English translation of journalist Fritz Schaap's Das Magazin article about Matthew VanDyke

The original article in German can be read here

Syria Needs You
Said Matthew VanDyke and Drove Off

As an American civilian in the war against dictators he found the meaning of life

Matthew VanDyke speaks only a few words in German. Skimmed UHT milk, UHT and homogenized. Not more than 0.3% fat, too. He knows the words in eight languages. They are on a milk carton from the Frischli company. VanDyke has read them again and again. Against the solitude, the silence, against the madness. At some point the guards left him the box. After some months, he still has it.

It now stands next to a few other souvenirs of recent years, in one of the boxes that VanDyke dragged from the basement of his home in Baltimore. An attempt at a museum. His own small exhibition of extremes. Between a plush sofa set and a piano full of pictures of him – most of them in foreign countries, most of them in uniforms, decorated by the proud mother: the lock of his cell, a stone from the ruins of Osama bin Laden’s house in Jalalabad, dishes from Gaddafi palaces, flags and posters of Libya and Syria. VanDyke distributed his life on the floor, then says goodbye to his mother and goes, while his life is left on the carpet. The American every day, so mundane things like cleaning – they no longer interest large VanDyke. His life has become a revolution, he says, and he goes home.

VanDyke is a bit lost on the first floor of one of these small red brick houses on the East Coast. Outside the windows Baltimore takes the color of iron, and VanDyke, a large thin man with sunken cheeks, goes into the kitchen, pulls out a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and comes back to the room. On the wall a new Libya flag and a shelf with a glass trophy, a prize that the commander of the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade got for his services in Gaddafi’s overthrow. He gave it to VanDyke, now it is displayed with a few bottles of absinthe. Next to the TV, on a large white board to-do list, is written in black permanent marker: to help my friends, to experience history. VanDyke thinks big.

He sips a can of beer and sits in front of the computer before the recording of his life, for his life is far away at the time. In the pictures and videos another man is seen. Energetically grinning, full of adrenaline, full of energy. A man behind machine guns in the war.
A man with a mission.

“Why Doesn't Anybody Help Us?”

In his real life, VanDyke is a Libyan rebel inmate of Gaddafi’s prisons, propaganda filmmaker of the Syrian revolution. In his real life, he is Matthew VanDyke – freedom fighter, revolutionary. He is here in America because of his girlfriend and because he needs someone to help him to finish editing his film, a film of the Free Syrian Army, FSA, should get more money in the coffers, more money for weapons and ammunition. In November 2012 he was in Aleppo. On his computer, a monstrous black machine, hundreds of gigabytes of material from Syria are stored. VanDyke is now part of this revolution, he says. To understand this, one must go back a few years. In life. And in his videos. The two go hand in hand with him often. VanDyke has been filming his life for years.

In 2007, he set out with his black Kawasaki KLR650 to drive from Spain through the Arab world. Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and then Iraq. He knows the region, at least on paper. He has studied Middle East Security Studies at Georgetown and graduated summa cum laude. The road to the CIA was actually foreshadowed. “I wanted to do James Bond shit overseas,” he says. But then began the war in Iraq, which he declined. Not the idea of toppling Saddam, but an invasion he could not support, he would not be part of it. He started to plan his own James Bond shit.

In 2009, he came home from Iraq. “But I realized that I cannot make any adventure biker film of Iraq that doesn’t include the war. ” In 2010 he flew back and bought a black 250cc MZ Kanuni and met the photographer Dan Britt in Baghdad. “Someone who had the balls, who could follow through. Someone who was made enough. The plan: a motorcycle ride through two war zones. Iraq and Afghanistan.

VanDyke and his buddy Dan buy a second motorcycle, again an old MZ, and drive from Baghdad through Iran to Afghanistan. Two bearded young men with single-barrel shotguns under their coats. Dressed like Taliban in Afghanistan, to protect themselves, not to attract attention. “Warzone Bikers” – the name of the film that they make.

Why Did You Do That?

VanDyke smiles in response to the question and shows a film. A curly blond man, naked upper body, too tight 80s shorts, crawls with a rifle on his back crossing a river. Standing on a jeep behind a heavy machine gun and he shoots into the African bush and sails a little later on a two-master, alongside a blonde lolling in the sun on the open sea. “Alby Mangels,” says VanDyke and smiles. “I wanted to do a damn good new Alby-Mangels-adventure film. Therefore this trip. The idea was just the film, our own television series.” Alby Mangels was known in the 80s as a traveling adventurer cameraman. He made more than 70 films. VanDyke has about 30 of them.

However, he put his own movie to the side, not even finished editing, even though producers were interested. For no sooner is he back, sitting in front of the computer, cataloging the material and on the phone with television producers, as friends report from Libya. Muiz, one of the bikers from Tripoli, whom he has known since 2008, writes to him: “Tell your friends about me if I die.” And, “Why doesn’t anybody help us?” The Libyan Revolution had begun. Other friends come forward. The tenor is the same.

“Something happened to me. I could not keep working. I had the feeling that I need to go to Libya. I had no real friends anymore in America because of my long trips. But I did in Libya.” The next day he sits on a plane to Cairo. On 27 February 2011 he landed. Within 2 days the adventure junkie had turned into a revolutionary. Someone who was willing to kill for a good cause too, the weapon was not a deterrent, but to shoot. Someone who, as it turned out, had found the meaning in his life.

From Cairo, he calls Nouri Fonas, a friend from Benghazi. Nouri tells him to come to him. “It may not be the brightest thing I’ve ever done, but I have to…” he says in a video message to his mother and girlfriend before he leaves.
The last time VanDyke saw Nouri he was a hippie. When he finally arrives in early March 2011 in Benghazi, he does not recognize him. His old hippie friend Nouri is now a fighter. Before him stands a man in army fatigues and bulletproof vest. Nouri is the scion of a prominent family in Benghazi, now he is part of the rebels, and his surname is VanDyke’s ticket to war.

“I came to Libya to fight, but I did not know if that would be possible. If they would let me as a foreigner to easily fight in their ranks. I would have gone even to drive ambulances, I would have done anything to help, but thanks to Nouri I could fight,” he says with a beer in hand, while on the computer screen are flickers of war.

Nouri and his group, eight men, have two pickup trucks, one badly damaged. They change tires, drive the car into a military base, move the disks to repair what they can. “If it takes a year, it takes a year, I’ll still be here. I’m not leaving until Libya is free,” VanDyke tells Nouri, leaning on a pickup truck.

They go into the destroyed weapons and ammunition depot at Rajma, in the east of the country. Uprooted trees lying in the dust. A sea of green empty ammunition boxes. Shredded. Destroyed barracks. In the rubble, they are looking for weapons and ammunition. Load the pickups full, get two Dushkas, heavy machine guns of Russian design, and weld it back on the truck.

166 Days in Prison

Nouri remains in Benghazi to go to the base. VanDyke and a few other men go on a reconnaissance mission in Brega. The window of the jeep open, the wind makes the adventurer in him smile. Here we go: Brega is quiet, a few trucks with rebels drive through the streets, women do the shopping, children play in front of houses. Nothing suggests an attack. The sky is blue, a few clouds, no jets. The men have a time frame of a few days for Gaddafi’s troops to arrive. VanDyke’s truck drives through the streets, the inhabitants call welcome to the rebels and one brings a tray of coffee to the car. Then VanDyke’s memory is broken.

He wakes up briefly, finds himself in a car, tied, the ropes cutting off the blood. He falls back into unconsciousness, comes to on the cold stone floor of a room by himself, he does not see. “Take the blindfold off, and you’re a dead man,” a young man says in English. Blood was running down his temple. “I’m done,” he thinks, as a few days ago Gaddafi has burned 50 rebels in Bin Jawad. Nouri told him that one evening in Benghazi, as they planned the war – he remembers the gesture that Nouri made, the imaginary match that he lighted and dropped, then he loses consciousness again.

