Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Was A Pirate Redux -- because they're in the news again today . . .


Somalia’s transitional government called on Russia on Friday to explain why it had cut 10 Somali pirates adrift in the Gulf on Aden without navigation equipment or much hope of survival. Russian forces last week stormed a hijacked oil tanker in a rescue operation that killed one pirate. Russia said 10 others arrested were later set loose aboard one of the small vessels they used in the attack. A military official said they were stripped of their weapons and navigation equipment. Russian media later quoted a military source saying the pirates were now likely dead.
Nairobi — Reuters Published on Friday, May. 14, 2010 8:25AM EDT Last updated on Friday, May. 14, 2010 6:11PM EDTn

On the night before they took me to the sea, I had a dream about my dead mother and a zebra. My mother and I were walking on a savanna, she was holding my hand and telling me that I had to “hurry, hurry” because it was getting dark, We were looking for water to carry home. I looked down at her long feet and counted her toes as I lengthened my stride to meet hers -- her legs were so long and mine seemed useless but I counted “one -- two -- three!” and as I counted my legs grew longer and I was no longer a little boy, I was my mother’s Tall Alexander, “four -- five -- six!” and my mother’s black shoulders were below me, and they seemed as smooth as river rocks, “seven -- eight -- nine!” My mother told me to be quiet! “Alexander, what are you counting? You sound like a fool!” I told her I was counting her toes, but she only had nine and I had learned to count to ten in the school house with all the other children. The Englishman taught us to count to ten, he taught us the Alphabet, and how to spell our names, “A -- L -- E -- X -- A -- N -- D -- E -- R!” The Englishman asked me if my mother named me for Alexander the Great? I told him I didn’t think so, that I believed she named me for the witch doctor who made my father well just before I was born. The Englishman laughed and told me, “Then I suppose, in a way, you were named for Alexander the Great!” I laughed too, and then the Englishman told me the story of the Greek Alexander -- he was a warrior.

When we got to the river, my mother stood in the shade of a bottle tree and told me to fill up all the gourds we had carried with water. I took the gourds from her and went to the river bank. I decided to swim before filling the gourds and I called back to my mother, “Come put your feet in the water with me!” She sat down and shook her head, she called back, “No, no, no. The crocodiles will take the rest of my toes! Get the water and come back!” She was very impatient with me. But I was taller than her now and so I decided I could disobey her. The Englishman had taught us all to swim too. He brought us to the river and astounded us by jumping in the deep water. We all cried and screamed for him to come out! His head disappeared and we shouted for him, “Master William! Master William!” We were certain he had been taken by an crocodile or worse! A hippo! But the Englishman came back up, like a muddy ghost and he spat water at all of us and laughed and laughed. For days and days it seemed, he brought us to the river and showed us how to breathe under water. He taught us how to float. He taught us the Breaststroke and told us he had once swum the English Channel, a big river far far away.

I dove into the river, just as the Englishman taught me and opened my eyes below the surface. I was so happy and cool after walking so far with my mother. I knew she was sitting under the bottle tree cursing me but I didn’t care. I could see the sunlight under the water, it lit up the sandy floor and the back of a turtle that I startled with my dive. The green water was all around me and I held my breath softly until I could no longer hold it and up I swam to the world above the water. But when I broke through the ceiling of the river, I was no longer near the river bank just below the hill with the bottle tree. The savannah was desert and my mother was gone. I found myself standing in a muddy watering hole facing a zebra. She was so thin that it was hard to discern her stripes from her bones. Her eyes were black agates and her nostrils were wide and struggling for air. She was as surprised to see me as I was her. But she was thirsty and so she lowered her head and drank the muddy water at my feet. I looked all around me. The sun was very high above me, it was midday now, yet my mother and I had walked to the river just as the sun was setting. I walked toward the zebra as she drank. She ignored me and continued to take in the water. She switched her tail and I saw that even the flies were done with her, she was of no use to them. Vultures circled overhead and I knew that by the end of the day, the zebra would be in their bellies.

