(CNN)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.
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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.
Back home in Miami, Florida, Sara is left to relive the pain of her son’s disappearance as she pores over any details that could shed more light around what happened in the hopes of bringing Fernando home.
Fernando Espinoza graduated from the US Navy in 2012.
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 Espinzoa on another one of his trips — to Brazil in February 2021.
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.
November 5, 2021
I am free now
100% safe. Just a huge misunderstanding
Awesome, I’m so glad. How r u getting back?
Airplane FOR SURE
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.
November 7, 2021
Nene, escribime (sic) cuando podas tener wifi otra vez. Besitos! (Baby, write me when you can get wifi again. Kisses!)
Hola nene lindo adonde (sic) estas? (Hello beautiful boy where are you?)
Good. Back from the desert. Spent the night there
Oh ok that’s what I thought. Did you have fun?
Yes it was amazing. Super salty lake
Fernando Espinoza described Gaberoun oasis as “amazing” in text messages to his mother and sent this photo of the lake.
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. CNN has not been able to independently verify if he was questioned and detained at the airport.
Libyan authorities have not responded to CNN’s multiple requests for comment.
“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.”
Fernando Espinoza and Vanessa Powell in Basra, Iraq in 2019.
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.
Te quiero nene lindo (I love you beautiful boy) ❤️😘 ❣️
Everything is going to be OK.
The first person you will call as soon as you are ok is me. From there we can make other arrangements as needed.
Te Adoro! ❤️❤️❤️ (I adore you)
And the International School of Martrys where you worked and the teacher. We need to buy you a ticket to come home.
As soon as possible.
This is Fernando Espinoza’s mother. Whoever recently read his WhatsApp messages, can you please contact me? I need to know my son is OK. I haven’t heard from him in 3 weeks. Thank you.
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.
Sara Espinoza with her son Fernando, then aged about six years old.
No charges laid
There’s still no official confirmation as to why Fernando is being held.
Originally, the embassy suggested he was being questioned due to visa issues, Sara said, but six weeks on, she thinks there must be more to it.
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, says the lack of information is 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.
Fernando was a frequent traveler who often visited historical sites.
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.
Bergman, who was recently involved in the release of American journalist Danny Fenster in Myanmar and before that Otto Warmbier from North Korea, said Fernando’s safety during his detention was in “everyone’s interests.”
“No one would benefit if any harm happens to Fernando,” he said.
Fernando and his mother Sara spent time closer to home in Naples, Florida, as Covid cases rose in the US.
Sara hasn’t told her colleagues at the state attorney’s office in Miami, Florida, where she works, about her predicament. “Honestly, because it’s Christmas time and I don’t want to worry them, and too because I am also very private and I don’t want people to start asking me questions,” she said.
It’s enough that her son’s friends are texting her from different countries at all hours of the day and night.
“It’s nice to hear that there are so many people that care about him. But you know, it also wears on my psyche sometimes, because I wish I could give them better news than, ‘We’re still waiting. We’re still waiting, nothing new.'”
Sara worries that it’ll become even harder to get answers about her son’s whereabouts in Libya after this week.
Mother and son celebrated New Year’s Eve in Paris in 2018.
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 knows time is running out to secure the release of her son under the current government — she just wants him home.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong … he needs to be released because he’s innocent,” she said.
“The sooner they can do that the better.”