM: Yeah, by 2014 I thought I was just stuck.

JH: What got you through those days?

MSM: I’m not really sure. Writing helped. I also did yoga, in fact I taught some yoga to the guards. It became a daily decision whether I should live or die. There were weapons and I could have picked one of them up. But what actually got me through it was mental. It wasn’t hope, it wasn’t like “In six months it will all be over,” or anything like that. The stoicism and the notion of forgiveness I had to practice every day was necessary.

JH: What are your thoughts on the United States government’s policy to not pay ransom demands for captured American citizens?

MSM: It doesn’t work. The captors knew I was American, and I knew that because they downloaded my author picture from a New York Times I interview I had done for Sweetness and Blood. They knew I was an American before I was captured. The stated policy of not paying ransom, no matter how many times the politicians repeat it, that alone doesn’t keep Americans safe. A lot of people take that stance really seriously and that part is nonsense. If you want to be consistently moral about it then the U.S. should go in and rescue hostages, and that would be a deterrent. The terrorist gangs don’t care or don’t listen to what John Kerry, or any other American politician says. Or, they think he’s a liar. I don’t think the U.S. should suddenly change policy, but there are a lot of tools that the government and the FBI can use to negotiate. The FBI has a long institutional history of kidnapping going back to the mafia, and the expertise should be used and someone in the government should be in charge. That’s one of the problems that all the families of hostages have—they don’t know who should be in charge.

JH: Has this soured your experience of traveling to dangerous places, and will it affect what you do going forward?

MSM: I’m not a war correspondent, and I don’t get a high from the risk.  If another project came up and I had to do something dangerous I’d still think about it. I’m not going to go back to Somalia, but I don’t mind edgy places. I might sit tight and write the book for now but traveling, especially when I did Sweetness and Bloodtraveling in the third world became addictive.

I will visit Rolly in the Seychelles, and I’ll bring a surfboard. I’m not sure when, but when we were both captive, he said whenever he came in for fishing he liked to have a beer under the mango tree. So I said, “Rolly if we both ever get free, I’ll have a drink with you under that mango tree.” So that’s still an outstanding debt.

JH: So when was the last time you surfed?

MSM: I went home to California over Thanksgiving and surfed there. My legs were so atrophied when I was released that I couldn’t walk. My ankles and knees were swollen and painful for weeks. I decided if I could get out of this and manage to surf by Thanksgiving I would be happy. And that was an important stage in my recovery. There’s nothing like surfing as therapy.