When I woke from the dream, a man was standing over my bed. He told me to get up. I asked him where my father was and he said that I no longer belonged to my father, I belonged to him. He told me his name was Abshir. He wore an AK-47 slung over his shoulder -- I had never seen him in our village before. He was taller than my father and wore army green pants tucked into desert boots. There was a scar on his chest, just above his ribs and right below his heart. There was a platinum chain around his neck that held a tooth, it was bone white and like no animal tooth I had ever seen, “What is that?” I pointed to the tooth, and he replied, “That is a shark tooth. He was very big and I killed him with this gun. You will kill a shark with a gun some day. But now, you need to hurry up!”

I sat in the back of the truck with four other boys, none of them were from my village; Desmond, Victor, Gabriel and Luc. They were all fourteen, just like me. Desmond had cigarettes and he shared them with us as we bounced along the savannah highway that gave way to the concrete coast. Victor asked me if it was true that we were headed to Mogadishu and I told him he knew more than I. All I knew was that my father was no longer my father and that someday I would kill a shark with an AK. I asked Victor if he knew what a shark was and he replied that he thought it was some sort of sea monster. I had never been to the sea. Of all of us, only Luc had been to the sea. His father took him to the sea once, south of Mogadishu, because they had a cousin who was a fisherman. Luc confirmed that a shark was a sea monster.

Abshir drove straight through the savanna, all night, and we five boys laid in the back of the truck and watched the stars spin over us and then we fell asleep to the whir of the engine -- every rut and bump threw us all about the bed of the truck, but we were all so tired and thirsty that we didn’t care, we slept like hogs on the way to market.

Morning came with a silver sky over Mogadishu. The only city I had ever seen, except for pictures of European cities that the Englishman had shown to us in the school house. He told us of the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace. He said he would take us to Mogadishu one day so that we could see our city, the big city of our country, but he never did take us. Abshir stopped the truck finally and told us all to get out. “Hurry, hurry!” The air was thick with things I had never smelled so abundantly before -- gasoline and salt and tea. He told us to sit down on the pier and wait for him, “don’t go anywhere, or I will find you and kill you.” He disappeared down an alley way and we looked at the green sea water touching the concrete. We heard the ringing of lines and metal on the sides of the ships. The ships seemed like all the animals we had left behind on the savanna -- some were as big as elephants and some were as delicate as gazelle. There was some sort of commotion nearby and we craned our necks to see what it was about. We didn’t dare stand up for fear that Abshir would return and shoot us all dead.

We saw three men fighting. They were dressed like Abshir -- all of them had AKs and desert boots. One was wearing a black beret and he was the tallest of the three. They were yelling at one another in French. The black beret began shoving the smaller man who seemed to be apologizing. He fell to his knees and began begging the black beret. The black beret kicked him and the small man fell over and curled up like a little child. The black beret brandished his AK, he pointed it down at the small man, while the third man shouted “assassiné!” I closed my eyes waiting to hear the shots, but they never came. When I opened them again, I saw Abshir standing over me and the other boys. He handed us Coca-Colas in bottles and some flat bread. It was the first I had eaten since going to bed in my own house two nights ago. We took the bottles and the bread from Abshir all while watching the three men continue to fight down the pier. Abshir squatted down and told us to listen to him, “Écoutez-moi” and so we turned to him. “You three get up and go to those men down there! You work for them now.” Abshir touched Desmond, Victor and Luc and then pointed down the pier to the three men who were no longer fighting, now they were standing still and watching us. The black beret was smoking a cigarette and shifting his AK from one shoulder to the other. The little man no longer cowered. They were waiting for the boys to join them. Desmond looked at Victor and Luc and they looked back at him. We had only been friends for a short time, but we were certain that whatever was going to happen to us, we were destined to face it together. Abshir shouted and kicked at Desmond, who was the biggest of all of us, “Go now!” They got up, and Desmond threw his Coke bottle off the pier and into the water. Luc and Victor did the same and they marched off to join the men.

This left myself and Gabriel. We looked up at Abshir and I wondered if Gabriel was trembling in his stomach like I was. I looked at the watch on Abshir’s wrist. It read ten o’clock. The Englishman had taught us how to tell time too. I like ten o’clock in the morning. It was the time that the Englishman would tell us all to put our heads down on our desks and close our eyes for a while. The Englishman would go outside of the school house and smoke a cigarette and drink a cup of coffee and we would do as he said -- when I closed my eyes I imagined I was riding a horse like Alexander the Great, I imagined myself to be a great warrior. “You! You are coming with me. Both of you. Get up, hurry! Hurry!”

We followed Abshir down the pier and then through an alleyway. We stopped to talk to an old Muslim man who sat on the ground with many bird cages. The bird cages were filled with finches of every color. Abshir gave the man some money and the man kissed Abshir’s hand. Abshir told Gabriel and I to choose one cage and so we pondered the cages for just a few moments as Abshir and the Muslim spoke in a language I had never heard before. Gabriel touched one cage that contained three yellow finches and smiled, I nodded my head and we looked at Abshir, “Yes, yes, take that one. Three birds should be fortuitous . . .” and so Gabriel lifted the cage and Abshir continued to speak to the Muslim in the language that seemed full of letters I had never pronounced.

We left the Muslim man and Abshir told us we were going to his ship now. He told us that there were many men on the boat, as many as twenty, and that we were to only answer to him, no matter what the men said to us, “They will try to give you cigarettes and shiny stones that they have found on the beach. Ignore them. Or I will kill you both and throw you overboard. You will be then be eaten by sharks and will be caught in the afterlife. If you do as I say, you will return to earth as princes. Do you understand me?” Gabriel and I nodded. I was no longer afraid, even though Abshir had threatened to kill me several times already. He had given me Coca-Cola and now birds, he seemed too kind to follow through on his threats to kill me.

Gabriel and I named the three birds Desmond, Luc and Victor. We clutched the bird cage together as we followed Abshir to the ship. Only the birds chattered as we walked. Their little voices reminded me of the birds that gathered in the bottle trees near my village. In my head I believed I was still on the savannah, not on the concrete pier approaching the ship. My body was going on this voyage, not my soul I told myself. This made me brave enough to step onto the ship.

The ship was green, almost the color of the water it sat upon. The men greeted Abshir with wide smiles and great respect when we boarded. Abshir told them to be quiet and then he introduced Gabriel and me, “These boys belong to me - they are Gabriel and Alexander. They will sleep in my cabin and they will eat every meal with me. They are small and strong and you will teach them how to shoot and how to sail.” I looked at the men and held tightly on to the bird cage. One of the men had only one eye, but his stare pierced through me. There was an albino with a birthmark of black on his cheek and to my surprise there was a woman, but she dressed like all the men, in army green with desert boots. She didn’t carry an AK, she had a pistol at her side and a silver ring in her nose.

Abshir motioned for us to follow him below deck. He called back to the men that we would sail when the sun was gone.

It was very hot in Abshir’s cabin and crowded with piles of books and wooden crates. I was surprised to find so many books -- but then I remembered Abshir speaking to the Muslim bird man in a language I had never heard and I realized that he must be educated. I looked at the titles of the books, some I could read, some I could not. The one that I recognized was a book the Englishman had read to us: Our Man in Havana. I touched the book and quickly Abshir struck at my hand, “Leave my books!”

Night fell and the ship began to make great groaning noises. We were setting off to the sea. My stomach roiled, unsettled by the lurching of the hull. Abshir left Gabriel and me in his cabin and went up on deck. We heard much hollering and commotion. There was one light in the cabin and it flickered on and off, in no particular rhythm. The ship's engine seemed to fade and then roar and fade and then roar. Before we knew it, Gabriel and I were asleep with nothing in our stomachs and the dreams of birds in our heads.

It was my stomach that woke me. Sunlight was pouring in through the one small window of Abshir’s cabin. Gabriel was curled up on the floor next to me and the birds. Abshir was snoring loudly in his bed with Our Man in Havana splayed across his bare chest. The book rose and fell and Abshir snored, just as the ship rose and fell with the sea. There was a plate with some bread on the bed also. I was terribly hungry and could not resist taking the bread. I broke it in half and woke Gabriel. He smiled and took the bread fast, like a hyena.

