Noam Leibman and a pair of colleagues landed in Nigeria from Tel Aviv last month to shoot the pilot episode of their planned documentary series, We Were Never Lost. The first two days of shooting interviews with Igbo Jews went great, but then when a dozen masked men entered their hotel room, and took them into custody for a harrowing 20 days that required diplomatic efforts by three countries to send them home.
Leibman, a Minneapolis native who went by the first name of Andrew before making Aliyah to Israel five months ago, is back in Israel, along with Rudy Rochman and David Benaym.
“We had two full days with the community and we had so many things. planned. There was a huge Shabbat that was going to be taking place that night,” Leibman said. “Then we proceeded to spend the next 20 days in prison.”
The three spent the first night in a holding room before being driven nine hours to the Nigerian capital of Abuja, to the state security headquarters.
“They shove us into this cage and lock the door behind us,” he said. “And the cage is terrible. It’s literally just a dark, hot, smelly room. There are bugs on the ground. There are bottles of other people’s urine on the ground. There are no beds. And they just leave us there. And they don’t tell us anything.
“That moment when we got into that room, we kind of realized this is really serious.”
The next morning, once the sun came up, they had a better picture of what the cell they were in looked like. And it was horrifying.
“There’s writing on the wall, things that past prisoners have written like, ‘Dear God, please allow me to experience happiness one more time in my lifetime,’” he said. “Someone else who’s written ‘If you never see me again, remember my name.’ We’re starting to get very concerned at this point because we haven’t spoken to anyone.”
The Igbo people are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, and in the late 1960s, fought for their independence during the Nigerian Civil War after part of the country seceded and created the Republic of Biafra.
“That war ended, but the Igbos continued to be discriminated against, and they continue to fight for their self-determination,” Leibman said.
When the group arrived in Nigeria, Leibman said that their photos were taken and the word was put out that “Agents have arrived from Israel to help support our movements. And they have been in touch with the leaders of our movements, and the Torah that they’re bringing with them was orchestrated by our leader,” he said. “They were creating complete, fake stories about who we are and why we came to Nigeria.”
The plan for the series that Leibman is creating is to explore “the history, claims, stories, struggles, and aspirations of the Jewish/Israelite tribes of Africa,” their website says. The plan was to shoot future episodes in “Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and beyond.”
“[Nigeria] is essentially the biggest story about Jewish life in Africa,” Leibman said. “There’s a rapid growth in Igbos, the ethnic group in Nigeria who identifies as having origins from Israel, returning to Judaism. [They’re] practicing Orthodox Judaism, building synagogues, keeping the mitzvot. That is happening on a rapid scale in Nigeria.”
When the three we were released, Leibman said the diplomats from France, Israel, and the United States — the homelands of the filmmakers — worked out a deal that required them to leave Nigeria immediately. He said that going back to film, under the current regime, is very unlikely.
“This is going to be a very powerful story that the whole Jewish world needs to see. And it’s really like a travesty that we aren’t able to film it in the way that we want it to,” he said. “But we are looking at ways of still doing the film, hiring some people to film things for us and interviewing various people in Israel and still being able to tell the story.”