The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

It’s the 21st century, and a country has been invaded by the army of a shirtless man on a horse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin riding a horse

Vladimir Putin. Russian President and shirtless equestrian.

As Russian troops march across Crimea and the Russian parliament considers the annexation of the territory from Ukraine, the international community is stumbling while watching a repeat of history. Six years ago the Russian bear reached its claw into Georgia and grabbed ahold of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, tearing them away from that sovereign nation through military invasion and creating two Russian satellite states functioning under the guise of being newly independent republics.

The international community didn’t stop Russia then, and it likely won’t stop Russia now. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been emboldened by years of US, European, and UN inaction to stop him, whether in Georgia, Syria, Ukraine or anywhere else. Putin will do what Putin wants to do, as he has always done, and the international community will watch, sweat, and offer little more to Ukrainians than speeches and press conferences condemning what has happened to their country.

When the dust settles, it will be Putin who decides what happens to Crimea, not the US, Europe, the UN, or anyone else. And when Putin decides that the Russian bear will claw a line through Ukraine establishing Crimea as an independent republic and de facto Russian satellite, nobody should be the slightest bit surprised.

Russian President Putin will not yield. German President Angela Merkel recently concluded after her phone call with Putin about the situation in Ukraine that Putin was “out of touch with reality.”

The question is, who’s reality is he out of touch with? Putin’s reality is shirtless horseback riding, shooting whales with crossbows, and hugging polar bears. Putin’s reality is supplying the Assad regime with weapons to massacre those struggling for freedom in Syria. Putin’s reality is invading neighboring countries to enforce his will on them at the tip of a bayonet.

The fact is, Putin’s reality is reality. Inaction on Georgia, Syria, and (so far) Ukraine has supplanted any reality of international law or standards with Putin’s reality, and for years now we have been living in Putin’s world.

Before another nation is invaded by Russia, before protestors in another country are silenced by Russian weapons, before Russia rewrites international norms of conduct and inspires other countries to begin enforcing their will through unprovoked military action, Putin must be stopped.

The reaction by the international community must be swift, punitive, and unequivocal in delivering the message that such aggression will not be tolerated in the 21st century. The fate of not only Ukraine, but the course of history in our time, depends on it.




The 2012 Benghazi Attack

Update: Geoffrey Ingersoll of Business Insider has written an article titled ”American Who Fought With Libyan Rebels: I Was Right About Benghazi“ about my accurate assessment of what happened in Benghazi which I shared with Business Insider on September 12, 2012, the day after the 2012 Benghazi attack occurred.

The New York Times investigation by David Kirkpatrick into the September 11, 2012 attack on a US compound in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, has confirmed much of my theory about who was responsible for the attack, what motivated it, and how little planning by the attackers was involved.

I knew how militias operated in Libya because I fought in the Libyan Civil War in 2011 as part of the rebel forces. Yet surprisingly, few journalists thought to email or call me after the Benghazi attack for insight into what had likely happened.

Freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke with his military unit during the Libyan Civil War

With my rebel military unit during the Libyan Civil War.

Instead, many journalists were reporting opinions that were not accurate, such as the attack being ”a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid” carried out by Al Qaeda - opinions offered by the regular cadre of talking heads who are popular at cocktail parties in Washington, DC but who have no operational experience on the ground in Libya and certainly no experience fighting as part of a Libyan militia or military unit.

The media often follows this same pattern of behavior when reporting on the Syrian Civil War as well.

I first shared my theory about Benghazi with journalists who did think to contact me on September 12, 2012 (the very next day after the attack). I based this theory on my academic background in Security Studies, years of experience in the region, clues from a few eyewitness accounts that had emerged but were largely dismissed or overlooked by the media, and most importantly on my experiences fighting in the Libyan Civil War which gave me unique insight into how the militias operate.