My stomach settled and I wondered when Abshir would wake. Would I learn to shoot a shark today? Who would teach me to be a sailor? I wanted to shout these questions to Gabriel, but I was afraid to make any noise. Abshir rolled over in his bed and the book and the bread plate fell to the floor with a great crash. Abshir startled and sat up, he looked down at me and Gabriel and the broken plate and the book whose pages were all askew, “Did you eat my bread?”

“Yes, yes Abshir, we ate the bread and gave the crumbs to the birds.” What else could I do but tell him the truth? Would he kill me now?

“Good, good. Get up, go on deck and find Yolo -- he’s the albino. Yolo will give you guns and teach you how to shoot them. Hurry hurry, because you will need to use the guns tomorrow. We are taking the Russian Navy prisoner tomorrow! Yes! We followed them all night and tomorrow we will capture them. Do you know Russian?”

“No, no Abshir.”

“I will teach you Russian. The Muslim taught me Russian when I was a boy, and it was just so I could capture them one day! It is fated.”

Gabriel and I got up. We were relieved to go up where the air was filled with mist and light. The ship bounced under our feet and we walked like drunkards. This made us laugh, but we quickly went quiet when the one-eyed man came around the corner, he smiled and revealed that he had practically no teeth and I wondered what malady befell him and took so much of his face with it. He spit at our feet and then took a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket and offered it to Gabriel and me. We declined. We remembered Abshir’s warning. “We are looking for Yolo. Abshir told us to find Yolo.”

“Come with me. Yolo is in the engine room.” We followed the one-eyed man and did our best to walk like monks and not drunkards. The man opened a great steel door and out of the darkness came an awful metallic lion’s roar -- the ship’s engine was a terrible monster that I did not want to be near. We stood just inside the doorway, several men were working in the dark, they seemed to be slaves to the engine -- doing its bid. Yolo was easy to find in the darkness. His pink skin glowed with sweat and his hair seemed as though it was on fire like the flames that burned in the belly of the ship.

The one-eyed man called to Yolo and Yolo looked irritated, he stepped over another man who was lying on his back with his arms inside something not unlike an oil barrel, but the barrel was full of wires and sparks. The sparks flew out across the man's face and came to rest on his black chest where they twinkled like hot stars momentarily and then were doused by his sweat. Yolo came to us and looked into my face, something came across his forehead, a wrinkle of recollection -- “Ah yes, Alexander and Gabriel! Today you get your guns!” The one-eyed man left us and Yolo came and patted me and Gabriel hard on our shoulders. He smiled a yellow smile and the black patch on his skin coiled like a storm cloud. He slammed the engine room door shut and we followed him down a corridor that cut the ship in half. Yolo then ducked into a room and told us to wait for him. He quickly reappeared with two AKs and a small metal box of ammo.

There were two men in my village who carried AKs and my father warned me to always stay away from them. As we wound through the small passage to the other side of the ship, I left my body again and sat for just a moment with my father in his shop while he hammered brass into small pots for the safari visitors. I wondered why he sold me to Abshir? Was he tired of me? He used to say that my eyes were too much like my mother’s and that looking into them made him ache for her. If only my eyes had been somehow different, perhaps I would not have gone to sea. Perhaps . . .

The AK was heavy in my hands. Yolo told me I could rest it inside the crook of my arm and against my ribs. He told me to point it out to sea or up in the air or down to the deck. He showed Gabriel and me how to load the ammo. He loaded and unloaded the gun and then had us repeat the process over and over. We seemed to be on the quiet side of the ship. The engine roar was very distant and occasionally one of the men would pass by. They were not interested in us at all. But the woman stopped to say hello. She joked with Yolo and asked for a cigarette. She then said she was offended that the small boys were allowed to have AKs and she was forbidden. Yolo laughed at her, “Your temper is too unpredictable!”

