French citizen Sophie Petronin who is being held hostage at an unknown location in Mali is seen in this still image taken from an undated video released by al-Qaeda-linked JNIM. REUTERS/ via Reuters TV
Sebastian Petronin sat slumped over a laptop watching a video of his mother, in a headscarf and looking frail and tearful, the latest proof the 72-year-old is alive nearly two years after she was kidnapped by jihadists and held somewhere in the Malian desert.
Now, fearing for her deteriorating health, he hopes her captors will allow him to visit her just once, even if there is scant chance he will be able to take her back.
“We are really concerned. She is a fighter but I feel like she has suffered blows to her morale that affected her,” Sebastian, 38, told Reuters as the video played in his hotel room in the Nigerian capital Niamey.
Gunmen kidnapped Sophie Petronin in December 2016 in the northern Malian city of Gao, where she ran a charity for malnourished and orphaned children.
She is being held by fighters loyal to the main coalition of Islamist groups in the Sahara, the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM).
Her family has tried locate her and get her released, but in the last propaganda video, filmed and distributed to jihadist websites last month, she said she would like to see her son and that if her captors say he can come safely, he can believe them.
The video was enough to launch Petronin on a mission to try to track his mother down. It has taken him to parts of the Sahara as far afield as Mauritania and Niger, where he is meeting a negotiator he hopes can put him in touch with Sophie’s captors.
On one such trip into the desert, filmed by Reuters TV, he sat on the sand with a former acquaintance of hers, whose face was covered by a green turban.
“The desert is a huge territory but paradoxically a lot of people know each other,” he said. “We must not disregard anything and make connections with people in the city but also with people who are connected to the desert.”
French citizens are prime targets for kidnappers, both because of a perception that the government pays ransoms to get them out and because of their country’s role in the fight against so-called Islamists.
France, a former colonial master to most of the countries across the Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel, has 4,000 troops on a mission to try to crush the Islamist threat. — Reuters