Libyan police freed eight Sudanese migrants in a raid on January 23. The men had been kidnapped by an armed group 10 days prior and subjected to horrible torture in captivity. Several prisoners were relatives of Abou Bakr Ibrahim, a Sudanese man who lives in France. Two were his brothers, and one was his cousin. Ibrahim told France 24 about his conversations with his relatives’ kidnappers and explained how an outcry on social media resulted in their release.
It all started when two videos showing Sudanese migrants being tortured appeared on social media.
Because of the extremely violent nature of these videos, France 24 has decided to publish only screengrabs.
In the first video the torturer melts small pieces of plastic onto the end of a stick and then pours the burning liquid onto his victim’s back, making the man twist in agony.
The victim’s naked body is covered with scars, probably from burns. The footage also shows one of the Libyan militiamen, whose face is covered with a piece of cloth, pointing his gun at the victim.
A second video (screengrab below) shows a group of five migrants lying on their stomachs side-by-side. A man stands over them, whipping them relentlessly. You can hear the victims crying and begging their families in Sudan to send money to their kidnappers.
The kidnappers sent these videos to the families of the victims via WhatsApp to incite them to pay the ransom more quickly.
"I thought, the best way to get my brothers out of this mess was to make as much noise about this as possible”
Abou Bakr Ibrahim lives in Le Havre, in northwestern France. The kidnappers contacted him on January 17.
My brothers Marghanna and Abdelmajid, as well as my cousin Anouar, were kidnapped on January 13. They had left Ajdabiya, the town they were living in, and were on their way to Tripoli, Libya. On January 17, my sister called me from Sudan to tell me that they had been kidnapped by an armed group.
I immediately contacted their flatmate in Ajdabiya because they used to always call me on his mobile phone. He told me that they had indeed been kidnapped. He had even been contacted by the kidnappers, who asked for a ransom.
So I got the kidnappers’ number and I called them.
“You are Marghanna and Abdelmajid’s brother?" one of them asked me.
I heard moaning from somewhere behind him. He then passed the phone to one of my brothers.
“Send the money, send the money, Abou Bakr!”
It was all he had time to say before the kidnapper took back the phone.
“Did you hear?” he said. “Send me 80,000 Sudanese pounds [Editor’s note: equivalent to about €9,000] or I’ll kill your brothers. You have three days.”
Then, he sent me the videos and photos on WhatsApp.
When I looked at these images, I fell into a state of shock. I couldn’t believe it. I called the kidnapper back and I asked him to send me another video so that I could see my brothers better and make sure that it was them.
But he refused. “Do you really want me to torture them again?”
I stopped insisting because I was worried that he’d hurt them more.
I thought the best way to get my brothers out of this mess was to make as much noise as possible about this. So I posted the videos on social media and I sent them to several different media outlets.
I also told my friends in Sudan and throughout the Sudanese diaspora, and they started fundraising campaigns on Facebook.
The news of the kidnapping created such an outcry on social media that it ignited a diplomatic push to liberate the hostages. On January 23, the African Union announced in a statement that they had opened an investigation into the matter and were demanding that Libyan authorities do everything possible to free the captives.
Amid the outcry, the Sudanese Minister for Foreign Affairs summoned the Libyan ambassador in Khartoum to demand an explanation. That very night, the Rada special deterrence forces, a militia loyal to Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj that acts as a crime-fighting police unit, announced on their Facebook page that they had liberated eight Sudanese hostages and arrested their kidnappers.
The hostages had been imprisoned in a house in the village of Qadahiya, near the city of Sirte. They were brought to a hospital in Sirte, where they are still being treated for injuries such as burns.
Abou Bakr was able to speak to his cousin and his brothers by telephone on January 24.
They seemed to be in good spirits. I spoke to them on the telephone of a Libyan police officer who was with them. We had a very short conversation because the police officer said that the conversation shouldn’t be longer than five minutes.
My family in Sudan still hasn’t been able to talk to them. The kidnappers took their mobile phones, so we haven’t been able to call them directly. The Libyan policemen also told me that my brothers and cousin were going to be sent back to Sudan. We are going to wire them the money that we raised so that they can get proper treatment for their injuries.
Reporters from the Libyan news channel 218 News went to the hospital on January 25 to meet with the survivors. Some of men said that they had been tortured every day and that their only meal was a piece of stale bread every 24 hours.
International pressure has been increasing on Libyan authorities since November, when the American TV channel CNN broadcast a video documenting migrants being auctioned at a slave market in Libya. On December 7, the UN Security Council held an urgent meeting during which they said these practices amounted to crimes against humanity.
After suffering the fallout from the images of the slave market, Libyan authorities were much more reactive in the case of the eight kidnapped Sudanese migrants, said a local journalist who wished to remain anonymous.
"The authorities want international recognition for the liberation [of these migrants] in Sirte,” the journalist told the France 24 Observers team. “This operation is also a way of saying, ‘We are able to respond to this.’”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that there are between 700,000 and 1 million migrants in Libya. Trafficking migrants is the second-most lucrative activity in the country, falling just behind petrol smuggling, and represents between 5 and 10 percent of the national GDP, according to France 2.