Gaddafi’s Prisoner – Reflections on My Time as a POW in the Libyan Civil War

Gaddafi’s Prisoner – Reflections on My Time as a POW in the Libyan Civil War

(also available in French here)

Matthew VanDyke the American prisoner of war sits in his cell at Maktab al-Nasser prison in Tripoli Libya

Freedom fighter and prisoner of war Matthew VanDyke in his cell at Maktab al-Nasser prison in Tripoli, Libya

One year ago today on March 13, 2011 I was captured by Gaddafi’s forces during a reconnaissance mission in Brega, Libya.  I was struck in the head and woke up in a prison cell to the sounds of a man being tortured in the room above me.

I was psychologically tortured in solitary confinement for 165 days in two of Libya’s most notorious prisons, Maktab al-Nasser and Abu Salim.

Staring at the wall in silence for 5 1/2 months gave me a lot of time for reflection.  These are some of the thoughts that went through my mind:

My life is over.  I have thrown it all away.

I will never see my mother again.  I am an only child and she has no other family.  I have selfishly left her all alone.  She will never be able to move on and will spend the rest of her life trying to get me freed.  If they ever release me I will be 50 or 60 years old and just starting my life when others are retiring.  Hopefully I will still have at least a couple of years left with my mother.

I will never see my girlfriend again.  Six years of true love that most people only know of through books and movies.  If I do get to see her again it will be in 30 years.  I will meet her husband and her children, and wish they were my children, and think of what could have been.

Gaddafi’s regime believes I am a spy.  They will torture me.  They will rip out my fingernails one by one until I confess.

And then they will execute me.  Perhaps in public.  Maybe Gaddafi himself will preside over the execution, as they hang me by the neck in Green Square.  That would not be the worse that could happen.  At least a public execution would limit my suffering to a few moments before it all goes dark.  A secret execution might be slow and painful.  Or angry guards might break into my cell, stack tires up to my neck, douse me with gasoline and light me on fire.

Maybe I am better off dead, so that my mother and girlfriend can have some closure.

Maybe I should take my own life.

I hope that the men I was captured with are ok.  Are they still alive or were they executed?  How did I get this wound on the left side of my head and why can’t I remember what happened?

I know nothing except the confines of my cell.  And it is likely that this cell is all I will know for the rest of my life.

Is it wrong to fight for freedom?  Is freedom worth fighting, killing, dying for?  Have I committed a sin and is God punishing me for it?  Or has God saved me from committing sin by taking away my mortal life to save my immortal soul?

Was the freedom of others worth this sacrifice, worth spending the rest of my life in solitary confinement staring at gray walls and thinking of what my life could have been like if I hadn’t gotten on that plane and gone to Libya?

These are a fraction of the thoughts that ran through my head for 5 ½ months.  165 days.  Nearly 4,000 hours.  Sitting in a wretched Libyan prison, staring at scratches on the wall marking the days of the prisoners before me and watching in horror as my own scratches became double and triple the number of theirs.

My story is only unique because I am an American freedom fighter, an American prisoner of war in the Arab Spring.  As you read this there are thousands of others in prisons who are tortured by the same thoughts, the same questions, the same doubts.  Some of them have been in prison for many years; others were imprisoned for protesting in the street or fighting for freedom on the battlefield in countries like Syria.  Many others suffer in these dungeons merely for something they wrote or an off-hand remark they made that was overheard by a regime informer.

I was fortunate.  On August 24, 2011 escaping prisoners came to my cell, broke the lock, opened the door, and took me with them as we ran for our lives.  It is time that we begin doing the same for the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and freedom fighters around the world who have sacrificed their personal liberty in the pursuit of liberty for all.

In the words of George Orwell:

“Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.”

11 thoughts on “Gaddafi’s Prisoner – Reflections on My Time as a POW in the Libyan Civil War

  1. Sometimes the worst torture is what we practice ourselves.
    It’s all right, it’s time to do everything that remains, to live without forgetting and keep fighting.

  2. What a gripping story, so nerve-racking!! Tyrants should never be allowed to reign ever again!. Peaceful change and democracy should be the order of the day!

  3. Matthew, I was jailed in Angola for 49 days and there were 3 step down underground cells – the towns sewerage washed into the 1st cell I was in with other inmates and we sat in urine and feaces up to our chests. the waste then washed over into the other 2 cells and then down a drainage system. When it rained we were forced to stand up and sleep became a nightmare. Some prisoners died from drowning and hunger. I was also jailed in Botswana in solitary confinement and I had similar thoughts as you!

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