The phone call lasted just three minutes, but it gave Sara Espinoza the first proof in six weeks that her son is alive.
His voice was shaky, she said, almost unrecognizable from the confident commentary he would post to YouTube charting his foreign travels.
“Towards the end, I guess as they were telling him that the call had to end, he started crying,” she said.
His final words were, “I’m sorry, but I have to go. And Merry Christmas.”
Fernando Espinoza, a 29-year-old American teacher and former US Navy submariner, disappeared in Libya on November 9, five weeks after arriving in the country to start a new job at an international school in Tripoli.
He’d ventured south of the city for a weekend trip to a desert oasis, but on his return was picked up for questioning. And the frequent texts he sent to his mom ceased.
Sara had hoped to find her son and bring him home by Christmas Eve — the date of Libya’s first presidential election in a decade. But days out from the vote, the process has collapsed, pushing the country closer to conflict as warring parties seek to replace a government set to lose its mandate.
Now, Sara’s more worried than ever.
“I’m relieved that I heard from him,” she said of Tuesday’s call, negotiated by the US embassy in Tunisia and Libyan authorities.
“But then I also feel very sad because I know that he’s not well. My son never cries.”
The US embassy told CNN after the call that inquiries were being handled by the State Department. When asked by CNN for comment on Fernando’s status, the State Department said they were “aware of the detention of a U.S. citizen in Libya.”
“We are monitoring the situation and due to privacy considerations, we are not going to go into specifics at this time,” an official said.
After this story published, Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister Murad Hamaima told CNN Fernando had been detained because his visa had expired and he had left the city without permission to travel to a dangerous area.
“He violated his visa limitation, and he broke his contract with the school, and he left without telling anybody where he was going. I don’t think this is acceptable anywhere in the world,” Hamaima said.
He said Libyan officials would have deported Fernando sooner — but when they asked if he he’d been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, Fernando said no, according to Hamaima. So he said they gave Fernando his first dose and were waiting the required amount of time to administer the second.
Back home in Miami, Sara doesn’t know what to believe — and has spent the past six weeks poring over any details of her son’s trip in the hopes of bringing him home.
A weekend away
Sara had taken time off work to meet her son for a vacation in neighboring Tunisia this week, like they’d planned.
For many years, Sara raised Fernando as a single mother — they’re very close, he’s her only child. And he’s always had an adventurous streak, she said.
“He told me he’s been to about 47 countries in about seven years or so,” she said. “He’s traveled a lot.”
After being grounded during the pandemic, Sara said Fernando seized the chance to teach English in Tripoli at the International School of Martyrs or ISM International, a school for children from kindergarten to grade 12.
In early October, he flew to Libya and a month later, on November 4, he took a weekend trip to the Idehan Ubari desert to see the Gaberoun oasis, she said, a salty lake once home to a Bedouin tribe whose abandoned village is now a local tourist site.
From Tripoli, it’s a treacherous trip south by roads that wind through areas vulnerable to attack by militias. The region is contested by multiple groups, and experts have warned it’s unsafe to travel through.
Sara said she was told by ISM’s administrator that Fernando had been explicitly told by his new employers not to venture outside Tripoli because it was too dangerous. But he went anyway.
Though Sara says she can see why Fernando went: “It’s just part of his nature to be adventurous like that.”
Fernando hired a driver for the weekend trip, his mother said, nine hours south of Tripoli. From there, he would go to the desert oasis, about 58 miles (93 kilometers) west of the city of Sebha.
But Fernando didn’t reach Sebha on time, according to text messages he sent his mom.
On the outskirts of Sebha, he and his driver were seized and held overnight, according to text messages Fernando sent to his mother on November 5.
It’s not clear who held him, but he texted his mother to say he was fine.
After his release, Fernando continued his trip to the oasis and sent a photo of himself looking happy and relaxed before dropping out of contact again.
That’s when his mother really started to worry.
It was the last time they texted together.
Fellow English teacher Vanessa Powell said mutual friends had told her that Fernando was questioned and detained on his return by plane to Tripoli on November 9. Until his Tuesday phone call to his mom, none of his friends had heard from him in six weeks.
“He’s not online. He’s not on WhatsApp or messenger,” Powell told CNN on November 30. “No one knows exactly where he is. We just have some kind of story that he’s been arrested or is in jail or something.”
Powell met Fernando several years ago in Iraq, and she said he briefly stayed with her in Cairo before he flew to Tripoli to start his new job. Fernando didn’t express any concerns about his safety in Libya before he went, Powell told CNN, “because he’s been doing this kind of work in developing countries for a while.”
An unanswered phone
When Powell couldn’t reach him on the phone, she called Siraj Davis, a mutual friend who works as an English teacher in Iraq.
He told CNN he messaged the school on Facebook and received a reply on November 19: “He is not kidnapped. He is arrested by the intelligence police. He is safe and he is fine,” said the unsigned message, which Davis provided to CNN. “Still under investigation. I don’t have any other information. I am sorry I can’t help anymore,” the message added.
The school declined CNN’s multiple requests for comment and referred questions to the embassy. Sara said the school was initially helpful but now tells her to phone the embassy, too.
The US hasn’t had a diplomatic presence in Libya since July 2014, when it shut its embassy after violent clashes between Libyan militias, according to a US government website.
