Libyan police recently freed eight Sudanese migrants in a raid on January 23. The men had been kidnapped by an armed group 10 days prior and had been subjected to torture during their captivity. Several of them were relatives of Abou Bakr Ibrahim, a Sudanese man who lives in France. Ibrahim told France 24 how a social media campaign resulted in their release.
It all started with two videos showing Sudanese migrants being tortured on social media. In the first video, the torturer is seen melting plastic onto the end of a stick and then pouring the burning liquid onto his victim's back, showing the man twist his body in agony. His naked body is covered with scars, most likely from burns. The footage also shows one of the Libyan militiamen, whose faces are covered, pointing his gun at the victim.
The second video highlights a group of five migrants lying on their stomachs side-by-side. A man is seen standing over them, whipping them relentlessly. You can hear the victims crying and begging their families in Sudan to send money to their kidnappers to make the torture stop.
From Sudan to Libya to France
The kidnappers then reportedly sent these videos to the families of the victims via WhatsApp to incite them to pay the ransom more quickly. One of those family members to receive these messages was Abou Bakr Ibrahim, who 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."
Ibrahim goes on to tell the conversation he had with the kidnappers:
"One of them asked me: 'You are Marghanna and Abdelmajid’s brother?' I heard some moaning from somewhere behind him. He then passed the phone to one of my brothers."
"Send the money, send the money, Abou Bakr!" Ibrahim quotes his brother as saying. It was all he had time to say before the kidnapper took back the phone.
"Did you hear?" the kidnapper said. "Send me 80,000 Sudanese pounds (€9,000) or I'll kill your brothers. You have three days."
Torture videos on social media
The kidnappers then sent further videos and pictures to Ibrahim via 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 and said: 'Do you really want me to torture them again?' So 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 kidnappers also sent this photo to Abou Bakr Ibrahim, showing his cousin, Anouar.
Diplomatic push for intervention
The news of the kidnapping created such a public 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 that they were demanding the Libyan authorities to do everything possible to free the captives.
The Sudanese Minister for Foreign Affairs meanwhile summoned the Libyan ambassador in Khartoum to demand an explanation as well. 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 had 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 for the first time since their liberation 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 the men said that they had been tortured every day during their ordeal, and that their only meal was a piece of stale bread once every 24 hours.
Pressure mounting on Libya
International pressure has been increasing on Libyan authorities to crack down on crimes against migrants since November when the US news broadcaster CNN showed a video documenting refugees being auctioned off at a slave market in Libya. On December 7, the UN Security Council held an urgent meeting during which they said that these practices amounted to crimes against humanity.
After the fallout from the images of the slave market, Libyan authorities were quick to react 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 their 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 currently in Libya. Trafficking refugees is the second-most lucrative activity in the country, falling just behind petrol smuggling.
Human trafficking represents between 5 and 10 percent of the country's national GDP, according to France 2.
Text initially published on: The Observers