Kidnapped, tortured and thrown in jail: my 70 days in Sudan
In the early morning of 24 December 2016, my friend Daoud and I lay side by side on a blanket, our legs chained at the ankles, secured with heavy padlocks. The sun beat down on the desert. We pleaded with our captors to be moved to the shade, but they ignored us. It was not how I had imagined spending Christmas Eve.
Sixteen days earlier, Daoud Hari, my local producer and translator, had crossed with me from Chad into Sudan. We had planned to make a film in the war-ravaged Darfur region, where no independent journalist had entered for years. We had come to investigate what was happening on the ground, and to follow up allegations that chemical weapons were being used by the Sudanese government against its own citizens. Instead we had been tracked by the Sudanese military and captured by a local militia. At this point, we had no idea what would happen to us.
It is hard to describe being chained up beneath the desert sun. Your face and hands slowly burn. Your tongue starts to swell and the blood inside your head pounds like a hammer. Our two guards were responsive to us (although they would not give us their names) and when their commander had gone, they were even friendly. Desperate to call London to confirm we were alive, I formulated a plan to persuade our captors to let us use their phone. I had a passport-sized photo of my seven-year-old son, Romeo, in my breast pocket – I called one of the guards over and showed it to him. I let my tears run and explained that I needed to tell my son I was alive. It was Christmas, I pleaded, he would be all alone.
The man looked at the photograph and patted me on the shoulder – he would try, he said. Daoud suggested that I refuse any water or food to show how miserable I was. After I had turned down food and drink for a whole day, the guards became worried.
The following morning, one of the guards brought sweet tea. Daoud told them I was still refusing to drink. The two guards conferred – then, after a long while, they brought me their satellite phone – on the condition we would not tell their commander. Phone in hand, I realised I could not remember the number of my house in London, or that of Giovanna Stopponi, my producer. But by a stroke of luck, Daoud had his contact list on scraps of paper in a back pocket. He found the right one and we dialled. Giovanna answered the phone but she couldn’t hear me. The handset was falling apart, so I squeezed it together as hard as I could. I could hear Giovanna saying, “Hello? hello?” There was panic in her voice now.
“It’s Phil, we are captured by the Rapid Security Force militia, we are fine, kidnappers are from the Rizeigat tribe, we are 2km from where I last pressed the tracker alarm, we are probably going to be sold to the government.” I breathed out. The information had got through. “Happy Christmas,” I said.
Daoud and I first met in 2004 while producing the first films to reveal the emerging Darfuri humanitarian crisis. Numerous rebel groups drawn from Sudan’s African tribes had risen up to fight government-backed militias made up of Sudanese Arabs – the country’s largest ethnic group. The rebels accused the Arab militias of stealing their land. These militias, backed by the government in Khartoum, had massacred indigenous African tribespeople and burned and looted their villages. Hundreds of thousands were killed, and 2 million people internally displaced. Daoud, a member of the Zaghawa tribe, was a translator and fixer who had continually risked his own life to work with foreign video journalists such as myself. He had put himself in danger in order to let the world know what was happening to his country. He was one of the bravest men I knew.
As often happens in our line of work, I lost touch with Daoud for a time. Yet he was never far from my mind, with his endless facts about camels, his teachings about the stars, his ability to breakfast and lunch on Jack Daniel’s while keeping our filming on schedule and me safe from whizzing bullets.
In February 2016, I tracked him down to a rainy street corner in Brooklyn, New York. It had taken me two years of calling contacts in Egypt, Libya and Chad, but finally I found him, via the Darfuri tribal network, in the US. He was now driving a yellow cab.
Thirty minutes after the agreed rendezvous time, a battered New York taxi finally pulled up. Inside the front window I saw a beaming smile and a raised hand. We embraced in the rain, acknowledged each other’s grey hairs and posed for a photo on the bonnet of his cab. We adjourned to a bar, where I learned that Daoud had been given asylum in the US after being arrested and tortured by the government of Sudan for helping another journalist. He had also written a successful book but somehow “the money had all gone”, and he could only make ends meet by driving a taxi – even though he could not fathom how to reverse the car, let alone park.