VanDyke sits at his computer, on which are the videos from Libya to prove that what he says is true. He seems controlled. It is important to him, how he comes across. And yet it seems all the experience affects him closer than he admits. Big sweat stains forming on his T-shirt, he massages his knuckles, and as always when he’s nervous, he sniffs, as if he had just chased a line Bolivian marching powder through the nose. He drinks from the beer.

The moment he regains conscience in Libya he hears his camera playing. Left of him is the translator, before him a table. Then his camera. “CIA? Mossad?” The questions cut the deadly silence. And then he begins to hear himself say on the camera: “Nouri, you remind me every day why we are fighting against the regime.” My death sentence, he thinks.

VanDyke Is A Hero

They fly him to Tripoli. Throw him in the back of a pickup and drive him to the Maktab al-Nasser prison. “I did not think that I’m coming out of there again. I was in uniform, I was caught in a pickup truck with a heavy machine gun and a Soviet anti-tank weapon on the back. I had videos on the camera in which I say that I support the revolution. I saw no way that I could have gotten out of it.”

85 days he sits in a small cell, 1 metre long 2.5 metres broad, the walls gray, no lights, just the little bit that passes through the tiny round window in the ceiling. He wonders what he will say when they interrogate him. When his night comes. He hears the interrogations of others. Their screams. But they did not interrogate him. Stroke for stroke, he carves into the wall, and soon there are more lines than any other prisoner in front of him.

He begins to pray. He chews his fingernails down and files with a plastic shard his toenails small so they did not – like George Clooney in the film “Syriana” – tear out the nails. But nothing happens. Three times a day he is allowed to use the toilet at the end of the hallway. The blue of the walls of the hall and the yellow of the ceiling, the only colors in his everyday life. Twice a day he gets food. At night, he chases the black bugs that crawl around on the small mattress, passing under the door of his cell. Nothing else happening.

At the 85th day he gets moved elsewhere. Nobody tells him why. A man blindfolds him and brings him out. He hopes for his release. He travels to Abu Salim prison, also in Tripoli. At the prison Gaddafi massacred 1,200 prisoners in 1996. There is no explanation.

His obsessive compulsive disorder, which he has since he was 16, is worse. His thoughts are always about the same thing. He begins to flush plastic down the toilet, thinking that if he does not destroy it, there could be other prisoners who will use it to kill themselves. He clogged the toilet and flooded the cell. His mind starts to go haywire. He sings Guns n’ Roses songs, sings the national anthem, to keep himself occupied. He runs up and down the cell to cause himself exhaustion to sleep more, and he reads the label on the milk cartons. Again and again. Eight languages: “skimmed UHT milk, UHT, and homogenized.” He feels bad for his mother, for his girlfriend. No one knows whether he is alive or dead. “But I had no self-pity. I knew that this can happen. Because I went there to overthrow a regime, you have to expect something like this. I knew that was the right thing."

The matter has since become his life. The thing is freedom. The thing is revolution. That’s why he didn’t fly back to America when he would have been able to. After another 81 days, on 24 August 2011, there is a riot in the prison, the inmates run the corridors, VanDyke thinks there are guards. He hears screams, now they come for me he thinks and knows only what happens when his door lock is cut off. He flees. He ran into the yard, the sun is blinding, VanDyke stops to take a piss. He heard gunfire and screams that sound like death. He runs in the other direction and escapes. The bodies of the men with whom he was captured are found months after the war in a mass grave.

He remains in Tripoli, waiting for Nouri. He does not listen to those who advise him to fly to the U.S. “In prison I got an idea of how it is under such regimes. I knew the importance of the revolution,” he says. And again: “I believe in the cause.”

Why Did He Not Come Home?

He sits for a few days at the Corinthia Hotel, sitting there in his black prison uniform in the lobby, the long hair, the beard is not cut. The uniform had become a part of him, he is not yet ready to take it off. He’s sitting there and listening to the buzz, the sound of life. He gives interviews. The BBC wants to talk to him, CNN, the GlobalPost, the Guardian, CBS. A few days ago CNN ran an interview with his mother and his girlfriend. He saw it in the evening after his escape. VanDyke’s name is now known. He looks at it as an obligation.

