Michael Scott Moore is reading quietly in the corner of a bar at the Frontline Club, an old hangout for war reporters and foreign correspondents near Paddington Station in central London. The walls are lined with books, photos, flak jackets and other paraphernalia.
In a black jumper and jeans, Moore is clean-shaven with grey-flecked dark hair – but the 49-year-old American-German journalist is better known to the world dressed in a pink tank top, with a flowery blanket on his head, surrounded by scarved men pointing Kalashnikovs at him.
This was the first, and most notorious, video broadcast to the world in May 2012 by the Somali pirates who held Moore hostage for more than two and a half years. He was wearing an odd selection of the only clothes available, having been captured in January of that year.
“I was grimly aware that in the video I would look not just wretched but ridiculous,” he writes in his book about the experience, The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast.
When he speaks about the part-thriller, part-memoir today, Moore notes that he is on his second latte of the morning. “I’m a junkie,” he says, with a small smile that creeps into a world-weary expression. The absence of adequate coffee was one of the first things he fixated on when he was kidnapped, while visiting the Horn of Africa to investigate piracy. His guards would only provide instant coffee granules mixed through a Thermos full of tea.
Filled with fear for his life, guilt about burdening his mother, and pain from a broken hand pounded by Kalashnikovs, Moore was nevertheless occupied by his lamentable breakfasts. To compound this, one pirate stole his oatmeal.
“At home I drank good coffee. I missed it in Somalia, not from my first day in the country, but from my first day as a hostage,” he writes. After four years of freedom, Moore still cherishes these small joys: “My entire life afterwards is sort of a gift. If I forget to be grateful, I have this entire experience to fall back on to remind myself.”
His attitude to life has irrevocably changed since he was released. “I stopped living in the future; I learned to live without hope. And that continues. I think it’s very American to be optimistic, and I stopped doing that. Now it’s not as if I’m pessimistic, it’s just a way of not living in the future at all… It sounds bleak but it’s not so bad,” he says.
While driving back to his hotel following an afternoon’s reporting, his car was held up by a dozen armed men. He was dragged into the pirates’ jeep and driven off to an outdoor camp in the bush.
Moore did not know then that he would be held captive for nearly 1,000 days – with no outside contact for over half of his ordeal, and no idea of the day or date (his estimate was 17 days out when he eventually obtained a radio).
Moore’s book recounts the horror of hostage life. His immune system broke down. He contracted malaria. On one occasion, while being held for five months on an anchored tuna fishing ship, he dived into the sea in a confused bid either to escape or drown himself.
A fellow prisoner – an elderly Seychelles fisherman called Rolly who became Moore’s best friend – was strung up by his ankles from a tree, and whipped with a bamboo cane. Another hostage lost the use of his arms after being hooked up to a boat’s generator and electrocuted.
But this trauma is juxtaposed with moments of relief. When Moore practised yoga on the ship to alleviate his stiffness, some of the guards joined in, and he ended up giving regular classes. “With the guards who were willing to talk, I was happy to talk – or even teach yoga,” he quips.
Moore also underwent an internal journey through memories of his childhood in California.
His father, who suffered from alcoholism, shot himself in the chest when Moore was 12. Until his thirties, Moore thought it was a heart attack that had killed him.
While captive, his suicidal fantasies – cutting his arm with a tuna can lid, grabbing one of the AK-47s that “lay around like junk” to shoot himself – intermingled with his emotions over his father’s death. “I was desperate enough to do it, and it took the logic of saying to myself, ‘Don’t do it twice to your mother,’” he recalls.
Moore’s mother, the book’s hero, enabled his escape. Trained by the FBI to converse with the pirates and her son, she overcame the “blur of stress” Moore tells me she felt during stilted phone calls, to help negotiate his release. His mother also raised the $1.6m ransom (a reduction from the pirates’ original and persistent demand for $20m).
Moore now sleeps badly, but no longer has nightmares and is “glad I’m alive”. But he still resents the “moral compromise” of paying a ransom. “The bosses would’ve got the bulk of the money, and those guys are nasty.”
Recently, he received a message on Facebook with a wedding picture from Mogadishu. It was Issa, one of his pirate captors. “He’d got married, a big cake, he was wearing a suit. It’s weird. I didn’t need to fund Issa’s wedding.”
“The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast” by Michael Scott Moore is available in hardback from Harper Wave
This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow