This article originally appeared in Ami Magazine.
Little did Ilan Halimi know that day that the customer walking into the cellphone store where he worked as a salesman would be the agent of his death. The young woman looked around at the merchandise, asked questions and engaged him in friendly conversation. They hit it off so well that before leaving, she asked Ilan for his phone number.
The next evening Ilan received a call from his new acquaintance, inviting him out for a drink. Only 23 years old, Ilan had no suspicions. He was ambushed by a gang of thugs, held prisoner in an apartment in the Bagneux neighborhood of Paris for 24 days and tortured until they finally abandoned him in a forest. When Ilan was found, he had burns over 80% of his body. He was the first French Jew murdered after WWII simply because he was Jewish.
His mother, Ruth Halimi, agreed to meet me in the recently-dubbed Ilan Halimi Gardens, a pocket-sized oasis of green on a busy street in the 12th arrondissement.
A small woman, she has dark eyes set in a determined, pale face. “This is where Ilan used to play as a child,” she says. “I come here often.”
Her voice is melodious, the kind of voice associated more with a mother singing a lullaby than with an outspoken firebrand courageously confronting the French people about the poison brewing in their midst.
“I’m a woman who naturally shies away from crowds and doesn’t like being in limelight. But the Almighty said no, I have a different plan for you, and He gave me an extra measure of courage to be able to speak out in public. I’ve spoken in Washington, Brussels, Paris and Israel, with a strength I didn’t know I possessed.”
I ask her to tell me about her son.
“Ilan was my only son. He had a smile that lit up his face. The house became alive the minute he stepped into it. Ilan loved people deeply. He was curious and outgoing. He was such a star at his bar mitzvah…
“Ilan’s father and I parted when Ilan was two years old,” she continues. “As a consequence, he always tried to be the man of the house. I raised him and my two daughters single-handedly, with little financial means but with love in abundance. I often wonder if that’s why he was so trustful of people. Ilan profoundly believed that people are good, and he was killed for it.
“Helping other people came naturally to him. His first job was in a real estate office. One day a poor Muslim woman came in looking for an apartment. She was having great difficulty finding one. Ilan did some research and found her a flat. Two days later she returned in despair. When the French landlord had seen her Muslim name on the lease he had refused to sign it. Ilan picked up the phone and gave him a piece of his mind, accusing him of racism. The man signed the contract. When Ilan was murdered…”
Her voice trails, her energy sapped. “I found an envelope in my mailbox containing a 100 euro note. It was from the Muslim woman. ‘Madame,’ it said. ‘How can I even begin to express my feelings of horror at what happened to your son?’”
“Please,” I steel myself before asking. “Can you walk me through what happened?”
January 20, 2006
It’s a regular Friday, and I’m on my way home from work. Passing by a store I see a pair of shoes in a style that I know Ilan would like, with a buckle. I stop to purchase them. They are final sale, neither exchangeable nor refundable. I then do some shopping for our Shabbat meal. Even though I am not Orthodox, the Shabbat meal is something I will not give up for any price. It’s the only time of the week we get to all sit peacefully around a beautifully set table. When I reach our building I glance up to see if Ilan is at the window. He usually he looks out for me and runs down the stairs to help me bring up the packages. Ilan sings the Kiddush. My children were bought up in the Jewish tradition and know all the Jewish prayers. After we wash, Ilan cuts the challah and distributes it. We wish each other Shabbat Shalom. Dinner is over by 9:00 p.m.
A while later I hear Ilan answering the telephone in his room. I will later learn that that was the fateful call from his new acquaintance inviting him out. I see him putting on his windbreaker. I don’t like it when he goes out on Shabbat and he knows it. “Don’t be angry, Maman,” he says, an apologetic smile playing on his lips. As if having a premonition that this would be the last time I would ever see him, I try to keep him from leaving. “You didn’t try on your new shoes,” I remind him. He gives me a hug. “Tomorrow,” he says, and clatters down the stairs.
The shoes are still lying untouched in their box.
The nightmare starts the following day when we realize that Ilan hasn’t come home. None of his friends have heard from him either. I’m reading a story to Noa, my granddaughter, when I hear my daughters’ piercing screams in the next room. They’re looking at a photo of Ilan on the computer screen that has just been sent by email. My son’s face is covered with black tape, and there’s a pistol pointed at his temple. “We are holding Ilan,” the email reads. “We are demanding 450,000 euros for his release.”
“You have 20 minutes to bring the money. If you contact the police, we will kill him.”