Daoud Hari and Phil Cox in New York in February 2016. Photograph: Phil Cox/Native Voice Films
We talked about Darfur, both of us baffled by how, after being the media’s favourite cause for a few years, it had now dropped off the international radar. Europe and the US had begun talks about lifting sanctions and welcoming Sudan back into the international fold. There were plans to send millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to Sudan, with few details or conditions attached – all in an effort to stem African migration into Europe and collaborate on “security”. President Omar al-Bashir was still in power after 27 years, despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court for overseeing the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens. As we parted, Daoud confided that he was tired of New York. He dreamed of the desert, its smells and its rhythms, of his favourite camel, Kalkey – besides, he had more parking fines than he would ever be able to pay.
That night in Brooklyn, although we didn’t say it openly, I think we both decided we would go back and film again in Darfur. After putting us through an exhaustive risk-assessment process, Channel 4 News in London, along with the US investigative website Field of Vision, agreed to back us. Daoud and I flew out to Chad in November 2016.
The Sudanese region of Darfur, roughly the size of France, sits on the eastern border of Chad. The border is in open desert and thousands move through it each day: traders, militias and refugees, braving frequent sandstorms and harsh winds. In 2004, it was an apocalyptic scene. Tens of thousands of refugees, in appalling physical states, were streaming across the border – many collapsing and dying where they fell from exhaustion, malnutrition or shrapnel and gunshot wounds. The survivors make up the hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees still stranded in border camps in Chad.
As we left the border town on 8 December, our driver switched off the headlights of his Toyota Land Cruiser as we weaved our way through a maze of streets and out into the desert towards Sudan. Chadian army patrols now covered this border in collaboration with their Sudanese counterparts, the Rapid Security Force. A year ago, they might have shot at each other; now they run joint operations.
We moved fast, by moonlight, on invisible desert tracks. Daoud smoked furiously. Finally, after about an hour, we stopped. Daoud turned on my satellite phone – it flickered “Sudan”. We were in. After a six-hour drive, we linked up with a small mobile unit of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), which had been fighting the government for years. We had roughly 700km to cover until we reached our destination, the Jebel Marra mountains, where, according to Amnesty International, civilians had been bombed with chemical weapons.
Three days into our journey across Darfur with the SLA unit, it was arranged for us to meet with a double agent codenamed Grey Wolf. No one was quite sure which side he was working on – for which rebel group, government or militia – but he was the only one the Jebel Marra SLA faction trusted to take us into the mountains. It worried us that our escorts had to pick him up because he had no money to pay for petrol.
Grey Wolf arrived in dark glasses and a floor-length leather coat. I didn’t think we should trust him, based on that coat alone. However, Daoud and the SLA talked to him throughout the night and we learned that “the government” was tracking my phone. It was a sobering realisation, but that was not the worst of the news. Grey Wolf told us that a price had been placed on our heads. At the time we believed the bounty was $250,000, but we later learned it was much more. The Sudanese had somehow got wind of us and contacted the Rapid Security Force militias, and had put out a bounty on “two western journalists”: capture or kill.
Phil Cox and Daoud Hari on the Chad-Sudan border in December 2016. Photograph: Native Voice Films
Daoud and I weighed up our options. If we returned west to Chad, we would be arrested immediately. The route north to Libya was cut off by three divisions of militia who, we learned, were actively looking for us. We discussed surrendering to the government. But in the end we decided to travel in a less conspicuous group. We could only head south. The SLA had an Arab smuggler contact, who they had recently broken out of jail, and who knew the routes into the mountains.
We made our final preparations on the night of 22 December. The smuggler loaded up with fuel, our bags and one guard, who was armed with an AK-47, in the back. We had called the Jebel Marra mountain SLA faction to prepare its members for our imminent arrival. I kept my electronic tracker on the dashboard of the smuggler’s car. This device sent out a signal reporting my location every five minutes, and was set to immediately alert the team at Channel 4 if its emergency button was pressed. I also had a satellite phone with the emergency number for Giovanna primed and ready, and was holding my DSLR camera loosely on my lap. After 16 days of relentlessly being hunted, of hiding under trees and in dusty wadis, we were about to enter the Jebel Marra. Before we set off, I slipped all the footage I had recorded so far, which was stored on a small memory card, into my left sock.