Business Insider published my thoughts and theory about the Benghazi attacks on September 13, 2012 (just two days after the attacks) in an article titled Insiders Tell Us What Really Happened in Libya. My views on Benghazi can also be found in Jack Murphy and Brandon Webb’s New York Times Bestseller book Benghazi: The Definitive Report.

It has been frustrating to watch the tragic events in Benghazi being used as a political football in the US Congress and media. I have been confident that my theory about that day was much closer to what actually happened than what politicians and much of the press have been reporting for the past year. The political and media circus about Benghazi for the past year has been irresponsible because the myths and misrepresentations about what happened in Benghazi has politicized a tragedy that should have united all Americans. I hope those of you with an interest in what actually transpired that horrible day in Benghazi will take the time to read David Kirkpatrick’s New York Times report.

The Syrian Electronic Army Hacked My Accounts

Recently some of my accounts were hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) because of my work for the revolution in Syria. It has taken me awhile to restore the accounts because I have been in Germany and Poland for a couple of film festivals (Camerimage Film Festival in Poland paid for my flight and hotel in Poland). The hacking of my accounts wasn’t my top priority.

However, the hackers have recently sent me a threatening email that is basically an attempt at extortion or blackmail.

The hackers have made it clear that if I do not give in to their demands they will find creative ways to destroy my reputation by using the information they obtained combined with screenshots of my accounts to fake emails and messages that don’t actually exist.

I find it amusing that they’re going to have to do this since they were disappointed that I had nothing to hide in my email and Facebook accounts. Was discovering a lawsuit I am in the process of filing, a personal matter between Nour Kelze and I, a professional dispute over my upcoming Libya documentary, financial issues, some inside jokes with girls, and my occasionally dirty sense of humor really worth all that effort of hacking me? They made a big show of hacking me and ended up with nothing.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my lack of response to their demands and this post exposing their failures and threatening email to me will provoke them into trying their best to damage my reputation. I don’t fear their faked emails, messages, and whatever else they have planned, and in fact it will be interesting to see how they’re possibly going to follow through on their threats and just how creative they will be considering how boring their posts on my hacked Twitter feed and Facebook page were.

Review of Roll Hard by Robert Young Pelton and Billy Tucci

Roll Hard is a new graphic novel by Robert Young Pelton and artist Billy Tucci about when Pelton was a journalist accompanying Blackwater security contractors on missions in Baghdad, Iraq in 2004.

The cover of the graphic novel

It is a phenomenal book. I rarely read graphic novels and I cannot remember when I last read any book cover to cover until I read Roll Hard. I’m not exaggerating when I say it really is so good that you won’t want to put it down.

I haven’t written a book review on this blog before, so I’d like to first address why I’m writing this one. First, Roll Hard really is good enough to warrant me writing a book review. Second, Roll Hard provides a very good insight into both the world of military contracting and the risks involved in conflict journalism. Third, Robert Young Pelton is not only my colleague, but someone who has given me very useful advice during our conversations over the past couple of years.

As a teenager I read Pelton’s bestselling book The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a highly entertaining guide with a sense of humor to which the book owes much of its success. Nearly two decades later I never imagined that I’d be having conversations with Pelton seeking his career advice and discussing with him many of the challenges and struggles in my work.

He’s smart, honest, generous with his time, and one of the most experienced experts on working on conflict zones. And importantly, Robert Young Pelton is also one of the very few individuals I know of whose career is in any way similar to my own.

So when he sent me Roll Hard to review I didn’t wait long before giving it a read.

Roll Hard offers an incredible look behind at the curtain at the extraordinary and controversial world of military contracting, which is covered in detail in Pelton’s book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror.

A MK2 Mamba Armored Transport Vehicle and MH6 Little Birds in the graphic novel

Roll Hard tells the story of the Mamba Team, a team of heavily armed misfits with a hard-earned reputation for getting the job done in Iraq. Pelton went on missions with them in Baghdad as a journalist in 2004 during the Iraq War, and the bulk of the book is a combination of an edge-of-your-seat account of missions along “RPG Alley” (Route Irish, which ran from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone). In 2004 it was the deadliest stretch of road in the world and under frequent attack by insurgents using suicide bombers, snipers, IEDs, and of course, RPGs.

