Somali-Canadian Mohamed Ashareh hopped a plane with his video camera in 2009, posing as a middleman for an American businessman interested in turning a profit by funding a pirate operation.SUPPLIED PHOTO
Mohamed Ashareh knew he would eventually wear out his welcome in Somalia. He was the Canadian guy walking around with a video camera and a team of pirates, a sight bound to make him a target.
But the 24-year-old was not afraid to be courting marauders in one of the most dangerous places on earth. Not when the pirates he sailed with set out to hijack a ship. Not when a masked man aimed an AK-47 at his chest and demanded money. Not even when he awaited his own roadside execution.
Ashareh, 22 at the time and midway through a computer science degree at Laurentian University, was on a mission: Live with pirates. Learn about what they do and why they do it. Then make a film.
The product of Ashareh's Somali escapade — The Pirate Tapes — will screen at Hot Docs in May.
“I booked a ticket one day. And I did not tell anybody,” the Somali-Canadian says at his family's Mississauga home.It's been more than a year now since Ashareh left Somalia but he remembers nearly every detail of his two trips to the country.Family connections were Ashareh's key to gaining the trust of pirate clans in the Somali region of Puntland and accessing the inner workings of their operations.A deep-rooted regionwide respect for Ashareh's father — a former government minister in Puntland — allowed him to get closer to the pirates than most people could without being killed.Family is also the reason he set out on a quest most would call insane.Ashareh's 20-year-old sister, Yasmin, was brutally murdered in 2006 by William Imona-Russel, a failed refugee claimant out on bail after being convicted of several offences relating to sexual assaults on a former lover. The lengthy trial ended last summer with a first-degree murder conviction and life sentence for Imona-Russel.Ashareh says his sister's words of wisdom — “Whatever you believe in, do it” — guided him to Somalia.“My sister passed away, so after that I obviously thought that death can come from anywhere. I wasn't scared of death.”Ashareh used part of a $25,000 Canadian Crime Victim Foundation scholarship, awarded to siblings of murder victims, to fund his first trip to Somalia.Later, he signed a contract with a local production company and returned on his own again, but with better equipment.As well as recounting Ashareh's near-death experiences, The Pirate Tapes tells the story of Somalia's multi-million-dollar piracy business, shedding light on the history and political corruption that turned fishermen into violent vigilantes.
Ashareh and the production company, Palmira PDR, had a falling out last year and haven't spoken in several months. He had no idea the film had been sent to Hot Docs.He says he feels the production company “hijacked” what should be his project and didn't give him due credit for his work.
“It's a very complicated situation,” said Andrew Moniz of Palmira. “I really wish it wasn't like this.”Palmira filmed and interviewed in Kenya, produced and edited the documentary, and provided creative direction, Moniz said.He won't say much about the conflict, but acknowledges Ashareh was an integral part in the making of The Pirate Tapes. “We never would have made it without him.”
In the end, Ashareh nearly died for the film. While attempting to flee the country in late November 2009, he was arrested and held captive by border police. A Somali translator arrested with Ashareh turned to him at one point and told him they were going to die.After days in captivity without food or water, Ashareh and the translator were put into a transport vehicle that drove into the night and pulled over on a deserted road.
They were ordered outside where a technical — a civilian pickup truck or four-wheel-drive vehicle with a machine gun mounted on it — sat ready to execute them. “They made us face the bushes,” he remembers.
At the last minute, the police hesitated and ordered them back into the vehicle. Ashareh later learned his father's diplomatic connections came through just in time.He was home — with all his video equipment — within days.“I'm lucky,” Ashareh says in the film. “I escaped death.” Toronto star