A British couple freed Sunday after being held for more than a year by Somali pirates who kidnapped them can thank a Twin Cities man who worked feverishly behind the scenes to help secure their release.
Mohamed Aden, a suburban dad from Burnsville, returned to his native Somalia a couple of years ago to establish a regional government there. Now a leader of that area, Aden helped raise money among Somalis in Europe and the United States to pay off the pirates -- in exchange for the release of Paul and Rachel Chandler.
When the Chandlers arrived early Sunday morning in Aden's town of Adado, they were given a shower and a new set of clothes. Aden also made sure the retired couple could enjoy a meal that would remind them of home.
"I assumed that since they are British, I have to come up with something close to English breakfast," he said. "So they had eggs, small beans, stuff like that. English breakfast, without the sausage. There's no sausage in Somalia."
Aden also saw that the couple heard directly from the Somali community in Adado. At a ceremony welcoming them to town, the locals expressed their condolences for the mistreatment they endured. One local man told the Chandlers that the pirates were making the Somalis' lives miserable, too.
"So we ask you for your forgiveness," the local man told the Chandlers, as seen on Sky News. "And tell your government the Somali people are innocent people who are helpless, cannot defend themselves. They're surrounded by religious factions, surrounded by thugs, surrounded by criminal pirates."
Rachel Chandler responded with sympathy:
"I do hope that our ordeal has not been in vain, and that it will highlight the need to help you fight this terrible crime," she said.
In the news footage from Adado, you can see Aden sitting by the couple's side, listening and engaging. At 38, he's stylishly dressed in a striped button-down shirt, wool flat cap, and dark-rimmed glasses.
After building a life of comfort in Minnesota, he returned to Somalia, moved by a calling to rebuild his homeland. Aden has received international attention for bringing peace and stability to one section of this war-ravaged country. His family still lives in Burnsville, where Aden plans to return soon.
Aden said Paul and Rachel Chandler suffered harsh conditions as their captors shuffled them from one location to another. They also were separated for three months.
"They were excited to be alive and free," he said. "And I told them, 'right now is your lucky day.' "
If Sunday was the Chandlers' lucky day, Oct. 22, 2009, year was their unluckiest. They were sailing around the world when Somali pirates hijacked their small yacht and demanded a multi-million-dollar ransom, wrongly assuming the couple was wealthy.
Aden says the Chandlers' family sent the pirates about $450,000 in June. Then, over the past three months, Aden appealed to Somalis in his region, and among his clansmen living in the United Kingdom and the United States. He said Somalis around the world felt they had to do their part.
"Although what happened to Paul and Rachel does not reflect our community or our faith, the community obligated and said, 'You know what? We have to do something,' " he said. "We knew the British government wouldn't anything whatsoever, and the family already did whatever they could. It's up to us."
In the end, the Somali community chipped in a relatively modest ransom of $300,000 for the couple's release.
Aden also organized a group of elders, religious clerics and officials within his administration to put pressure on the pirates.
"We said, 'this is getting insane.' We said those human beings, Paul and Rachel, need their freedom back. We showed them what happened -- if Paul and Rachel get hurt," Aden said. "If this happens, the consequence will be larger than what you're expecting."
While it all came down to money in the end, paying ransoms is not an ideal solution because they encourage the pirates and lead other young men to think piracy is a viable business, Aden said. Pirates are poor and unemployed and are looking for a way out.
Aden said it's up to the local people to convince these young men, through jobs and direct pressure, that kidnapping foreigners isn't the answer.
But many of the pirates are based near his region, so he may have yet another opportunity to help free kidnapped hostages.