Michele Ballarin, a Northern Virginia businesswoman believes she can… (D.A. Peterson/For The Washington…)
For The Washington Post
Michele Ballarin, a Northern Virginia businesswoman, says she has negotiated with Somali pirates and warlords in her efforts to try to save the war-torn country.
In late 2008, media outlets reported that a wealthy Northern Virginia businesswoman was negotiating with Somali pirates for the release of a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian vessel stocked with Soviet-era tanks and grenade launchers. “I’m in communication with both ships on a regular basis,” Michele Ballarin informed the press. She had recently returned from Somalia to her 191-year-old estate in Fauquier County.
Somalia experts were puzzled; they had never heard of her. But news that she was a trusted confidante of Somali pirates and warlords emerged just as the pirate crisis was exploding on the world stage, frustrating the U.S. and other governments, which seemed powerless to keep ships from being seized.
Ballarin boasted to reporters that she had a plan to bring peace and prosperity to the beleaguered country. After two decades of strife, some Somalis grabbed onto her like a lifeline. The pirates called her Amira, which means “princess” in Arabic.
Not everybody was so enamored. A senior government official told ABC News: “It’s pretty sad when a horse-country socialite has more sway in Somalia than the whole U.S. government.”
Ballarin’s genteel neighbors were dumbstruck. On a media Web site, one wrote that he knew Ballarin. “Have been to her house in Fauquier County. I would never, never have thought that this diminutive lady who wears Ferragamo shoes out in the country would be involved in something like this.”
As it turned out, Ballarin was not able to free those ships (other intermediaries did). But word of “Amira” had spread, and by 2009, Ballarin was friendly with Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the incoming president of Somalia. He named Ballarin his “presidential advisor for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.”
During much of Ahmed’s four-year tenure, Somalia was in a downward spiral. Only an influx of African Union soldiers from neighboring countries kept his government from being toppled by Islamic extremists. In 2011, a drought and famine claimed the lives of 250,000 Somalis. But by the time Ahmed left the presidency last September, the perennial failed state was edging back from the abyss.
Now Ahmed, 49, and Ballarin, 58, have joined forces again. This summer they formed a Virginia-based nonprofit called the Oasis Foundation for Hope. Its ambitious aim is the resettlement of Somalia’s 1.1 million refugees, 385,000 of whom live in a sprawling, crowded encampment in Dadaab, a town in eastern Kenya that borders Somalia.
To those familiar with headlines out of Somalia in recent years, the notion of moving hundreds of thousands of refugees back to their embattled homeland might seem preposterous. Security remains tenuous, with the Islamic extremist group al-Shababweakened but still lethal. Longstanding clan divisions are flaring anew, sparking violence between warlords.
“This is the right time to do this,” Ahmed insisted when I met with him and Ballarin at a 110-acre estate in Warrenton in May. The brick manor doubles as Ballarin’s office and the home of Perry Davis, a former Green Beret and her business partner. Ahmed spent two days huddled there with Ballarin and Davis over Memorial Day weekend. They mapped out logistics and pored over mock-up designs of resettlement villages, the first of which is slated to break ground by year’s end.
There was a heady sense of optimism in the meeting, also attended by Michael Kirtley, a former writer for National Geographic who has reported on Africa for 40 years and is the Oasis Foundation for Hope’s media strategist. “This is one of the most positive things I’ve seen in this part of Africa,” he said.
I had witnessed this infectious enthusiasm in the Warrenton conference room before. I’d met some of the smart, highly credentialed teams Ballarin put together in previous years, people drawn to her charm and her missionary quest to pacify a country torn apart by decades of civil war. And I’d learned how frustrated some became by a lack of progress and how they’d ultimately come to feel disillusioned with Ballarin.
“She has an amazing ability to attract very powerful people,” said Esther Herbert, a medical consultant who worked with Ballarin on a similar Somali initiative from 2008 to 2010. “Then it all falls apart.”
Or, as Geoff Whiting, a retired naval intelligence officer who partnered with Herbert and Ballarin during the same time frame, put it:
“The problem with Michele is separating fact from fiction. What is real, and what is made up?”
A Somali pirate looking out at a Greek cargo ship being held by pirates along the coastline in 2010.