Americans Emerge After Months In Gadhafi's Prisons

Sep 1, 2011
Originally published on September 1, 2011 5:08 pm

Last week, Matthew VanDyke, a freelance journalist and travel writer from Baltimore, went from solitary confinement in one of Moammar Gadhafi's most notorious prisons to one of Tripoli's most luxurious hotels.

VanDyke acknowledges that in early March, shortly after the uprising against Gadhafi began, he arrived in Libya to help the rebels.

"I was here to do whatever I could to help the revolution and I'll leave it at that," said VanDyke, who is now a guest at the Corinthia Hotel in the Libyan capital.

Under Gadhafi's rule, tens of thousands of people disappeared into the regime's prisons. The state security apparatus regularly tortured detainees and held them without trial, according to human-rights groups.

When the rebels stormed into Tripoli last week and drove Gadhafi from power, many prisons were opened up and inmates were allowed to go or managed to escape. Five U.S. citizens, including VanDyke, were among them.

Captured With Rebels

Back on March 13, VanDyke was with three rebel friends in the coastal town of Brega when they were captured by Gadhafi troops.

"I'm taking pictures of smiling people one minute, and next thing I know, I wake up in a cell, there's a man being tortured in the room above me. I could hear it," VanDyke recalled. "And no memory — some flashes came back later of the ambush and being transported — except no real memory of what happened."

VanDyke vanished into Gadhafi's state security system like so many others. For months, Libyan officials denied they were even holding him. And except for the time he was moved from one prison to another, he was kept in solitary confinement.

"I never encountered any other prisoners," he said. "I thought I heard a few violent interrogations at night, which made me think they were going to come and get me. So I prepared myself for getting tortured."

He said he trimmed his fingernails and toenails so they couldn't be pulled out. "I just tried to be ready," he said. "I didn't know which night my night was going to be."

Held In Tiny Cell

But in the end, he says he was never physically abused. Instead he was locked away in a cell 7 feet by 4 feet and was all but ignored. There was nothing in the cell except a foam mattress and a filthy blanket.

In the first prison where he was held, he just sat and stared at the walls day after day. Then he was moved to the Abu Salim prison, the place where many of the country's political prisoners were sent.

There, VanDyke said, he had a slightly larger cell.

"I could walk two or three steps back and forth. Two or three steps, turn around," he said. "So I would do that all day, with the idea that if I could make myself tired, I could sleep. And if I could sleep I could dream, and in my dreams I wasn't in prison. And then when I'd wake up, the nightmare would begin."

The photos of VanDyke before his arrest show a tall, athletic man in his early 30s with a confident air. He emerged from prison incredibly thin, the skin on his face pulled taut over his cheekbones and his bony shoulders poking at a limp dress shirt.

He says solitary confinement was psychological torture and he wouldn't even want Gadhafi to have to endure it.

American Contractor Seized

Richard Peters, an American construction and security contractor, also emerged last week after six months in captivity.

Peters was in a different prison, where he had a bit more space and a Bible. And he says his experience was very different from VanDyke's.

"I did pushups, I did dips, I did pull-ups, isometrics. Everything. An hour's worth," he said, adding that he ran for up to 30 minutes a day and walked for hours. He also read his Bible regularly.

"My agenda was pretty positive — working out, reading the word and praying to God," he said.

Peters, 62, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, was in Tripoli trying to secure what he says was a $500 million construction contract from the Gadhafi regime when the fighting broke out in February.

He was captured trying to drive from the capital to the east where he hoped to use his military background to offer training to the rebels.

Peters and VanDyke have both remained in Tripoli since regaining their freedom. Peters says he believes there will be huge construction and security contracts awarded in the coming months, and he wants in on that business.

VanDyke is staying because he says he promised his rebel friends back in March that he would not leave until Libya was free.

"It came as a real shock to me that my freedom came with Libya's freedom," he said. "I came here to help however I could help the revolution. And in the end, the revolution helped me and gave me my freedom."

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Under Moammar Gadhafi's rule, tens of thousands of people disappeared into prisons. According to human rights groups, the Libyan state security apparatus tortured detainees and held them without due process. When the rebels took over Tripoli last month, prisoners escaped from their cells, among them five U.S. citizens. NPR's Jason Beaubien talked with two of them.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Last week, Baltimore native Matthew VanDyke went from being in solitary confinement in one of Gadhafi's most notoriously brutal prisons to staying in one of Tripoli's most luxurious hotels. VanDyke, a freelance journalist and travel writer, admits that he came to Libya in early March to help the rebels.

MATTHEW VANDYKE: I was here to do whatever I could to help the revolution, and I'll leave it at that.

BEAUBIEN: On March 13th, VanDyke was with three rebel friends touring the town of Brega when they were captured by Gadhafi troops.

VANDYKE: I'm taking pictures of smiling people in the town one minute, and the next thing I know, I wake up in a cell, and there's a man being tortured in the room above me. I could hear it. And it was that quick and no memory of - there's some flashes of memory came back later of the ambush and being transported, except no real memory of what happened.

BEAUBIEN: VanDyke then disappeared into the Gadhafi state security system. For six months, Libyan officials even denied that they were holding him. And except for when he was being moved from one prison to another, he was kept in solitary confinement.

VANDYKE: I never encountered any other prisoners or heard other prisoners. I thought I heard a few violent interrogations at night, which made me think that they were going to come and get me. I prepared myself for being tortured. I trimmed my fingernails and toenails down real low so they couldn't be pulled out. And I just tried to be ready. I didn't know which night my night was going to be.

BEAUBIEN: But in the end, he says, he was never physically abused. Instead, he was locked away in seven-foot-by-four-foot cell and forgotten. There was nothing in the cell except a foam mattress and a filthy blanket, he says. In the first prison, he'd just sat and stared at the walls day after day.

VANDYKE: And then when I moved to Abu Salim and I had a slightly larger cell, I could walk two or three steps back and forth. (Unintelligible) two or three steps, turn around. Two or three steps, turn around. So I would just do that all day, with the idea that if I make myself tired, my mind seemed to get a little clearer. And also, if I could sleep, I could dream, and when my - in my dreams, I was not in prison. And when I'd wake up, the nightmare begins because I'm in prison.

BEAUBIEN: Richard Peters, an American construction and security contractor, also emerged last week after six months in captivity. Peters was in a different prison. He had more space. He had a Bible. And he says his experience was very different from VanDyke's.

RICHARD PETERS: I did pushups. I did dips. I did pull-ups. I did isometrics. I did everything. That was probably an hour's worth. I ran 15 to 30 minutes every day. I walked for hours every day, you know, 300 pushups every day, all this stuff. And then, I read my Bible through completely in three and a half months. So my agenda was pretty positive. It was working out. It was reading the word, and it was praying to God.

BEAUBIEN: Peters and Mathew VanDyke both have remained in Tripoli after regaining their freedom. Peters says he believes there will be huge construction and security contract opportunities in the coming months. He wants to try to get in on that business. VanDyke is staying because he says he promised his rebel friends back in March that he would not leave until Libya is free.

VANDYKE: It came as a real shock to me that my freedom came with Libya's freedom, which means a lot to me because I came here to help however I could help the revolution. And in the end, the revolution helped me and gave me my freedom. And that means so much to me.

BEAUBIEN: VanDyke still has trouble sleeping, and he says it's hard to eat. But he doesn't express bitterness about his confinement over the last six months. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Tripoli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.