At 9.46pm, after driving for little more than an hour, a burst of lights and gunfire erupted in front of us. Our car screeched to a halt as headlights blazed through our windscreen. Everything seemed to slow down. Men with guns ran to both sides of the car. I leaned forward and held down the tracker alarm button. I saw it flash and then I hid it in my pants. Daoud was being hauled out of the door on my right, rifle butts thrust into his body. Then I pressed the call button on the satellite phone – which dialled a call straight to Giovanna – and replaced the phone on the dashboard, the line open. The smuggler was then hauled out on my left side. I waited for them to come for me. After all that hunting, they had finally captured us.
Bound in chains and blindfolded, we were driven for about four hours in a convoy of militia cars. Daoud, I knew, had taken a beating and been bundled into the back of the truck. The smuggler had disappeared. I was in the front seat, with the brick-sized tracker hidden in my underwear. I kept surreptitiously pressing the alert button, knowing that London would now be monitoring our location. One kidnapper, probably in his mid-20s, was clearly nervous. He occasionally smiled at me and then slapped me in the face whenever my blindfold fell. More than once, we pulled over and the kidnappers searched my upper body and the truck. I began to grow paranoid that they would find the tracker.
Finally, we stopped. My blindfold was removed. I was taken out at gunpoint and pushed beside Daoud. I looked at him – his face was puffy from the beating and he was shackled hand and foot. Abruptly, the kidnappers forced us to lie down on the ground. Our bags were then ransacked. “Where is the money?” they demanded.
“They are going to kill us,” Daoud said to me in a whisper.
Daoud and I spent Christmas Eve chained and huddled together against the cold behind our captors’ Land Cruiser. We had no idea what the kidnappers intended to do. What was clear, though, was that they were hiding us. We were not being handed over directly to the Sudanese government – nor had they been talking on radios or calling fellow commanders. Our guess, as we talked in whispers that cold night, was that we had run straight into a rogue unit of the Rapid Security Force militia, and that they wanted to hide us until they could negotiate the bounty. We were to be hostages.
As the days passed, chained up in the dust and wind and sun, I gradually became ill. I developed a fever and was finding it impossible to swallow. One day, I saw our captors fiddling with my camera. I offered to teach them how to insert a memory card and take photographs, but each time I handed the camera to them I covertly pressed the video button. Unwittingly, my kidnappers began shooting video of us all. In becoming a hostage, everything had been stripped away from me. It was humiliating, terrifying. I felt like a failure. Now that I had my camera back, I was empowered.
I decided it was time to hide the memory card in my sock somewhere much safer. I wrapped the penny-sized card in a piece of black plastic torn from a bag that had blown across the desert; then I secreted it up my anus. It was uncomfortable, but manageable. I told Daoud what I had done. He just looked at me and shook his head.
A photograph taken by Cox while being held hostage in Sudan on Christmas Day 2016. Photograph: Phil Cox/Native Voice Films
After seven days, we saw a car’s headlights come out of the darkness. Daoud and I watched them approach. The guards told us it was their commander. We both knew this was a turning point. As the car paused in the distance, I asked Daoud for his advice regarding interrogation, if we were going to be held by the government. “Never lie,” he said, “just tell the truth. Keep some people hidden if you have to, but never change the story and don’t lie – otherwise they will go crazy.”
We were told that Daoud was to be set free and I would be handed over to government soldiers. Daoud and I hugged, then I climbed into the cabin of the Land Cruiser and my hands were bound. We drove for an hour in the dark and then abruptly stopped. I presumed that Daoud, who was in the back, was changing cars here and was on his way to freedom. After another hour, our car slowed, and in front of us a group of around 50 uniformed and well-armed men loomed out of the darkness. Behind them were a number of smartly painted Sudanese government Land Cruisers.
I was taken to El Fasher, the capital of Darfur, an eight-hour drive away. I was questioned by the chief of the security forces there – a man in his mid-50s with greying hair, spectacles and a suit. They took me from the offices, blindfolded, and put me into another car. A man forced me down, away from the windows, pushing my head between my knees. “We are going to throw you from a plane,” he said.