The US State Department warns US citizens not to travel to Libya due to the risk of “crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping and armed conflict.”
Sara said US consular officials in Tunisia told her they first spoke with Fernando on November 29, though she describes them as guarded in any information they shared. They told her Fernando “seems to be OK,” she said, and that he had asked for his medication — and to speak to his mother.
Silence followed, then on Monday US consular officials said they’d been granted a second consular phone call — which she could join. They cautioned that phone lines in Libya are unreliable, so she should prepare for disappointment in case the connection didn’t work.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, Sara heard her son’s voice for the first time in over a month. She said the call was short, and she could tell other people, likely officials, were listening on both sides.
“He apologized and said, ‘I’m really sorry that I’m having to put you through this,'” Sara recalled. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it … we’re doing what we can to get you out.'”
Fernando told her he spends most of his time in a room except for occasional walks down a hallway. He doesn’t go outside but sees sunlight through a window and is taking his medication.
“He said, ‘Mostly what I do is sleep, cry and pray,'” Sara told CNN.
No charges laid
On Thursday, after this story published, Hamaima, Libya’s deputy foreign minister said the country had wanted to deport Fernando to Cairo, at the request of the US embassy.
But he said Fernando’s vaccine status presented problems.
“We’re doing our best to deport him as soon as possible. We have no need for him to be here,” Hamaima said.
According to the website of the US Embassy in Egypt, last updated on December 4, a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure is sufficient for entry.
“If your embassy assures us that we don’t need to do vaccinations, we can send him to Cairo with only PCR, we will do that,” Hamaima said.
CNN has contacted the US embassy for further comment.
Sara said she was not made aware of the vaccination issue — and she was under the impression that Fernando was fully vaccinated, but she doesn’t have proof.
Originally, she said the embassy suggested he was being questioned due to visa issues, but after six weeks she had started to question if that was true.
An image of Fernando’s stamped passport obtained by CNN shows he entered Libya on a one-month visa on October 5, meaning his visa would have expired around November 5, when he was in the desert. The visa lists his occupation as “teacher” and names ISM as his sponsor.
Sara concedes her son’s background with the US Navy may have raised suspicion, but she’s adamant that he’s done nothing wrong.
“What I know for a fact about my son is that he loves to travel. And he loves, you know, to visit different countries and get to know different cultures.”
Davis, who has taught English in international schools in the Middle East for 12 years, said the lack of information was concerning, especially from the school who sponsored him to be there.
“This guy didn’t blow up a gas station. He didn’t sneak into a private security building of the Ministry of Interior,” he said. “He didn’t do anything that would be considered espionage. He just took a freaking trip. That’s it — a trip.”
A deadline looms
Fernando wasn’t always an English teacher.
After graduating from high school, he joined the US Navy, but a submariner’s life wasn’t for him, his mother said. It didn’t give him enough opportunity to explore, she said. So, after four years he turned to teaching English in countries where he could spend his time off visiting historical sites.
He’s spent much of his adult life traveling the world. His YouTube vlog contains videos of recent trips to Sudan, Panama and Brazil. And in the three months before landing in Libya, he went to Spain, Italy, Egypt, Azerbaijan and Georgia, according to his mother.
Because of his love for travel, Sara and Fernando often meet up in spots around the world.
“It’s nice because it’s like mother and son time and, you know, we get to travel together and we like to travel to different places,” she said.
But instead of joining her son for New Year’s, she’s at home, calling anyone who may offer advice on what to do. Sara said she spoke at length with representatives from The Richardson Center, a non-profit founded by former US Congressman and former US ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, who has a long track record of successful hostage negotiations and prisoner releases.
Mickey Bergman, the group’s vice president and executive director, told CNN it’s not in the Libyan government’s interests to hold a US citizen without charge.
“In all likelihood, this is a simple case of detainment for questioning followed by a bureaucratic holdup that can be resolved quickly and without issues,” he said, before Libyan officials told CNN early Thursday morning they planned to deport him.
The suggestion the Libyan government is merely waiting to vaccinate her son gives Sara some comfort, but she won’t relax until he’s home. She’s also worried about political upheaval in the country.
On December 24, the country was due to hold its first Presidential election since the 2011 revolution when Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed by rebel forces.
Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow and Libya analyst at the Atlantic Council, told CNN from Tripoli Tuesday that tensions in the city had increased in recent days amid maneuvering by armed groups to fill a potential leadership void when the Government of National Unity’s mandate to lead effectively expires on Friday.
The Libyan High Election Commission wants to reschedule the vote for January 24, but it’s unclear who will govern the country in the meantime.
“There is no clear ruling on who should be in charge after the 24th of December,” Badi said. “What is definite is this ambiguous situation is already being exploited by factions that contributed to manufacturing the current crisis.”
Stephanie Williams, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Libya, is in the country meeting with presidential candidates to try to salvage the UN-backed electoral process.
But Badi says that process is “inherently flawed,” and the month-long delay could merely give political actors more time to capitalize on the uncertainty.
Sara says the sooner her son is released the better.
Hamaima, the deputy foreign minister, said the government has no interest in holding him.
“Whatever his embassy arranges for him, we are ready to do, it’s very simple. “
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