MOGADISHU Somalia's increasingly brazen pirates are building sprawling stone houses, cruising in luxury cars, marrying beautiful women - even 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 from which they operate, 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 (U.S.) in crude was anchored yesterday.
These boomtowns are all the more shocking in light of 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 this arid African country into chaos.
Life expectancy is just 46 years; a quarter of children die before they reach the age of 5.
But in northern coastal towns like Harardhere, Eyl and Bossaso, the pirate economy is thriving thanks to the money pouring in from pirate ransoms, which have reached $30-million this year alone.
"There are more shops, and business is booming because of the piracy," said Sugule Dahir, who runs a clothing shop in Eyl. "Internet cafés and telephone shops have opened, and people are just happier than before."
In Harardhere residents came out in droves to celebrate as the looming oil ship came into focus this week off the country's lawless coast. Businessmen gathered cigarettes, food and cold bottles of orange soda, setting up kiosks for the pirates who come to shore to resupply almost daily.
Ms. Dahir said she even started a layaway plan for them.
"They always take things without paying and we put them into the book of debts," she said in an interview. "Later, when they get the ransom money, they pay us a lot."
While pirate villages used to have houses 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, a 36-year-old mother of five in Harardhere.