I was taken to what I assumed was an airfield. Although I was still tightly blindfolded, I could hear the whirr of propellers and felt wind against my legs. I was lifted up to the door of a plane, and through a gap in my blindfold I could see the black military webbing of a ramp beneath me. No one knew I was here – no one had seen me. To disappear me into thin air would be a solution for the Sudanese government. The plane was taxiing, and I started to shout, to beg for my life. My body swayed with the movement of the plane – then I heard the voice of the security chief from the offices in El Fasher.
“Be a man,” he said to me, and laughed.
I was walked to a seat. My blindfold was removed and handcuffs were placed on me, tightly enough to bite into my wrists. An hour and a half later, the plane landed in Khartoum, and I was taken, blindfolded again, into what I sensed was a large warehouse. I was made to kneel, and my head was pushed forward. Then silence. I felt a large space around me. Someone tugged my hair. I was completely disorientated, but adrenaline kept me listening. I heard Arabic being spoken. Someone was being questioned. Then the crack of a whip and a cry of pain. I knew that voice – it was Daoud.
My first interrogator was a tall man, with the air of an academic – perfect English, clearly cultured, well dressed. He questioned me about who I was really working for and why I had come to Sudan. I told him the truth, but often he would shake his head.
“I cannot accept that,” he would reply, and then leave the room. When he left, I would be beaten. Then they started using a cattle prod on my back. It was administered by one man. In my head, I called him the “Terror Man”. He seemed to relish being able to hit, electrocute and asphyxiate me. Although I was exhausted and scared, I was absolutely alert. I found myself watching every person in that room intently. I noticed that after many hours some of them began to yawn and turned their attention from me to their phones. I told myself I could outlast them.
The biggest battle in the interrogation was not resisting the temptation to lie – it was when the truth was not accepted. I had to continually retell my story without changing it at all. The interrogators were obsessed with the idea that I had spoken to Amnesty International, that I was working for that organisation and would be repeating their “subversive lies to present Sudan as a chemical weapons violator”. They would not accept how much I was being paid as a freelance journalist on this job: “No one would come to risk their life for such little money!” they scoffed. Surely, I was working for the UK or US government as a spy.
Throughout the beatings, I drew strength from the fact that the memory card that contained a month’s worth of filmingfilm footage was hidden in my rectum – and I was never going to give it up. Somehow, this knowledge gave me the strength to bear the humiliations, electric shocks and beatings, and to maintain a certain self-belief.
Just before dawn, 48 hours after our first interrogation, Daoud and I were blindfolded and put on a minibus. I was then separated from him and taken out on a piece of waste ground that smelt of excrement, and forced to kneel. My body went very cold and tense. I thought I was going to be executed, right there. Moments passed – then I was hauled up again. When they next took the blindfold off, I found Daoud sitting next to me, slumped with exhaustion. In front of us stood a man in dirty medical scrubs, brandishing a syringe. It felt like a late-night horror movie. For the first time, I thought about trying to run. I didn’t care if someone shot me in the back – anything was better than this. The man pushed the needle into my arm. “Welcome to Kobar prison,” he said.
As dawn broke, I was shoved into a small prison cell. I collapsed on the broken concrete floor in the corner. A young black man who had been lying down under a blanket got up and looked at me. He was tall and well built. He waited until the guard had left and then extended his hand. “Karim,” he said, pointing at himself. “Philip,” I said in reply. He mimed being whipped on his back and raised his eyebrows to me. I nodded. “Goumo,” he said, signalling for me to get up. I shook my head. “Goumo!” he said loudly. I wondered if my first cellmate was about to attack me, but with no energy to resist, I weakly stood.
Karim went to the corner of the cell and pulled a toothbrush out of a small bag. He gave it to me and pointed at a door in the corner. “Wash,” he said. I barely had the energy to walk to the door, but I took the toothbrush and entered a small room, where there was a squat toilet and a tap. I brushed my teeth and thanked him in Arabic. Karim signalled for me to lie down and share his small piece of mattress foam. He covered me with his blanket. This was my first meeting with Karim – one of the two men in Kobar prison who would be instrumental to my survival.
On my first morning inside Kobar prison – political wing, cell No 16 – I still had a high fever, but in broken English and sign language Karim showed me around the tiny 4 metre by 5 metre cell. Its concrete walls were covered with Isis graffiti, the floor was cracked, and there were bars on the small, high window. Karim showed me where things were hidden and what to expect from passing guards – referring to each of them as “good”, “bad” and “crazy”. But what I wanted was a phone; I signalled that to him. I was desperate for London to know I was here. I did not want to face another interrogation. Karim just smiled and shook his head. “No phone … no phone Kobar.”
