For 44 days, Penny Sukhraj believed that her husband, a South African photojournalist, was imprisoned in some dungeon in Libya. That was what they told him, that Anton Hammerl, 41, had been arrested along with three other reporters, two Americans and a Spaniard, when they were going to the town of Brega, on April 5, 2011. 44 days of nightmare. When the faithful to Muammar Gaddafi, the masters of the dungeon in which these informants were locked, gave them a door and they were able to cross to the neighboring country, Tunisia, Anton was not there. Nor had he named the family as James Foley, Clare Morgana, and Manu Brabo had. A terrible deception. “I felt devastated after so many days of lies, shocked, betrayed,” says Penny, also a South African journalist, in a telephone conversation. Anton had already been shot dead on April 5 in the desert when he tried to flee with his three colleagues from the bullets of militiamen loyal to Gaddafi. And it was never known again. Ten years later it is unknown what happened to the body, who could take it, where it ended up. Nothing else is known. His wife, assisted by the British law firm Doughty Street Chambers, which specializes in human rights cases – the same firm that works with the Australian partner Julian Assange – has filed three lawsuits in three United Nations agencies to bring him to justice. conduct an investigation into what happened and the body can be recovered.
What do you expect after 10 years without news of your husband?
Rewinding the dramatic film of that April 5, 2011, the four reporters, in Libyan lands to report on the brutal open conflict between anti-Gaddafi militias and loyalists to the dictator, had some information about the possibility that the rebels could take an important place, Brega, symbol of Libya’s cursed oil. “When we got closer,” recalls Manu Brabo, a Spanish photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner with the Associated Press two years later, “we saw that it was lost.” The four of them were traveling in a van with rebel forces until they approached a hill. Things were not going well, those loyal to Gaddafi were close, about 300 or 500 meters. They got out of the vehicle. “There was an explosion,” continues Manu, “and a shooting.” The rebels withdrew with bullets while the Gaddafists charged. Clare, Manu, James and Anton ran to hide behind some trees, the only parapet within reach in such arid lands. “The bullets were whistling so close to us that we hit the ground.” Manu and Clare were together, but they had lost some sight of the other two. “Ah fuck!” Anton was heard saying. They had given him. James, who worked for him Global PostHe took courage and stood up with his arms raised saying that they were journalists. They were beaten, groped and tied up to take them away. At three; Anton, no. He was lying on the ground, bleeding, his abdomen shot open. “I had that position that bodies have when they die,” Manu details on the phone, “I was hit by looking at it.”
Anton had had a conversation via Skype the day before with his family, his wife and three children, the latest newborn. The South African photojournalist met Penny in Johannesburg in 2000, during a report on child prostitution. When he traveled to Libya on March 28, 2011, a week before he died, he did so from the United Kingdom, where he had his residence. Two days after that fateful trip to the Brega front, on April 7, the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, with extensive field work in Libya, reported the detention of journalists in a prison in the area controlled by Gaddafi – they went through several places. The version, the only one that circulated during those 44 days, always from sources loyal to the Libyan colonel, pointed out that the four were under arrest. All four, including Anton. He had dual citizenship, South African and Austrian, so it was these diplomats who somehow kept his wife informed.
Meanwhile, behind bars, sometimes together, sometimes separately, the other three reporters, decided to keep their mouths shut in relation to Anton’s death. “My fear,” Manu Brabo points out, “is that they had already killed one journalist and could now kill three others; to the one who looks at it from the outside and judges it, I would tell him to go through the same thing ”. On May 18 they were released. After that ordeal, whoever was the visible face of that regime, Moussa Ibrahim, came to communicate that Clare, Manu and James had been accused of illegally entering the country and had to leave it. The Spanish photojournalist came out first. Clare and James took a little longer; They were the ones who told Penny, after receiving the fateful news from a South African diplomat, how her husband died, what they saw that last time.
The three captive colleagues returned to Libya in February 2012 to try to find out where Anton’s body was. Someone even sent them the image of two lenses, rescued from a grave, but they did not correspond to the South African photographer. From there, James jumped towards Syria, where the war was spreading especially in the north. In August 2014, the jihadist group Islamic State beheaded the American reporter after almost two years of kidnapping. Death was primed.
Penny, 45, says that for a long time they had neither the means nor the necessary information about the channels to search for Anton. “We are a normal family, we did not have the resources that a State can have to demand responsibilities,” he says in a telephone conversation. They are asking for them from South Africa, Austria and undoubtedly Libya. But nothing, even less from Tripoli, still in turmoil, where just a month ago the seal was put on a government endorsed by all, supported by the UN and led by Abdelhamid Dabeiba, a wealthy businessman born in Misrata. Perhaps this is the best opportunity to press for an investigation into what happened to the South African photojournalist. Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a lawyer for the family from the Doughty Street Chambers office, has detailed to EL PAÍS that the three lawsuits filed with the UN are against Libya. They have been presented before three organs of what is known as “special procedures”, groups of independent experts that investigate for the international organization: Freedom of Expression, Extrajudicial Deaths – this department, serve as an example, has investigated the death of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi or Iranian General Qasem Soleimani – and the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
“How do you talk to your children about their father?”
“It is very painful to talk to them about this, because we have nowhere to go to remember their father, there is nothing.”