TRIPOLI, Libya – An American writer and filmmaker who ended up in Libya’s most notorious prison during the turmoil of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi feared he would be one of the dictator’s forgotten victims.
When rescue came last week, Matthew VanDyke said Saturday, he did not at first believe his ordeal was over.
A crowd wrestled open his Libyan jail cell after six months of torturous solitary confinement. He feared an angry mob that believed he was a CIA spy. Instead, it was rebels and prisoners breaking the 32-year-old from Baltimore out of Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, he said Saturday.
VanDyke was captured in March by government soldiers in the eastern oil town of Brega and held incommunicado for almost six months in Tripoli – half of it in a tiny 4-by-7 cell.
“I was in solitary confinement the whole time with nothing to do but stare at the wall,” said VanDyke, speaking outside the Tripoli hotel where he is now staying. Lanky and bearded, he wore his loose, dark prison uniform, the only clothing he has.
He described the months of enforced isolation as a kind of “psychological torture.” He didn’t realize when his 32nd birthday came and went. To distract himself, he read the ingredients on the milk cartons he received with his meals.
“When I got a German milk box somehow that had five languages on it, that was quite a treat,” VanDyke said. “Keep that one and try to learn words in various languages – anything to break the monotony of staring at a wall.”
His only human interaction was with the guards who brought him his food.
He feared he would be cut off from the world for decades, no one knowing whether he was alive or dead.
VanDyke had come to Libya in March to visit Libyan friends caught up in the euphoria of the early days of the uprising against Gadhafi in the east. He was riding in a pickup through the oil town of Brega snapping pictures of children when a surprise advance by government forces caught him and his rebel friends unaware. He doesn’t remember what happened next.
“Then I woke up in a cell with a man being tortured in the room above me,” he recalled. His captors took his footage and camera, briefly interrogated him and then flew him to a prison in Tripoli where he stayed for 85 days in a cramped cell where there was barely room to move.
Eventually, without explanation, he was transferred to Abu Salim.
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