Caught in the middle of Libya's kidnapping nightmare

image captionLina spends her days calling contacts in Libya trying to get news about her father

Kidnapping has become a growing problem in Libya, where three governments and several militia are vying for power. The BBC's North Africa correspondent Rana Jawad has been talking to people personally affected.

"My father was kidnapped yesterday."

Not quite the text message you expect to get from a close friend on a Friday morning. I called to confirm that it was not a cruel auto-correction and rushed over to her place. She looked remarkably composed but exhausted.

Here, in the comfort and safety of neighbouring Tunisia, the insecurities engulfing Libya seem like a galaxy away.

She gets another call, and another, about a dozen in less than an hour.

She stands, frowning, and clutching the phone, trying to make sense of what was being communicated to her. She paces, kicks the kitchen chair, and eventually sits down calmly again.

image copyrightBeitelmal family
image captionSalem Beitelmal has been missing for more than a month

In post-revolution Libya, either armed gangs or semi-official militias kidnap people. The motives vary, from ransom, to revenge, to politics but the devastation and helplessness that the victims' families experience is the same.

I saw this first-hand through my friend, Lina (not her real name).

Her 68-year-old diabetic father, university professor Salem Beitelmal, was abducted. Six weeks on, the family is still not entirely sure which armed group took him or why. But they have learned that his car was found abandoned on the side of a road, west of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Official statistics are not available but many Libyans I know have either first-hand experience of being kidnapped or have had a family member or friend abducted. Most families do not speak out, fearing that if they go public their loved ones will be killed or tortured in captivity.

So what happens after a kidnapping?

The power vacuum in Libya means that in case of an emergency, you call a friend, a neighbour, and every local militia under the Libyan sun.

image copyrightAFP
image captionNumerous rival militia groups are vying for power in Libya

Over the past month, I have watched Lina agonize over an investigation that often entails talking to people she mistrusts. The family has a pool of contacts she is calling, but they are strangers.

At times, she looked like she was going around in circles and slowly being sucked into a vortex of misinformation.

"You don't have institutions that you can turn to that are there to protect and serve the citizens. So the reality then becomes that it is the citizens who have to take matters into their own hands," she tells me.

"But at the same time there's a strong social network that kind of replaces that, and that's how Libyans have been dealing with everything," she says.

Lawlessness in Libya

image copyrightAFP
  • Long-serving ruler Col Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in October 2011
  • Since then there has been no central authority
  • Myriad armed militias took control of different parts of the country
  • The UN has backed a government based in Tripoli
  • There are two other rival governments

Kidnappings in Libya have been on the rise over the past three years.

Current statistics are not available, but in 2015 the Libyan Red Crescent Society reported that more than 600 people had gone missing between February 2014 and April 2015.

No-one is immune - the victims range from politicians to activists to businessmen to doctors to children. And the stories are all equally tragic.

Abdel-Moez Banoun, a high-profile anti-militia activist, disappeared from Tripoli in the late summer of 2014 and has been deemed untraceable by human rights groups since.

Here in Tunis, I met a young Libyan woman whose entire family had fled their home country after a relative was kidnapped and killed.

Jabir Zain, a young Sudanese activist who grew up in Libya, was taken by an armed group outside a cafe in Tripoli in late September.

It happened after he led a group discussion on women's rights. Human rights groups have described his case as an "enforced disappearance".

image copyrightJabir Zain/ Facebook
image captionJabir Zain went missing after leading a discussion on women's rights in Tripoli

"We are like the living dead," his brother tells me on the line from Abu Dhabi, where he is currently based. His family is still in Tripoli.

Some weeks on, the militia brigade that they thought was holding him denied he was with them. Mr Zain's family believes that he was forcibly disappeared for his activism.

"The longer it took… the fewer contacts we started having," his brother explains.

Even the most well intentioned people often fear that if they help, they will soon be targets of abduction.

After numerous promises of help being on the way, phones get switched off and messages stop getting answered.

Lina and her family are now familiar with this cycle too.

"We've mobilised practically the entire country. Spoken to everyone who you can possibly think of from the top people in government, to the militias, and we've got promises, empty promises," she tells me.

Whether it is abductions, enforced disappearances, or human trafficking, these acts have become entrenched in some local communities.

image copyrightAFP
image captionSigns of normal life in Libya can disguise a more dangerous reality

Hanan Salah, a senior researcher with the Human Rights Watch campaign group, recently visited Libya to document cases of kidnappings. She has been researching issues in the country for several years, but the deteriorating security and the dangers that civilians are exposed to still surprise her.

"I was really shocked at the normalisation of crime, and in particular the soaring numbers of abductions for ransom, and extortions by militias and armed gangs," she says.

She remembers one victim's story in particular.

"The reason he was kidnapped was because the family he was being held by was trying to pay off the ransom of another kidnapping case," she says.

Nightmare existence

What has surprised Lina the most is the realisation of just how bad things are in her country.

"If you go to Libya today, during the day… as long as there are no clashes in the streets, life is normal; people are going to school, to work, shopping. Cafes and restaurants are filled.

"It gives you this false sense that there is in fact something that's keeping this country together.

"But then when you're put into this nightmare, you realise that there are no institutions that you can turn to, and that there is a complete breakdown."

I ask her if she is angry.

"I'm very angry. It angers me that we have three governments - not one - that claim power on the ground, and the reality is that not a single one of them have real control."

* Update 8 June 2017: Mr Beitelmal was later freed and reunited with his family.

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