A few days later Nouri reached Tripoli. VanDyke puts on the headscarf, which he will wear in Syria, and they go to the front. They fight until Gaddafi’s army is defeated. VanDyke as a Dushka shooter of a jeep of the Ali Hassan al-Jaber brigade, as in Afghanistan American soldiers had let him shoot a few rounds with a .50 cal machine gun. That’s more experience with heavy weapons than most others have here.

VanDyke fights and films. The film about the war in Libya is being produced in 2013. Marshall Curry, a two-time Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, will make the film.

His girlfriend asked his mother why he did not come home after the escape from prison, after the torment, and she said this: “I have raised him so that he finishes what he starts.” VanDyke says: “If I have committed myself to something, I will stick by that."

Two weeks after Gaddafi’s fall, he flies back to America – with a new plan in the luggage. The assembled press who interviewed him when he landed in America in late 2011 want to know what he intends to do now, and he replies: “I am training for the next revolution.” He meant the Syrian one.

The American Terrorist

Therefore VanDyke sits now, on a cold Saturday morning in January 2013, in a car in Virginia. A fundraiser for the opposition in Syria. A home game. He just spoke to CNN about Syria and his propaganda film. “I have long wondered, how can I support the revolution in Syria the best way,” he says, while at the windows the misty American landscape passes by. “Fighting (personally) didn’t seem to be effective at that moment. What the rebels need are weapons because they have enough men, so I’ve made a film that is meant to raise money."

$13,000 he has put into the project from a fund which his mother had once built for him. Four weeks ago, he filmed in Aleppo. He was with the FSA on the road, every morning he put on the uniform, strapped on his 9mm Star Model B and the camera and after that searched for protagonists, faces who the Americans would donate for. After two weeks his name appeared on four Syrian television stations. The regime now officially sought after the American terrorist. He’s proud. He is famous now, and he likes that. “My credibility in the revolution increased a lot,” he says. Now he needs someone to cut the film, and anyone who will support him financially. Already in February the film shall be available on the internet. Therefore, Virginia.

About a hundred people gathered in the community center in McLean. It is selling food and trinkets, T-shirts, chains, and on the stage a painting by a Syrian artist is being auctioned. There are a lot of Facebook groups mentioned. No one has been in Syria recently. One can immediately see VanDyke.

“You’re my hero,” says the organizer. “You are doing more for Syria than most.” VanDyke looks down. He is embarrassed. “I’ll do what I can,” he then said, and you’d think that the big words had embarrassed him.

He sits at one of the round tables. A young man sits down next to him. “I admire what you’re doing,” he says very directly and looks intently at VanDyke, chewing slowly on a baked spinach bag. “Take me with you. I cannot sit here and do nothing. I cannot stand it, I have to finally do something for my country.” VanDyke eyes the man who asks him not to give his name. He looks sad, rushed. What he says is very serious to him.

After every television appearance, more and more emails come to him with the same requests. American soldiers push him to create an international brigade. For him to take them to war. VanDyke always declines. “How can I check them all?” But the young Syrian here beside him, that’s something else. “He has the right motivation,” he says later. They talk for awhile, and VanDyke promises him to take him when he goes to Aleppo again in March to help Nour Kelze, one of the two protagonists of his film, build a media and propaganda center.

There he sees his new role. New radio stations, martyr posters on all the walls, leaders, faces, figures, the people need to be convinced, and so far, says VanDyke, the Free Syrian Army does that badly. In Aleppo, an officer of the FSA said that 70 percent of the civilians are behind the regime. “This is a similar mentality in Europe: It is expected that the state is doing something for you. And the rebels don’t. They do nothing for the people. That is why the people turn back to the state.” An image problem, he sees that he wants to fix it.

He will bring to the public faces, he says, which stand for the revolution. Faces with which one can identify with. One of them should be Nour. A young pretty journalist. “I will make her a leader of the revolution,” VanDyke declared on the return trip. “She has everything you need for that. She believes unconditionally in the revolution. As I do.” His modesty and embarrassment is often followed by a very American form of megalomania.