When the gun went off in my hands, I fell over backwards onto the deck. It was as though an antelope had kicked me in the chest! Yolo laughed and Gabriel looked stricken, he leaned down and offered me a hand. Yolo told Gabriel it was his turn to shoot at the sea and Gabriel shook his head, “No!” Yolo stood behind Gabiel and held his shoulders, “Go ahead, shoot at the fishes! I will keep you from falling.” I watched Gabriel pull the trigger and the muzzle crackled as it discharged and then I saw a flying fish leap from the sea as the ammo peppered the waves. “Hurrah Gabriel! You got him!”

We spent the afternoon shooting overboard until we no longer fell over backwards. Soon Yolo left us alone -- he told us to use up the whole box of ammo. And when we were done he said we were ready for the Russians. This frightened me. I didn’t know what a Russian was and when I asked Gabriel he was unable to come up with an answer. “We will have to ask Abshir to tell us what the Russians look like. Where is their village and their river?”

Gabriel and I returned to Abshir’s cabin. He had been sleeping all day. We woke him and showed him our AKs. He was proud, like my father. He went to one of his wooden crates and pulled out two silken ties, one yellow embroidered with small indigo birds and the other deep red with emerald lizards. “I stole these from a Frenchman on his sailboat. See?” He turned the ties over and there was a small delicate tag that read Hermès. Paris. The Eiffel Tower! He put the ties around our necks and showed us how to tie them properly. “Don’t you know this is called a Windsor Knot? After the Duke of Windsor.”

“He was an Englishman!” I replied as Abshir tightened the tie round my neck. The Englishman had told me all about the Royal Family.

“Yes, Alexander, he was. And he was supposed to be King of England, but a woman ruined all that for him!”

We laughed and laughed and danced for Abshir in our new ties and holding our heavy AKs aloft like good warriors. But then Gabriel stopped dancing and became sullen. Abshir asked him why he wasn’t happy anymore.

“Abshir, please tell us about the Russians. Will they be easy to fight? I have never fought before. And all I seem to be able to do with this gun is scare the fish up out of the water!”

“Aha, Gabriel. The Russians will be no match for us. They are pale like the snowy village they come from.”

“Snowy?”

“Yes, snow! Some day you will go to Europe with me and I will show you snow. It is marvelous! Cold like no cold you have ever seen! It is like the shaved ice your fathers like to have in their Coca-Colas.”

“Ah snow... I see. So the Russians are cold and weak?” Gabriel inspected his silk tie as he asked this of Abshir.

“Yes, the sun burns their skin and makes them faint! We’ll overtake their Navy ship and tie them to each other on deck where they will wilt and wilt and fade and then die in the sun. And the Russian Navy will bring us millions of dollars to buy back their ship. And then? My sons, Gabriel and Alexander, we will be quite powerful and rule the sea.” Abshir lit a cigarette and then he handed a cigarette to each one of us. I puffed confidently and I liked the smoke curling around my face like the fog that was rising from the sea just outside the little cabin window. I imagined being the son of Abshir, King of the Sea. We would return to my village and find my father. I would give him enough money that he would no longer have to hammer brass pots for the tourists.

The ship came to a stop, the engine went dead and we heard the channeling of the anchor chains as they spooled out of the hull and into the sea. We would sit like a leopard in a tree limb all night, waiting for the wildebeest to stroll beneath her. Abshir gathered all the men, and the one woman, and Gabriel and I on deck. We ate fish and bread and there was much whiskey and Gabriel and I were given a bottle of French champagne, also stolen from the Frenchman’s sailboat. The champagne was like golden Coca-Cola and it made me very dizzy. There was hashish and mint tea and even sweets. I felt as though we were already wealthy beyond anything I had ever known, but Abshir explained that the Russian Navy had to be captured the very next night. He knew their sea route. The old Muslim bird man told him exactly where the Russians were going to be. How did the bird man know this? How? But there we sat on the black water with the stars like a million hyena eyes staring down at us from the ceiling of heaven. The band of us fell asleep on deck, our bellies full and our hearts pounding with Abshir’s plan.

Morning came with the wind and our little green ship was moaning with the high waves. “Hurry, hurry.” Shouted Abshir, “Hurry!”