Robert Young Pelton with a Blackwater security contractor of the Mamba Team in the graphic novel

Robert Young Pelton rode along in one of the Mamba Team’s MK2 Mamba Armored Troop Transport vehicles on RPG Alley, and his writing, combined with famed illustrator Billy Tucci’s incredible illustrations (the best I’ve seen in a graphic novel), really capture the mixture of anxiety, adrenaline, and uncertainty in the Mamba Team’s missions.

Robert Young Pelton in the crosshairs of an insurgent sniper in the graphic novel

Robert Young Pelton in the crosshairs of an insurgent sniper in “Roll Hard”

As they face explosions and sniper’s bullets, and the unnerving reality of not being sure which civilians around them are actually insurgents trying to kill them, you really feel like you’re in a Mamba with Pelton and the team.

Robert Young Pelton and MH6

Next Pelton takes to the skies, climbing into a MH-6 Little Bird with the Night Stalkers air support contractors and zipping around Baghdad “fast, low and erratic” to avoid enemy fire. It sounds like something out of Hollywood, but it was real and Pelton captures it masterfully in Roll Hard.

A Blackwater military contractor in the graphic novel

As important as his captivating account of front line missions, however, is the insight Pelton provides into who the men of the Mamba Team were and why they were willing to assume such risk to their lives for a paycheck. The result is an incredible behind-the-scenes view of Blackwater and military contracting.

Roll Hard ends with the story of what happened to some of the Mamba Team in 2005 and 2006, after Pelton’s 2004 experiences with them. You’ll have to read Roll Hard to find out.

Roll Hard is available in print and e-book from

Robert Young Pelton is currently fundraising for a mission to track down the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. Learn more and donate to support the mission at

Read Robert Young Pelton’s article about Matthew VanDyke in Dangerous Magazine: “Matt VanDyke: Filmmaker/Fighter”

I Saw The Horrors of War at Dar al-Shifa Hospital in Syria

A year ago today, I began filming the documentary about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.

On my first day of filming I saw a baby without a head brought to Dar al-Shifa Hospital in Aleppo, Syria. I wrote a detailed account of what happened at the hospital that day and posted it on my Facebook page that evening.

I had seen the horrible realities of war while filming in Iraq and while fighting in Libya that no person should ever see. But what I saw in Syria that day, on my first day of filming Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, would be seared into my memory for the rest of my life and strengthen my resolve to fight against any government that would do this to its own citizens:

Click here to read what I saw that day in Syria

The Controversy Surrounding the Syria Film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” at the Arpa International Film Festival

The documentary film about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, is being shown at over 75 film festivals around the world, has won nearly 20 awards, has been seen by millions on television, and has been the subject of intense media coverage for over a year.

With the exception of the ranting and raving of YouTube and Twitter users, the film has not generated much controversy. It is a straightforward and honest film - the story of the Syrian revolution as told through the experiences of two young Syrians, a male rebel fighter and a female journalist. I simply let the two subjects of the film, Nour Kelze and Omar Hattab (Mowya), tell their story without injecting my personal views about the conflict into the film.

This lack of controversy changed at this year’s Arpa International Film Festival held at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution was to be awarded the prestigious Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award, one of the highest awards and honors of the festival (Armin T. Wegner was a German soldier turned human rights activist whose photographs documented the Armenian Genocide.)

That Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution would receive the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award was announced in the press on September 13: “The 2013 nominees and Special Awards recipients Matthew Van Dyke and Sev Ohanian truly reflect the festival’s core philosophy, which is to cultivate cultural understanding and global empathy. These are films which shed light on people and places that Los Angeles audiences might only know from the news. Matthew’s film follows two people on the front lines of the conflict in Syria, while Sev’s film shows the tragic effects of cultural divide here in the United States.” (Sev Ohanian was being awarded the Breakthrough Filmmaker Award for his work as a producer on one of the biggest films of 2013, Fruitvale Station.

The Arpa International Film Festival contacted me requesting that I attend the festival to receive the award in person, noting that the recipient of the award has personally received it each year since the inaugural award in 2003.

For nearly 2 weeks there was no reaction to the announcement. Then suddenly, just a few days before the awards ceremony on September 29, Arpa International Film Festival director Alex Kalognomos was flooded with phone calls demanding that the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award be withdrawn for Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution. The pro-Assad activists had begun their campaign against the film.

The complaints were primarily from Armenian-Americans (Arpa International Film Festival is an Armenian-American event). Some objected to the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award being given to a pro-revolution film because they believed that a humanitarian award, and especially one with Wegner’s legacy attached to it, should not be awarded to a film that takes one side and features two subjects who advocate armed struggle against an oppressor. This was an understandable concern given many people’s limited perspective on what humanitarianism is and means.

However, many others openly voiced their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They accused Arpa International Film Festival of giving an award to a film that shows the Syrian revolution in a positive light, when in their view the Syrian revolution will lead to a genocide against the Armenian community in Syria. They argued that the Assad regime had protected Armenians in Syria and that supporting the Assad regime was in the best interest of the Armenian community.

Judging by the complaints, most of these people had not seen the film. They accused the film of celebrating Al Qaeda (Al Qaeda is not mentioned in the film, no members of Al Qaeda appear in the film, and the only fighters in the film are part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which in recent months has occasionally been fighting against Al Qaeda).

After a couple of days of being flooded with phone calls, some of which threatened protests against the festival, Alex Kalognomos informed me that the Arpa International Film Festival had decided to withdraw the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award this year. Alex Kalognomos was very sympathetic and apologetic about the situation.  He was also concerned about my welfare during the Q&A session and assured me that it would be conducted in a civil manner but that I could face tough questions.

I told him that I made the film in one of the most dangerous places in the world, Aleppo, Syria, so there was nothing I feared in Los Angeles, California.

Alex also informed me that Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution would receive a new award, the Silver Lens Award, that would honor courage and bravery in filmmaking. The Arpa International Film Festival Silver Lens Award would be given annually, with Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution being the inaugural recipient of the new award. This was to be a great honor.

I was disappointed that the film would not receive the humanitarian award because it would have been a great way to highlight the humanitarian nature of the crisis in Syria. Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution had already won a similar award, the Best Human Rights Short Award (sponsored by Amnesty International) at the Isle of Wight Film Festival in the United Kingdom.

However, I recognized that this was a great opportunity for dialogue about the conflict in Syria and to get Americans talking about the Syrian revolution. I contacted several activists and asked them to rally revolution activists to support Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution through phone calls, Tweets, Facebook posts, and emails to Arpa International Film Festival.

And they responded with a level of energy and commitment that was inspiring. The Syrian American Council (SAC) and the Syrian American Alliance (SAA) sent emails to their members and posted online about the controversy, asking their members to contact Arpa International Film Festival in support of Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution receiving the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award.

Alex Kalognomos received many calls in support of Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, and he really tried hard to discuss the issue with each caller when possible.

On the night of the screening of the film on September 28, the night before the award’s ceremony on the 29th, Syrian-Americans (mostly from SAC-LA) faced the protestors against the film outside of the famous Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.

A police helicopter even came and hovered above, watching the protest. But they did not find violence, just scenes like this:

Syria protestors from opposite sides hug outside of the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

Syria protestors from opposite sides hug outside of the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

They also saw supporters of the film outnumbering those protesting against it.

At the Q&A session after the film I did receive a few tough questions, mostly having to do with Al Qaeda in Syria, which my film had nothing to do with.

