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Journalist Held Captive By Pirates Says Focus And Forgiveness Were Crucial

Michael Scott Moore was captured by pirates after traveling to Somalia to write a book about the history of piracy in the Horn of Africa.
Chris Pizzello
Michael Scott Moore was captured by pirates after traveling to Somalia to write a book about the history of piracy in the Horn of Africa.

Kidnapped by Somali pirates, journalist Michael Scott Moore spent two and half years in captivity. At times he was held on land, other times at sea. Once, when he was on a 160-foot tuna boat, he tried to escape by jumping over the side at night.

"It was, like, a 20 foot leap off the deck of the ship, and I was just exultant at first," Moore says.

Moore had hoped the pirates would leave him behind in the water. "The engine wasn't in terrific shape, so I didn't think there was a way to turn around the ship," he says.

Instead, the captain cut the engine and let the boat drift towards him. As the big industrial ship closed in on him in the dark water, Moore made a snap decision: He opted to get back on board.

"They found me eventually with the search lights and I raised my hand and they threw me a life preserver," he says. "By that point everything was pretty desperate and pretty hopeless."

The pirates had initially demanded a $20 million ransom, but as the years passed, Moore's mother negotiated the figure down to $1.6 million. Eventually she raised enough money to free her son.

Moore writes about his ordeal in the memoir, The Desert and the Sea.

Interview Highlights

On the pirates calling his mother and asking for a $20 million ransom

The only number I had in my head was my mother's number in California. She wound up being the negotiator on the phone with the pirates, which is not something I intended. ...

She was horrified but I mean she was obviously trembling she was obviously scared. She was also obviously waiting for the call. So in other words, she knew I had been kidnapped. The call came about a week after my capture and by then she'd been visited by the FBI and so she knew more or less what was going on.

On his initial plans to jump from the ship

I'm a surfer, so I paid attention to the currents. I paid attention to which way the swells were moving. The first idea if and when I jumped would have been to get away from the ship as quickly as possible, because I assumed they would start to open fire. So I had to think about how to get away from the ship as quickly as possible. The whole thing seemed ridiculous and dangerous and stupid.

On being brought from the ship to a prison house and doing yoga

Slowly it settled in, after about a month or so, that I was going to be there for a long time. And so once I realized I was in a house where I wasn't going to move for a while, I asked for a yoga mat. ... And I tried to do it out of eyesight of the pirates, because I figured it would just sort of baffle them or make them laugh, and that's exactly what it did.

But, you know, they never had me out of their sight. So [the] first time I did yoga all their heads sort of looked in through the doorway and they started to laugh, but then they started to do yoga with me. Some of them were aware of not getting much exercise either in these prison houses, so they would come in with sort of cardboard flats, broken down boxes, to stand on the filthy floor and they had these makeshift yoga mats and started to do the same postures. ... I had my own class, yeah, after a while I started to correct their postures.

On considering suicide

My father died when I was 12. I thought it was a heart attack for a long time. I didn't realize until I did some research myself in 2010 — so not very long before I went to Somalia ... — that he had shot himself. So he committed suicide and that was on my mind obviously once I was captured in Somalia. I felt that somehow I had steered myself into this situation where I had to make a similar decision, and it was on my mind a lot, especially after I wound up on land. ...

There were weapons around all the time, and sometimes the pirates actually abandoned a Kalashnikov on the floor... And so then I would have to think very carefully about whether I should pick up the Kalashnikov, and whether I should start trying to escape that way. ...

But ... even if it was half successful, I probably would have been shot dead by the rest of the guards. There was never fewer than seven of them in a prison house. So in the end it would have been a suicidal gesture. ...

For a while it was a daily decision whether I should do it or not, and I had to make a determined decision to stay alive, because I knew ... there was a crisis at home. I knew my mother was suffering to get me out. And I also knew that there were probably military plans in place, and some somebody somewhere might actually risk their lives to come and get me. And I thought well, suicide could solve all that. You know it could end the problem at home and save any SEALs the incredible risk of trying to come get me. All these things went through my head.

On why he decided against suicide

At some point, I made a conscious decision to forgive my guards, to forgive the most immediate people were causing me pain. That was an incredible mental transformation.

At some point, I made a conscious decision to forgive my guards, to forgive the most immediate people who were causing me pain. That was an incredible mental transformation. Once I reordered my brain like that, I no longer had that impulse to kill myself. It was a daily discipline, but it worked. And it was also a good thing that I had pen and paper at that time so I could write and I could distract myself, but that mental orientation was absolutely crucial.

On eventually being released for $1.6 million that his mother gathered from family, friends and magazines he had worked for

It happened very suddenly and I didn't know what was going on. And I certainly didn't believe that I was about to go free. Even though the pirates kept telling me that. ... They had told me 100 times before, and I stopped believing them months, if not years, before.

And then a car arrived in the middle of the day, which was slightly unusual, they said, "Michael, we're going to take you to the airport," and I didn't dare believe them. But I packed my things, and sure enough when I got in the car they said, "We're not going to actually take you to the airport. We're going to drive you into the bush and hand you to some other Somalis." I thought, fantastic. You just sold me to another gang, if not al-Shabaab. So I was angry again.

But there was a slight difference in the way I was being treated. I wasn't being packed into the car with a bunch of guys holding their rifles. It was just a couple of English speaking translators with not very much in the way of weapons. And I was handed to another Somali who managed to get my mother on the phone.

So he called a number and got a negotiator who'd been working on my case ... and they both sounded elated, they sounded really happy, and they said, "Michael you're going to the airport and your pilot's name is going to be Derek." And then I knew I was going free. ... I felt lighter, but it was a progressive experience. It wasn't sudden elation, "Oh my gosh, I'm going free." It was one step at a time, towards not feeling quite so oppressed.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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