Adjacent to our cell was another, equally cramped and crowded. I went to the bars and saw a group of four or five men of varying ages – from boys in their teens up to a man in his 80s – pressed against a barred window. They signalled “Hello” and I waved back. One of the men tossed a white shirt over for me. This was my welcome into the fraternity of prisoners in Kobar. I felt overwhelmed – here, of all places, were people who were concerned for my wellbeing. I washed, for the first time in two weeks, under the cold tap in the cell’s small bathroom. Karim got me a bar of soap. I carefully checked the memory card in my backside. I had not eaten for days and had not been to the bathroom at all, so it was still safely there. I tried to drink some water, but was so ill that it just burned my throat.
Karim had been in Kobar for eight months without charge. He walked around the cell like a caged tiger, rarely ever still. Prisoners were never allowed out for exercise, so the cells were referred to as cages. He told me he was there for punching a general in the face after the man had insulted his mother. Karim used to hotwire and steal the security forces’ luxury cars in Khartoum, he told me with a grin. He wasn’t afraid of them.
Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir at the Arab League summit in Jordan last month. Photograph: Jamal Nasrallah/EPA
Despite my weakened state, the interrogations continued. I was repeatedly taken back to the torture centre for questioning. There were not so many physical beatings this time. I only had to see the Terror Man for my body to release a flood of adrenaline – he no longer needed to electrocute me. I talked a lot, always coming across as the willing prisoner, always careful to keep certain information hidden. I would occasionally see Daoud in the corridors. We could never speak to each other, just a brief nod. I once managed a wink.
After seven days of interrogations, a high-ranking government official came into our cell. The guards followed him attentively. He found me slumped on the floor. I was unable to rise, as I was still laid low with infection and fever.
“So you are Mr Philip? British spy?”
“No, not a spy” I replied. “Journalist.”
He looked at me, frowning. Then he said something to his guards, who rushed off. Around 20 minutes later, a guard arrived holding an Italian football strip. I looked it and then back at the guard. He signalled to me to put it on. Of all the kits from Seria A, it had to be Lazio, a club with a long fascist history, and the last team I would support. I had no idea what was about to happen. Were they preparing a bizarre photoshoot of me being tortured in football kit? I was escorted through the prison – the first time I had seen it in the day – and on to the minibus that usually took me to the interrogation centre. Nudging up the blindfold with my arms, I managed to get my first peek of Khartoum. We pulled into the National Club, the private club for members of the security forces. I was ushered into a smart room with a long meeting table in the middle. On one side were five suited Sudanese men, some in dark glasses. On the other were two women. One of them, in a flowery dress and flashing a big smile, came towards me. “Hello Philip, I am Louise from the embassy, I am here to assist you.” For the first time since the kidnapping, I felt I might burst into tears.
Louise from the embassy asked me if I had a lawyer. I said no. She asked if I had been charged formally and I said no. Then she asked for any instructions or messages, and I suddenly went blank. I was not prepared for this meeting – and I only managed to say to “send a hug” to my family. There was a moment when the Sudanese side of the table began talking and I turned to Louise and whispered: “They are electrocuting us.”
With the promise that a lawyer would visit me within two days, I boarded the minibus back to the prison. As I returned to my cell, I was furious with myself – there was so much I should have said, so many questions I should have asked.
In the following days, every time the door opened or a guard passed the cell, I presumed it was the promised embassy lawyer. I prepared in my head all the things I wanted to say, over and over. But two more days passed, then four, five and six. I began to lapse into dark, despairing moods, angry that no one was coming to see me.
Other prisoners were thrown in with Karim and me. Each man would share a blanket or tear their foam mattress in two for the new arrivals. When we slept, our bodies would be more or less touching. These men and boys were from all over Sudan. Some were young men who had tried to organise a football team on WhatsApp – but because they could mobilise 100 to 200 young sports enthusiasts, they were perceived as a threat. A lot of prisoners were former policemen, lawyers and academics; many had been arrested for sharing text messages supporting the recent peaceful anti-government protests that took place on the nationwide “day of disobedience”. The prison sentence for sharing such messages was three months. There were elderly political leaders, trade union members, and people who had tried to organise better living conditions for retired policemen. Some had no idea why they were there. Many bore the marks of beatings and torture.