Director Matthew VanDyke answers questions about his Syria film

Director Matthew VanDyke answers questions about his Syria film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” during the Q&A at Arpa International Film Festival.

It provided a good opportunity to point out that the Free Syrian Army is the only thing standing between Al Qaeda and the Armenian community in Syria, and that the Free Syrian Army protects Armenians and Christians from both the Assad regime and Al Qaeda.

It was also a good opportunity to point out that the Free Syrian Army is fighting for the liberty of everyone in Syria, including Syrian-Armenians.

I chose not to prepare a speech for the awards ceremony the following night, deciding instead to speak from the heart given the level of emotions that others had expressed surrounding the giving of a humanitarian award to Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution at the Arpa International Film Festival.

In addition to reiterating that the Free Syrian Army is not Al Qaeda and that the Free Syrian Army is fighting for all Syrians, and thanking Alex Kalognomos for his kindness and professionalism throughout the controversy, I made two points that need repeating here:

  1. I was pleased to see the protestors against the film because it showed that they cared enough about something to get up off their sofa and show up outside Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre to express their opinions. This freedom of expression is part of why the Syrian revolution is being fought, so that Syrians can one day have that freedom as well. I appreciated the dialogue between the pro-revolution and pro-Assad protestors and although I disagree with supporters of the Assad regime I was glad that they expressed their opinions on an issue they are passionate about.
  2. I accepted responsibility personally and on behalf of other Syrian revolution activists for failing over the past two years to effectively communicate to the American people who the Syrian rebels are and why they are fighting the Assad regime. The Q&A session after the film had revealed that some Americans believe that the revolution is run by Al Qaeda and even that the Free Syrian Army is synonymous with Al Qaeda. It is not their fault, however, that they believe this but instead our fault for failing with public outreach to inform the American people about the Syrian revolution. I said in the speech that we all needed to do a better job of communicating with the American people and that the controversy surrounding the Armin T. Wegner Humanitarian Award being awarded to Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution had energized me to work even harder on doing so effectively.

There are many lessons we can learn from what happened at Arpa International Film Festival this year – that there are many interests involved in the Syrian conflict, that activism in the revolution is alive and well, that Arpa International Film Festival is a professional and well-run event, and that Alex Kalognomos deserves much acclaim for his handling of the controversy.

And that Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution sure looks good on a big screen like the one at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre.

The Syria film

The Syria film “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” being shown in the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles during the Arpa International Film Festival

However, the most important lesson of all is that the Syrian revolution must refocus its efforts on public outreach.

When we have Americans confusing the Free Syrian Army with Al Qaeda, we are facing a serious problem. We will never convince Americans to support the Syrian revolution if they believe that international intervention would be in support of Al Qaeda. We must do a better job of communicating to the American people that the Free Syrian Army is not Al Qaeda, that the Free Syrian Army is the beating heart of this revolution, and that the Free Syrian Army needs our support.

I would like to thank all of those who contacted Arpa International Film Festival to voice their support for the film, particularly SAC, SAC-LA, and SAA.

Director Matthew VanDyke with supporters of his documentary film about Syria

Director Matthew VanDyke with supporters of his documentary film about Syria “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” at the Arpa International Film Festival.

Matthew VanDyke with supporters at the Arpa International Film Festival at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

Matthew VanDyke with supporters at the Arpa International Film Festival.

I would also like to thank Arpa International Film Festival for the Silver Lens Award, as well as Arpa founder Sylvia Minassian and Alex Kalognomos for their care and support, and for having one of the best film festivals I have ever been to.

Click here to watch the documentary film about Syria, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution

Please share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Reddit, etc.

Comments on the blog and under the film on YouTube are also much appreciated.

Thank you for your support.

What Is the UK Sending to Rebels in Syria? You Might Be Surprised.

The Independent has a story out today detailing what the UK is sending to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels in Syria.