A phone call ensues. A young man speaking French with a heavy African accent says, “You have 20 minutes to bring the money. If you contact the police, we will kill him.” My two daughters, each holding one of my hands, drag me down the stairs to the police station. Didier, Ilan’s father, is already there, having received the same phone call.
The police try to figure out why Ilan was targeted. None of us can pay the sum of 450,000 euros. I’m a secretary. Ilan earns 1,200 euro a month. His father doesn’t have any money either. Our profile certainly doesn’t mark us as a target for kidnappers. The police search our house and confiscate Ilan’s computer. Again and again they imply that Ilan was involved in drugs. Again and again I vigorously deny it. I know my son. They are sullying his name. Must I fight the police as well as his abductors?
“Don’t give in to them,” the police warn us. “If you play by their rules, they will only increase their demands.” It is important, they explain, to keep up a steady dialogue with the kidnappers to give the authorities time to unravel his whereabouts. For Ilan’s own safety, they insist, his disappearance must be kept secret.
The next morning there’s another phone call, a request for 100,000 euros followed by a string of curses and insults. It sounds like the ranting of a lunatic. The police decide that I’m too emotional and cannot be counted on to control myself over the phone. From now on Didier, Ilan’s father, will be the only one answering their calls. But Didier doesn’t have much self-control either, so every word he utters to the madman will henceforth be directed by two professional negotiators and a criminal psychologist. “You have to be strong,” she says to him. “Do not lose your temper.” I feel powerless. I’ve raised three children on my own. Why am I now so helpless? What am I doing in the hands of these men?
A new email: “Tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. you are to assemble ten people, each of whom has a valid ID and a laptop computer with WiFi.” They want to do a money transfer over the Internet, and they need ten people because the maximum amount that can be transferred is 10,000 euro per person. The police realize that there will be no movie-style exchange of an attaché case filled with money for the hostage’s release. They instruct us to email them back that we simply don’t have that much money. We do as they say. We have no choice but to trust their decision.
A profile of the kidnapper gradually emerges: He is an African man calling from the Ivory Coast who speaks a primitive French slang. The police are convinced that they are dealing with an experienced, organized band. They have no idea that the kidnapper is really a 26-year-old male of African descent who was born in France. Indeed, Youssouf Fofana, a petty criminal with an extensive record, has already served time for armed robbery, theft and resisting arrest. In fact, his face has often been featured on wanted posters. Who could fathom that it only a single madman vacationing in the Ivory Coast in anticipation of the expected ransom, while his makeshift gang guarded their prisoner?
We sit around the phone, not daring to move, afraid to miss a call. We are getting 40 phone calls a day—680 in total. Each day we are subjected to abusive diatribes and threats, but never a clear proposition.
Five other men have previously been approached, the investigators inform us, by different youngsters. None of them took the bait, except for one whose screams caught the attention of a neighbor who alerted the police. He was found on the front steps of a building with 86 bruises on his body.
Each of the five men was Jewish.
“Can’t you see what’s really going on?” I beg the police. “Ilan has been kidnapped because he’s a Jew.
A new phone call, this time with only a repetition of Arabic chants. A Muslim police officer confirms that these are recitations from the Koran.
The next call is in French: “We want a down payment of 50,000 euros.” Didier repeats what the psychologist whispers to him: “I don’t have the money.”
“Then get it from the Jewish community,” the man answers before the receiver is slammed down.
“Can’t you see what’s really going on?” I beg the police. “Ilan has been kidnapped because he’s a Jew. It’s the typical anti-Semitic approach: Jews are rich and clannish. They’ll cough up the money because they stick to each other.”
A new knot has formed in my stomach. If my son has been kidnapped because he’s a Jew, he will never be released so easily.
“Promise me that you will bring him home!” I beg the two policemen sleeping in my living room. “Madame,” they assure me, “we are doing everything in our power.” I know they are. But the last kidnapping in France was in 1978, when the Baron Empain was abducted and eventually liberated by his captors. Unlike countries where kidnappings are frequent, the French have little experience with such matters. “Don’t worry,” they tell me. “Kidnappers kidnap to get someone thing out of it, not to kill their victims.”
