Here in the Seychelles, they believe that a turning point in the war with Somali piracy occurred when the Supreme Court handed down a severe sentence of 22 years each to nine Somali pirates under a new “antipiracy” amendment to Seychelles law.
The pirates really had seized some Seychellois, so the mood in Victoria — the smallest national capital city in the world, with one traffic light — was good, both among officials and ordinary citizens. If we add to this that the United Arab Emirates had donated five patrol vessels to Seychelles, significantly augmenting the local coast guard (which until then had two patrol boats), it becomes clear why the military spirit of the Seychellois was high. In addition to all this, American and French naval ships were in port, providing extra jobs.
Still, the security problems of the 115 Seychelles Islands have not been resolved. When I prepared to visit the southern island of Aldabra and its giant tortoises, I was told I could become easy prey for those self-same pirates.
The thousands of Somali pirates, armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers, have become a serious international problem. Seychelles authorities complain that the pirates have significantly undermined the country’s fishing industry. Yachting, and tourism in general, have suffered. More broadly, shipping has been disrupted not only in the Indian Ocean but around the world, as tankers and other vessels need to use these ocean routes.
The Seychelles authorities have called on large countries to assume responsibility for combating piracy. I spoke about this with a senior government minister, Vincent Meriton, who saw the root cause of piracy in the fact that Somalia has virtually no effective government, and who argued that unless order is restored to Somalia with international help, the pirates — driven by poverty and despair — cannot be eradicated.
At the same time, there are conflicting opinions among islanders about who benefits from this maritime evil. Some argue that the Somali bandits have long evolved into organized crime groups linked, through the Somali Islamist insurgency Al-Shabaab, to Al Qaeda. Then there are those who hold a darker notion, saying that pirate loot settles ultimately in certain British and American banks, turning the fight with piracy into hypocrisy. Conspiracy theories are not the best way to sort out the problem, of course, but its very complexity gives rise to them.
I would not say, however, that Somali pirates have plunged the Seychelles into complete darkness. The equatorial sun shines equitably all year round, without crippling heat. Coco-de-mer, a coconut unique to the islands of Praslin and Curieuse, still stirs the erotic imagination of tourists with its suggestive shape.
Have you ever seen a customs arrival form that lists, among potential reasons for visiting the country, “honeymoon”? There’s nothing surprising in this. The Seychelles are created for romance; when you tell the Seychellois that their islands are paradise, they take it as a statement of fact, noting that apparently this was the actual Garden of Eden. And I must say that the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of a population of highly diverse roots and colors struck me deeply.
Maybe this was because ethnic problems in my native Russia are so acute now. At our resort, I met many of my countrymen, who are celebrated here for their eccentricity — and their tips (I stand amazed at the international myth of Russian wealth!) I was told at the resort that Russians had entirely taken over the hotel for Russian Christmas, Jan. 7. To be honest, I was here with my wife Katya for our honeymoon. But that did not leave me indifferent to the problems of the islands.
After all, we Russians and the Seychellois are, in one sense, brothers in misfortune. They too tried to “build socialism,” after they gained independence from Britain in 1976, and managed to create a harsh one-party system with censorship and fear. True, they did not recreate Stalin’s Gulag, but they did achieve the traditional communist shortages. The legacy of this socialism is still evident in the bad roads and modest shops, and diplomats complain that it is difficult to find clothes to buy.
New problems have gradually appeared. Until recently, the Seychellois did not know what a serious crime was. That changed four years ago, when the global wave of narcotics rolled in like a tsunami. The local minister of tourism and sport says this is the result of the integration of the Seychelles in global processes, but this globalization has also led to robbery and murder. Drug addiction has become entwined with another new phenomenon — alcoholism. Piracy is not the only evil.
The Seychellois are also greatly concerned about climate change. The beautiful granite islands could sink below the sea if the oceans continue to warm. A rise in sea level has already been noted, and the average annual temperature has risen by 1.5 degrees.
Nevertheless, as Vincent Mediton told me, the Seychellois have a positive vision for the future, and the trained personnel for it. The youth of the Seychelles study at the local university and around the world. Since there is harmony in the population, there will be a common understanding of the challenges.
Personally, I am not rushing back to Moscow. Paradise is paradise, even if there are problems. But a paradise needs help to remain a paradise. Save the Seychelles from the pirates!
Victor Erofeyev, a Russian writer and television host. Translated from the Russian by the International Herald Tribune.