When they read The Independent article, supporters of the revolution won’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Here is my assessment, based on what has been reported in the article:

Five 4×4 vehicles with ballistic protection – one convoy for a FSA general they like Six 4×4 SUVs – one convoy for a FSA general they don’t like
20 sets of body armour – 20 rebels are going to feel like they won the lottery
Four trucks (three 25 tonne, one 20 tonne) – to carry the bodies of those who didn’t win the body armor
Five non-armoured pick-ups – for retreating when you realize the UK didn’t send you any weapons or ammunition
One recovery vehicle – a tow truck to haul back the destroyed wrecks of the 4x4s and trucks that were sent
Four fork-lifts – to unload the weapons and ammunition that wasn’t sent
Three advanced “resilience kits” for region hubs, designed to rescue people in emergencies – is three enough to rescue 20 million Syrians?
130 solar powered batteries – because the environment is the top priority
Around 400 radios – rebels can use these to desperately call for the weapons and ammunition that wasn’t sent
Water purification – there’s chemical weapons in the air, but at least the water will be clean
Rubbish collection kits – it won’t be a good war for television if there’s rubbish everywhere
Laptops and VSATs (small satellite systems for data communications) – so the rebels can read on the internet how the international press has labeled them all extremists
Printers – to print a sign saying “great, now please send us the weapons and ammunition we need to win this war.”

“In addition, funds have been allocated for civic society projects such as inter-community dialogue” – dialogue has worked so well in this conflict so far
“and gathering evidence of human rights abuses” – documenting and complaining about human rights abuses is far easier than international intervention to stop them from happening in the first place

“The last “gift” to the opposition, announced by William Hague last week, is that £555,000 worth of counter-chemical warfare equipment is on standby… Even the chemical equipment may not be of much use without adequate training. Potential users need the ability to assess threats and calculate the correct dosage for medication, along with an appreciation of differing field conditions…” – Perhaps it is better this way, since the pain of burning eyes and skin will at least be a distraction from the pain of feeling abandoned by the world.

Jolly good show, mates.

(This article is also available in Arabic and French)

In Egypt, Have the People Overthrown Themselves?

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

In Egypt, Have the People Overthrown Themselves?

“Many of the same protestors who two and a half years ago risked their lives to chant ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (the people want to overthrow the regime) were now calling for immediate political change in a democratic system outside of the electoral process they had fought so hard to achieve.”

Read the article here

Please leave your comments on The Huffington Post website below the article.

The Long, Hard Slog That Is Syria

This week’s blog post is at The Huffington Post

The Long, Hard Slog That Is Syria

“Standing on the front lines in Aleppo you can’t just smell the gunpowder, you can smell the depression.  It hangs in the air far thicker than smoke, and with far worse effects.  The fighters have a hard time seeing through it but they push forward anyway, having no choice.”



Read it by clicking here


(Also available in French here)

Please leave comments at The Huffington Post website below the article!

Escape from Abu Salim Prison

Escape from Abu Salim Prison

One year ago today I escaped from Abu Salim prison in Libya.  I had spent half a year being psychologically tortured in solitary confinement, pacing in my cell, staring at the walls and fearing that this would be all I would know for the rest of my life.

matthew vandyke in maktab al-nasser prison, tripoli, libya

On the 165th day of this unimaginable hell, prisoners came to my cell and broke off the lock.  I escaped Abu Salim with other prisoners of war and we ran for our lives.

That night I was watching the story of my escape on CNN.

The world thought I was dead for most of the time I was in Abu Salim prison – I was missing in action.  Despite the widespread belief that I was buried in the desert, Human Rights Watch (HRW) advocated for my release and the international press covered the story.  Only in the last two weeks before my escape did the Gaddafi regime even admit that I was alive and in custody, but they still would not let anyone see me or check on my condition.