Today Didier got two dozen more phone calls demanding the ransom. The man on the line is clearly nervous. The police suspect that Ilan is dead and want to see a photo as proof that he’s still alive. They also hope to catch the kidnapper posting the picture in a cyber café, where there are security cameras. The photo finally arrives: it’s Ilan, with a long cut on his cheek. The page is adorned with colorful balloons; they are having fun. It is zero degrees outside. We later learn that Ilan was lying on the floor of an unheated apartment during this time, “tied like a mummy,” as one of the gang members described it, his face completely covered with tape except for a hole to insert a straw. He is barely kept nourished; just enough so he won’t die. They are also keeping him silent, hitting him when he groans. He’s being held in an 11-story building, in an apartment that has been vacant since January 16. The concierge has received 1,500 euros for his silence. In exchange, the gang may use the empty flat until it is rented out. None of the neighbors report their comings and goings. No one hears anything.
It isn’t far from where I live.
More phone calls. Fofana insists on a money transfer. The police do not give in. Didier is instructed to stop answering the phone. “We want to force the kidnappers to alter their demands.” Fourteen phone calls go unanswered. Violent insults are left on the answering machine. We stand there listening, helpless. The psychologist congratulates Didier each time he doesn’t pick up the receiver. She uses her skills to manipulate the kidnappers, but also to manage Didier as she sees fit.
My daughters, Deborah and Eve, resolve to spread the word about Ilan’s kidnapping in the hope that media attention will somehow help. The police think differently. They are firm: We are to tell people that Ilan is fine and merely on vacation. I am to return to work. Everything must seem as normal as possible. I do as I am instructed. I go back to work and discuss the weather. I put on a pleasant face, as I am told that Ilan’s life depends on it. I think of other people who have disappeared, their photos on the walls of every post office and in every window. Why can’t the same be done for Ilan ? Why am I obeying the police rather than following the dictates of my heart?
This time Fofana’s tone is urgent: “I want to release Ilan,” he says. “Let’s negotiate an agreement.” An email follows: “I cannot control my people anymore. They are going to harm him. You must respond quickly.”
Again the police order Didier not to answer the phone. They are convinced that our silence will force Fofana to agree to an exchange. The result is an entire night of incessant phone messages on his machine, warning him that they’re going to dump Ilan in the forest. The police refuse to budge.
Shabbat arrives. Without Ilan. Every night I have the same dream, of heavy stone doors being closed in my face. All I have left is prayer. I pray that the young woman who lured Ilan to his captors will have a change of heart and lead the police to him. I pray to have news of my son. I am petrified that they will act on their threat but the phone has stopped ringing. The two policemen in my house have become like family. They eat with us, accompany me to the supermarket. For long hours I speak to them about Ilan. How happy I was when he was born after two daughters.
Rabbi Thierry Zinni in Paris receives three messages from the kidnappers. We do not know each other but he is Jewish; that is enough for them. “A Jew has been kidnapped,” the message says, and directs him to where he will find a video tape. The rabbi takes it seriously and immediately contacts the police.
“They contacted a rabbi because he’s a Jew. Don’t you recognize that this is an anti-Semitic act?”
Ilan’s voice is on the tape; it is very feeble. From the photos I know that his eyes and face are taped. “I am Jewish,” he says. “Please, please help me. Maman,” he breaks into a sob. “Help me! Do not abandon me.” To hear my son beg for his life is beyond suffering. Then I hear a thump and Ilan groans; he has been hit.
“Don’t you see?” I plead with the police. “They contacted a rabbi because he’s a Jew. Don’t you recognize that this is an anti-Semitic act?” But the authorities will have none of it.
Ilan’s situation, we later learn, has taken a turn for the worse. The concierge of the building notifies the kidnappers that they will have to vacate the apartment. He has orders to paint it for the next tenant. Fofana returns to France from the Ivory Coast especially to transport Ilan somewhere else. Covered in a blanket, he is carried on the kidnappers’ shoulders to a nearby cellar. It is colder in there than in the flat. He is under the watch of ten guards between the ages of 17 and 23, most of them converts to Islam. They were promised the whole thing would take three days and they’d make some quick money. “I wanted to buy myself new clothes,” said one gang member during his interrogation. Now, they are annoyed. Ten days have passed and they are still stuck with Ilan, who bears the brunt of their frustration. They kick him and burn him with cigarettes, each one inventing a different kind of torture. “Even an animal isn’t treated that way,” the police later say.
By now the police know that the man in charge is using a different Internet café each time. Four hundred men are mobilized to catch the perpetrator. To me, it is abundantly clear that this is an anti-Semitic act and that I should shout out the truth and alert the press. But I do what the police tell me.
Around this time the local police stop a black man on the streets of Paris whose name is Youssouf Fofana. They have no idea about the kidnapping because it is all being handled secretly. They return his papers to him. How he must have laughed! How powerful he must have felt!