But what is his motivation? Why is he doing all this for free, which is 9,000 miles away from his home? “I think in the 21st century no one should have to live under a dictatorship.” He thinks. “The year of the war,” he says, “was the best of my life. Each of us felt we were doing the most important thing he has ever done. Doing the right thing. We were part of something, everything had a purpose.” Outside of the fields of Maryland, flying by outside the window, is fog. Some deer standing in the woods. “And to know that we write history, that’s great,” he says, and even then he looks at his phone, the news from Syria running across the screen. After a few minutes, he adds: “Of course, the fights were not the best of my life. The shit is scary. Everywhere a tattered body, skulls open, all day, the sound of bullets whizzing around your head – but the feeling that the world is behind us, this comradeship. That was awesome.” When Gaddafi fell he understood one thing. It is possible. “And then I saw that it must be repeated. That was when it was clear, I am going to Syria.”

He has taken a lot of risks in his life. He was almost shot dead in Afghanistan by criminals, as well as by the police, he was beaten in Iraq, he sat in different prisons in Baghdad and security forces staged a mock execution, in Afghanistan he narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt. It has not deterred him. The prison in Libya has shown him that he is not invincible, he says. No longer. “Now I’m doing things that are more risky, but now there is a meaning, a purpose, which is much more logical than what I’ve done before."

It is this logic, a very old American logic. To bring freedom into the world, to bring the light into the dark corners of the world. A double-edged logic, because the American idea of freedom does not always equal that in the countries in which it is being exported. It is Sunday evening, and VanDyke sits in the beach house of his parents in front of a flat screen the size of a small car on a sofa next to the open kitchen. He flips through the channels. From reality show to reality show. One is about illegally brewing brandy in a forest, in the next a few drunken men hunt alligators, the next is an obese family accompanied by a camera. “This is the society in which I live – and this is the strongest nation in the history of mankind,” he says, as he believes the TV program had substantiated his point enough. VanDyke does not like today’s America. “Of course some people here think I’m crazy. But there were already the founding fathers, who said that it is not enough to live in freedom, that one must rather bring freedom in the world.” The absence of U.S. intervention [in Syria], he called the biggest foreign policy mistake, even bigger than the Iraq war. John McCain would not have made this mistake.

On the TV they are looking for the Yeti, and VanDyke mourns after the generation of his grandfather. A time when the 4,000 Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War, he says. Hemingway, Orwell, and Americans, whom he admired, men who went to fight for good. “They had understood and they had a different mentality. Today it is considered crazy to do something like this.” There is a lot of praise for what he does, but there is also a lot of criticism. War maniac some call him, money maniac, or adrenaline junkie.

“Before me there were also men who have done what I do. William Alexander Morgan, who fought with Che and Fidel in Cuba. As Comandante. He also said: “It is the duty of free people to fight for the freedom of others.” He gets a Samuel Adams from the refrigerator, opens it, but does not drink.

“Why didn’t people go to Libya?” He expected no answer. “It has shifted slightly between generations. Values. Commercialization has shifted these values. No one is interested in a kinship of humanity, no one here is interested anymore in international politics. It’s all about buying and consuming.” And while he says this is the Yeti hunting on television is interrupted by advertising.

A Second Che?

“In Libya, Syria no one finds it strange what I’m doing. Here they say you’re crazy, and where is Libya? But I do not care what others think about it. That’s part of what I’m fighting for: that people can speak their minds. I am now 33 and financially broke, but I have to keep going."

He is now planning that for five years Syria will be part of his life. And Syria is now something personal, he says. The night before, he told his girlfriend that he had ensured himself – this personal aspect. He had no friends there before he went in late October across the Turkish border to Aleppo. He went there to make it personal. It was a little reproach in her voice, a little resignation. He smiled and nodded.

And after that? A job? Security Advisor? “If you need me, then I go into Iran.” Perfect Ernesto. “But I have to be careful. The third is the dangerous one.” The death of Che Guevara – after Cuba and the Congo – was in Bolivia, the third country where he wanted to overthrow the government. VanDyke laughs. It is a joke. He would never compare himself with Che, he says.