MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women and hiring caterers to prepare Western-style food for their hostages.
And in an impoverished country where every public institution has crumbled, they have become heroes in the steamy coastal dens they operate from because they are the only real business in town.
"The pirates depend on us, and we benefit from them," said Sahra Sheik Dahir, a shop owner in Harardhere, the nearest village to where a hijacked Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100-million in crude was anchored Wednesday.
These boom towns provide a sharp contrast to Somalia's violence and poverty. Radical Islamists control most of the country's south, meting out lashings and stonings for accused criminals. There has been no effective central government in nearly 20 years, plunging the arid African country into chaos. Life expectancy is 46 years; a quarter of children die before they reach 5.
But in northern coastal towns like Harardhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the economy is thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms that have reached $30-million this year alone.
"Business is booming because of the piracy," said Sugule Dahir, who runs a clothing shop in Eyl. "Internet cafes and telephone shops have opened, and people are just happier than before."
In Harardhere, residents came out in droves to celebrate as the oil ship came into view this week off the country's lawless coast. Shop owners gathered cigarettes, food and cold bottles of orange soda, setting up kiosks for the pirates, who come to shore to resupply almost daily.
Dahir said she started a layaway plan for them. "They always take things without paying, and we put them into the book of debts. Later, when they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot."
Residents make sure the pirates are well-stocked in khat, a popular narcotic leaf, and aren't afraid to gouge a bit on prices. "I can buy a packet of cigarettes for about $1, but I will charge the pirate $1.30," said Abdulqadir Omar, an Eyl resident.
While houses in pirate villages used to be made of corrugated iron sheets, now there are stately looking homes made of sturdy white stones.
"Regardless of how the money is coming in, legally or illegally, I can say it has started a life in our town," said Shamso Moalim, 36, a mother of five in Harardhere. "Our children are not worrying about food now, and they go to Islamic schools in the morning and play soccer in the afternoon. They are happy."
The attackers generally treat their hostages well in anticipation of a big payday, hiring caterers on shore to cook spaghetti, grilled fish and roasted meat that will appeal to Western palates.
And when payday comes, the money sometimes literally falls from the sky. The ransom arrives in burlap sacks, sometimes dropped from buzzing helicopters, or in waterproof suitcases loaded onto skiffs in the shark-infested sea, the pirates say.
"The oldest man on the ship always takes the responsibility of collecting the money, because we see it as very risky, and he gets some extra payment for his service later," Aden Yusuf, a pirate in Eyl, said over VHF radio.
The pirates use money-counting machines, the same technology used at foreign exchange bureaus worldwide, to ensure the cash is real. All payments are done in cash because Somalia has no functioning banking system.
"Getting this equipment is easy for us, we have business connections with people in Dubai, Nairobi, Djibouti and other areas," Yusuf said.
Despite a beefed-up international presence, the pirates continue to seize ships, moving further out to sea and demanding ever-larger ransoms. The pirates operate mostly from the semiautonomous Puntland region, where local lawmakers have been accused of helping them and taking a cut of the ransoms.
For the most part, however, the regional officials say they have no power to stop piracy.
There are no reliable estimates of the number of pirates operating in Somalia, but they number in the thousands. And though the bandits sometimes get nabbed, piracy is generally considered a sure bet to a better life.