The owner of a cyber café alerts the police: the black man in the hood and gloves they are looking for has come back. The police recruit a nearby squad without giving them too many details other than that they must immediately go and arrest a black man at 9 Rue Poirier de Narcay. They have no idea how dangerous he is or how much is at stake. The six policemen rush off together, discretion—the most important factor in this operation—thrown to the wind. They are searching for Number 9 but there’s no address on the shop, only on a nearby building. Fofana, sitting at the window, has ample time to notice them and flee. By the time they realize their mistake Fofana is long gone. They chase him but it’s too late. Why wasn’t the situation explained to them properly? Why couldn’t road blocks have been set up to prevent Fofana’s escape? Why wasn’t his picture put in the newspapers? And why didn’t the police compare his image to the one that was already in their files for the past 13 years, for a host of infractions?
These are questions with which I torment myself daily.
After three days without any communication the emails begin again. The police decide to pay the ransom. One hundred thousand euros are photographed and put into an attaché case that is given to Didier. The whole area where the meeting will take place is under surveillance. But the encounter doesn’t take place as planned; the kidnappers fail to show up. Instead, they call Didier and give him another address in Chatelet, a 30-minute ride away. When he arrives there, with the police discreetly observing the proceedings, he receives a new directive: “Send 5,000 euros via Union Transfer now and take a train to Brussels.” This time he has had enough and hangs up the phone.
Seventeen days have now passed without any results. We are totally drained and at our wits’ end. A new stream of phone calls is directed to the police. They don’t answer.
Then the phone calls stop.
That night I feel a strong force hurl my bed against the wall and I wake up. “Something happened to Ilan! I’m sure of it!” I tell the policemen in my living room. Of course, they think it’s only the ranting of a hysterical woman. It was five a.m. They say that a mother knows. I checked it out later. On February 13, at five o’clock in the morning, Ilan was first shaven, like six million other Jews, and flung into the forest by his torturers. He managed to take the mask off his eyes, and as Fofana later reported, look them straight in the eye. I am a human being, his eyes told them. He received a few knife stabs for that. Then, like many of the six million before him he was set on fire and burned alive, having been sprayed with a flammable substance. Then his tormentors left.
When he was found guilty Fofana declared, “I killed a Jew, and for that I will go to Paradise.”
It was raining that morning; Ilan managed to roll down on the leaves towards the highway. A black woman, a secretary like me, saw him lying by the side of the road, stopped her car and called the police. She accompanied him in the ambulance and did not leave his side. He was still alive in the ambulance but died on the way to the hospital. I console myself that my son died hearing a soothing voice.
When he was found guilty Fofana declared, “I killed a Jew, and for that I will go to Paradise.” The police publicly admit to the press that it was an anti-Semitic crime.
“Why did you write your book, 24 Days, which chronicles Ilan’s kidnapping?” I want to know. “How did you have the courage to immerse yourself in what must have been such unbearable pain?”
“I couldn’t allow his murder to evaporate, to simply disappear like yesterday’s news,” she explains. “The idea was intolerable. I had to leave a permanent testament to my son.
“Of course it was very difficult,” she continues. “I have boxes and boxes of transcripts from the trial. When I started reading them I felt like throwing myself out the window. They enumerate in painstaking detail what they did to my child just to amuse themselves. When Fofana was asked in prison if he had a message for me he said, ‘Tell her that her son fought well.’ It was probably meant as a compliment in his twisted mind.”
“The murder of Ilan Halimi has been publicly declared an act of anti-Semitism. When you speak in public, what is your message to the French people?” I ask.
“I tell them that words are sometimes worse than weapons,” she replies. “The popular French comedian, Dieudonné [which means ‘gift of God’], whose supposed humor drips with anti-Semitism and is enjoyed by millions of Frenchmen, has said things like, ‘The Germans should have finished the job in 1945.’ It’s words like these that incite violence and inspire incidents like Toulouse.”
“Have you ever considered leaving France?” I inquire.
“Yes. My youngest daughter made aliyah and is happy in Israel. She is urging me to join her. But at the moment, with the pension I have, I cannot afford it. I also have grandchildren here to whom I am very attached. But I do not plan on remaining here forever. One day when my daughter in Israel marries and has a family, I too shall leave.”
“Why did you have Ilan’s remains reinterred in Israel?”
“Because I didn’t want him to lie in the same soil on which he was murdered. I wanted him to be buried in Israel immediately, but my children said they needed him close by so they could visit him every day. I also knew that one day Fofana will be released from prison, and I don’t want him to be able to come and spit on my son’s grave.”
This article originally appeared in Ami Magazine.