There was a large wooden motorboat on board our ship and it was carefully lowered into the sea. Abshir told us to follow him and Yolo into the boat. We climbed down a rope ladder and stepped lightly into the boat that seemed not quite large enough to carry us all. There were twelve of us huddled in the morning mist in the boat. I looked up and saw the one-eyed man and the woman watching us. There were some others we were leaving behind too. They shouted “Bonne Chance!” And then they raised their guns in victory to us. Yolo yanked the motor boat to life and we lurched into the sea. I watched as our ship grew smaller and smaller and finally it disappeared as though it had sunk. We were flying along on the open sea now, our motor boat was buffeted over and over by the lines of waves. Abshir watched his compass and talked into a radio. We were all given radios and reams of ammo.

A grey elephant appeared in the distance. I pinched Gabriel and said, “Look! An elephant!”

“That’s no elephant Alexander!” Gabriel looked sick. “That is the Russians. I just know it.”

“Yolo! slow down, there they are!” Abshir looked through his binoculars and waved his arm to the West, he wanted Yolo to stalk the elephant like poacher.

We stalked her for what seemed like ages, but perhaps it was only a few hours. She remained quite small in the distance and the sun passed over us and began to rest just on the edge of the sea. The fog of the previous day returned and then darkness fell over us. The elephant began to twinkle with little lights in the distance, we could see her perfectly lit and traced by her lanterns. Yolo gunned the engine and we flew across the sea with nothing in our way. Abshir rode the bow of our boat bravely and determined.

Gabriel pinched my arm and I smiled at him. I was not certain what was going to happen next and time seemed to be out of control now. Time had been left somewhere behind us in the ocean. The salt was burning my forehead and the palms of my hands tingled.

Yolo sped right to the side of the elephant -- she was still and heavy in the water. A watchman, a Russian looked down at us from the great sides of his naval ship and Abshir shouted to him in a language I had only heard once before, it was the language he spoke with the old Muslim. The watchman disappeared quickly and we heard much commotion. “Hurry! Hurry!” Abshir shouted and we all climbed up the sides of the great ship. We jumped on deck, with our AKs down and ready. But there was no one. We all looked at each other. This was puzzling to the men. Gabriel and I could tell that this wasn’t right -- weren’t we in for a battle with the Russians now? “They are cowards! We will find them. They are hiding somewhere.” Abshir told us to split up. Gabriel and I followed him and 3 other men down one side of the ship while the others went across the deck. We peered in windows and kicked open doors. No one. We came upon the galley with a table set for dinner, there was much food and wine and the plates appeared to be half full . . . the Russians had been eating here only minutes before. We went to the table and greedily ate the food. There was lamb and couscous and potatoes. I was so hungry and again time was lost and I splintered from my body as I took in the food. The rest of the men showed up, they had found no one -- empty beds, an empty engine room, no one. They found two life boats and so we surmised that they hadn’t escaped by boat. We ate all of the food in the galley and finally sat down to the table to drink the wine. There were Russian cigarettes and we smoked them and the men seemed almost to have forgotten why we had boarded the ship. But Abshir had not forgotten. He sucked the flesh of a leg of lamb and watched out the galley door, and then I saw a thought rise in him. He threw the meat bone to the floor and rose from his seat, “Hurry, hurry! I know where they are! They are in a safe room somewhere on board. We’ll find it and shoot our way in.”

We came out of our dazes and ran out the door and up the starboard side of the ship with Abshir leading us. He ducked into a passageway and started trying all the doors, he shouted to Yolo to remain out on deck and told Gabriel and I to stay with Yolo. As we stood guard on deck, we heard Abshir and the men scouring the ship for the door that might lead to a safe room. I looked out on the night horizon and saw a star twinkle low and bright, very near the sea. I pinched Gabriel and told him to look at the funny star. We watched the star and it became two stars and then they became three . . . I realized they were not stars at all, but the lights of a fast moving ship! “Yolo! A ship is coming!” Yolo spun round and squinted, “Merde, merde, merde! nous sommes baisés!”