As my health improved, I could now begin to eat again, so I decided to become positive – to find a routine, to take my mind off the mental torture of the waiting. Every day I woke up before dawn, cleaned off the bugs with which we shared our cell, and ran on the spot while the other men still slept. I would run for perhaps an hour, and in my head I would be in Victoria Park in east London, with my son Romeo at my side on his bike. One of my favourite movies, Marathon Man, flickered through my head – Dustin Hoffman running around Central Park in the opening scene. Soon I added press-ups and shadow boxing. The guards would stare through the bars bemused, but gave me the thumbs-up, and I would smile back. Though I never confided in anyone in my cell, I needed allies.
Just after midnight one night, a new prisoner was brought to our cell. Suleyman was in his 60s, tall, handsome and with weary, hunched shoulders. I offered him my blanket and my piece of foam to sleep on. He thanked me in perfect English. I asked him why he was here and he simply said: “Because it is written.” Over the coming days, Suleyman and I forged a true friendship – we helped each other through the dreaded hot afternoon hours, playing 20 questions and talking about classic westerns. He was from a generation that still remembered Sudan’s years of British rule; a period that had ended in the mid-50s. He could rattle off quotes from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Jane Eyre, Kidnapped and Oliver Twist.
With Suleyman’s arrival came something else: a translator. In the evening hours, the men gathered in the cell after prayers, and with Suleyman to translate, I started telling stories to break the boredom. I told the Jungle Book in six chapters, twice over. I told the story of Troy, the battle between Hector and Achilles, and the fate of Helen. I told Perseus and the Gorgon, and the fairytales I used to read to my son at bedtime. In turn, Suleyman told me of the Mahdi and Khalifa, and their bloody battles with the British more than 100 years ago.
I started to receive food parcels of fruit, dates and biscuits. The jail always hid the name of the sender, but when chocolate Penguins appeared in one delivery, I realised that it must be from the British embassy. It showed that someone remembered me – that I was on a list somewhere. I then had a second consular meeting with three British embassy staff. Earnest, committed and warm, they passed clothes and food to me and informed me that the US state department, the UK Foreign Office, Channel 4 News and many others had been working on my behalf since Christmas. They then told me that Daoud had been released some weeks before, and that he was back in New York. This was a huge relief. I had feared the worst for him, and some guards had even told me he had been taken back to Darfur. But Daoud was free.
The forgotten mountains: a journey into the heart of rebel-held Darfur – in pictures
In early February, my name was called. My cell mates hugged and congratulated me. I knew how brutal it was to watch another cellmate leave, so I only smiled and shook each man’s hand. After 40 days in jail, I was taken back to the torture centre, where they made me kneel in a stress position for two hours. I was then told to sign, like a naughty schoolboy, a typed piece of paper that simply said: “I promise I will never enter Sudan illegally again.” Then I was taken to the National Club to meet the British ambassador, Michael Aron, before an audience of Sudanese generals and dignitaries. The ambassador shook my hand warmly, and after an exchange of speeches and awkward silences, we got into his car. Aron asked his driver to unfurl the union jack on the bonnet, and as the car drove to the British embassy, he handed me his phone. “You can call your family,” he said.
Only when I returned to London did I realise the full scale of the efforts that had been made to get Daoud and me out of prison. Although they were principally led by my producer Giovanna and Channel 4 news, they also involved many by good people who I will probably will never meet. I realised, too, that my family had undergone a traumatic experience and lived through it with immense resilience. There was a lot of making up to do.
Somehow, I managed to hang on to the memory card. This allowed me to make two films for Channel 4 News about our experience. My imprisonment gave me a window into a hidden Sudan, one that the Sudanese government, now desperate to return to the international fold, does not want us to see. I still think every day of Karim and Suleyman and the other men struggling to survive in the cells of Kobar prison. Their fate, and that of their compatriots, must not be forgotten.
Main photograph by Scott Nelson/Getty Images
Some names have been changed. The two-part film Hunted in Sudan will be broadcast on Channel 4 News on 5 and 6 April at 7pm