HRW went to Abu Salim a few weeks before the prison break and was told I wasn’t there.  I was there, and I was being held in solitary confinement under deplorable conditions.  The Gaddafi regime did not care what the US government, NGOs, or the international press had to say.  I would still be in that cell, if not executed, if we hadn’t won the war.

I had come to help the Libyan rebels, and then the Libyan rebels came to help me.  My fellow rebel prisoners broke me out of the cell and we escaped together.  There was no outside intervention to save me from the horrors of Abu Salim.

A few days after my escape, I was at the Corinthia Hotel as a guest of the rebel government and I came under intense pressure, especially from HRW, to leave Libya.  The international press started calling my mother telling her to convince me to leave as well.  The press was confused about why I was still in Tripoli days after escaping from Abu Salim prison, as if I was waiting for something.

I was waiting for something – for Nouri.  Nouri Fonas was my friend of four years with whom I had been serving in the rebel forces before I was captured.  Transportation was difficult and it took Nouri a few days to arrive from Benghazi.  Soon after he arrived, we left Tripoli together.

The press and HRW had no idea where I went.  They assumed I had conceded to their demands and gone home.

Instead, Nouri and I spent one night in Benghazi, paid a visit to the Ministry of Defence, and then headed back to the front line.  We joined the Ali Hassan al-Jaber brigade, were assigned a military jeep that we fitted with a DShK heavy machine gun, and returned to the war.

freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke in the libya war

Just as when I first joined the revolution in March 2011, nobody was supposed to know about my return to the front lines.  My participation in Libya’s revolution was supposed to be a secret, a personal matter, but being captured and imprisoned in Abu Salim erased my anonymity.  I tried once again to stay below the radar when returning to the front lines after prison until a photographer spotted me as I passed through a checkpoint in the jeep.  The secret was out.

It was for the best, it turned out.  Occasionally, I was able to take the press with me in the jeep to the front lines so they could report on the war while I fought in it, giving them a safe escort in an otherwise uncertain conflict zone.  And thanks to our commander giving Nouri and I a lot of freedom to move as we wanted and fight where we wanted, we had a rare grasp of what was happening on the various front lines in Sirte.  We fought at many different areas on the front lines alongside various other brigades, making us a reliable source of information for the media.

Nevertheless, I was criticized after the war by men incapable of understanding why someone who endured nearly six months of hell in the notorious Abu Salim prison would return to combat after escaping.  To this day some of these individuals, from the comfort of their homes in Europe and the United States, have tried to disparage me for keeping the commitment I made to Libya the day I first put on a uniform in March 2011.

Their criticism speaks volumes about their character, not mine.  I told the rebels when I joined them in March 2011 that I would not leave Libya until the country was free.  I honor my word; that is how I was raised.  I would also not leave Libya before the men I was captured with were accounted for – they could have been in prison in Sirte or another Gaddafi-held city.  Why would I ever abandon them?  Furthermore, how could I leave Libya when there were any prisoners of war still being held by the regime?

These wars of liberation aren’t a game and there aren’t any timeouts.  The war in Libya, and the war now raging in Syria, are all-or-nothing pursuits.  As Omar Mukhtar said, “We will not surrender. We win or we die.”  As I write this, there are thousands of prisoners waiting in their cells in Syria, just as I was waiting in a Libyan prison last year. 

No amount of reporting, NGO press releases, or rhetoric will get them out – Bashar al-Assad doesn’t care what anyone says, just like Gaddafi didn’t care what any of them said about me.

This isn’t the time for observation.  This isn’t the time for politely discussing the situation at the UN, or standing at podiums issuing idle threats about what might happen if lines that we keep moving are somehow crossed.  We are way past going through the motions of diplomacy. 

Those thousands of Syrian prisoners – men, women, and children- are waiting for us.  Each day they stare at the walls and wonder if it will be their last.  I know the feeling, and I’ll do whatever I can to help them escape from their Abu Salim.

And I’m starting with this film.