Yolo left us to find Abshir and they all came running to the side of the ship to watch the approaching ship. It was coming so fast we had no time. No time at all. The ship seemed to break into smaller ships and we could see the high speed motor boats that it had sent out to maneuver more quickly. We decided to climb down the sides of our “captured” ship and try to make a getaway in our own little boat. We piled in and Yolo yanked at the motor, he yanked and he yanked, but she wouldn’t start. “Hurry! Merde!” Abshir pushed Yolo aside and tried to yank the motor himself, but nothing, she just sputtered and then there was nothing but the light of four or five suns shining on us and the clicking of guns ready to fire. There were so many many men and their skin was as white as the light, as white as the shaved ice that our fathers liked to have in their Coca-Colas and they shouted to us in that language. Abshir shouted back to them in their language and some of them laughed. They didn’t expect Abshir to be educated.

They made us climb back up the sides of the big ship and they surrounded us. They carefully took our weapons away and they were especially interested in Gabriel and me. One of them leaned into my face and took my silk tie between his fingers, “How old are you?” He spoke English, a very strange English, but it was English. I stood stiffly and told him I was fourteen years old. He asked me how old Gabriel was and I told him the same. They gathered us on a wide open swath of deck at the rear of the ship and shackled us all together. There was some commotion toward the bow and we watched as the crew we had attempted to take prisoner earlier emerged from a hatch in the deck. They had been under our feet all the time; listening to us run about like fools searching for them.

Now there were many of them. Many many Russians and they were not weak at all. Abshir had underestimated their size and their strength. They were clever warriors, like Alexander the Great. And we were thwarted so easily by them. There had been no shots fired and now we were all alive and facing each other. They decided to shackle us all together and there they left us on deck with just a few of their men to watch us til the sun rose. The sister ship arrived at our side and we were overwhelmed by her size. It was a true war ship . . . it was bigger than any river or mountain I had ever imagined. I wanted to fall asleep but it was impossible to fall asleep in chains. So I closed my eyes and tried to swim away in my mind, just like the Englishman taught me. I swam and swam up a long river and I swam so swiftly that the crocodiles were unable to eat me and the hippos were astounded as I passed them.

They put us on the big ship in the morning. They put us in a large cell below deck and told us they were taking us to a Russian prison. Abshir hung his head, all his courage seemed to have left him. Gabriel and I sat close to one another. We didn’t say a word, but we could speak with our minds. We dreamed to be back on the land, any land at all. I wondered if they would really keep us in the Russian prison, surely because we were only boys they would let us go?

Days went by. I don’t know how many because I couldn’t see the sun rise or set. The Russians opened the door occasionally and brought us bread and water and they even gave us some goat meat. The sun would pour in through the door when they opened it and that was the only way that I knew it was day. Yolo began to complain of pains in his stomach and they took him away. Not long after they took Yolo away, two Russians came with pencils and paper and they asked us lots of questions. We told them our names and our ages. We told them we were from Somalia. Abshir found some courage and he told them he was educated. He spoke to them in their language. He told them we should be returned to Mogadishu and they scowled at him.

The next day they came and told us to come on deck. They lined us up and put a large rubber raft down in the sea. There was no land anywhere. The sun was very high and there were not even sea birds in the sky. We could tell we were many many miles from Somalia. They told us they couldn’t take us back to Somalia. And they couldn’t take us to Russia because it would be too much trouble to try and convict us. Abshir shouted and started to protest. They pushed him overboard. We watched him fall and fall and hit the water with a terrible splash. We watched as he struggled in the sea to get to the rubber raft. We shouted to him, “Abshir! Abshir!” and he got hold of the raft and pulled himself in. He sat in the raft and looked up at us like a lion in a trap. We turned and faced the Russians. They told us to climb down the ladder and get in the raft with Abshir. The one that came to me on the first night and asked me how old I was gave me a metal box, “This is a beacon. Keep it in the boat with you. Perhaps someone will find you.” The beacon beat in my hand like a lion’s heart. I thanked the Russian. I believed him. I believed someone might find us. But they never did.