Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke's Speech at the Libyan Mission to the United Nations

Matthew VanDyke with Libyan Ambassador to the UN Abdel Rahman Shalgam at the Libyan Mission to the United Nations after the Libya civil war

February 18, 2012

     Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.  This time last year I never thought I’d be speaking at, or even allowed in, a Libyan government building.  I must say the new government is much better than the old one.
      There has been a lot of incorrect information in the press about why I went to Libya and what I did there.  This is the consequence of being in solitary confinement for 5 and a half months and being at the mercy of what other people are saying and writing about you.  I couldn’t exactly hold a press conference from my cell to correct them.
      Here is what actually happened.  From 2007 to 2010 I traveled from Mauritania in West Africa, all the way to Afghanistan, across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia by motorcycle, to make a documentary film.  Most of my time was spent in the Arab world. 
In 2008, I paid a lot of money, most which went towards a bribe, to get a business visa to enter Libya.  The visa stated that I worked for a company I had never heard of – it was a total sham, and it worked for six weeks before I finally irritated Gaddafi’s government by driving around on a motorcycle and filming all over Tripoli.  I was given 48 hours to leave the country.
      During those six weeks, however, I met some of the best friends I have to this day.  There is Tarik, a Berber  who ran the tour company that pulled the strings to get me a visa.  I stayed at his office while in Libya, and he might have spent more money on me as his guest than he earned from my visit, especially since I was only supposed to be in Libya for a week but stayed for six. 
      There was also Elias, Sulieman, and others, and most importantly there were the bikers, around fifteen of them, motorcycle driving fanatics doing wheelies on the highways around Tripoli.
      I became very good friends with them.  My friendships with them were far stronger than almost any I have had in the United States.  I made friends throughout my travels in the region, but none were like my friends in Libya, and there was no country outside the USA that I felt more connected to during those years than Libya.
      Three years later in February 2011 I was talking to my Libyan friends online and they were telling me that their family members, their friends, and their neighbors were being arrested, tortured, injured, and killed.  They feared for their lives, but they were demonstrating and fighting Gaddafi in the streets everyday for their freedom, despite the danger.
      One of my Libyan friends said to me, as their situation began to look increasingly dim, “will you tell your friends about me if I die?”  This had a tremendous impact on me.  A few days later he asked me the simple, powerful question: “Why doesn’t anybody help us?”
      I made the decision that day to go to Libya and help my friends.
      How could I sit back and do nothing while my friends and their families died in the streets of Tripoli, simply for their desire to live as free men?  I could not abandon them when they needed help.
      I called my mother, and then called my girlfriend at work, and told them I was going to Libya, and that I was leaving that day to fly to Cairo.  Unfortunately I missed the flight that day and had to leave the next day, on February 26.  After some time in Cairo trying to arrange safe transportation into Libya, I arrived in Benghazi on March 6.
      There was no NATO.  There was no international help.  It looked like there would never be outside intervention at that time, and a lot of people in Libya  were saying that they didn’t even want international intervention.
      But there weren’t many rebels going to the frontlines.  Gaddafi’s army was on a rampage headed east, and it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before he swallowed up every town on the route to Benghazi. 
      I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do to help the revolution.  I knew that if there was the opportunity for me to fight, that I would fight.  But I wasn’t sure if the rebels would allow an American to join them, and accepted the fact that I might have to volunteer as a civilian instead. 
      But without enough men at the frontlines to stop Gaddafi’s army as it headed towards Benghazi, I knew that they needed every man they could get to go fight, and I was willing to be one of them.
      When I arrived in Benghazi I met with my friend Nouri Fonas, whom I had met in Mauritania in 2007.  Nouri was known in Libya for having travelled the world for years, visiting over 70 countries and meeting with world leaders along the way.  When he returned to Libya, Gaddafi threw him in prison for 83 days, for no apparent reason at all.
      Nouri had been a hippie the last time I had seen him in Tripoli in 2008.  He had long hair and said he traveled for peace and love.  He was joking and carefree, and we had cruised around Tripoli in his car listening to Metallica and having barbecues.
      The Nouri that greeted me in Benghazi last March was far different.  He had become a warrior – short hair, military clothing, a flak jacket – and was completely serious.  This was the time for war.
      When I saw Nouri, Nouri the freedom fighter, with a group of rebels and a family name that was well-respected in Benghazi, I knew that joining as a fighter was possible.  And I did, that day, telling him and the other men that I would join them and help overthrow Gaddafi.
      On my very first day in Libya I was working as a rebel.  We retrieved a Toyota Hilux pickup truck belonging to Nouri’s friend Ali, which had been damaged in the Rajma weapons storage facility bombing a few days earlier.  We made some repairs and covered the truck with camouflage netting.  Over the following days we obtained a Dushka machinegun from the army and mounted it in the truck, and helped mount another one in a friend’s truck.  We retrieved weapons and ammunition from Rajma, including mortars.  I made calls home to military and ex-military personnel asking them about how to use the mortars.
      We made plans for the war.  I was going to be a Dushka gunner, alternating with Nouri at times.  Ali would be the driver, and we would take a few men with us.
      How was I able to do all this?  Nouri gave me a Libyan military uniform, and with my beard, ballistic sunglasses, and boonie hat, nobody knew I wasn’t Libyan.  As long as I didn’t talk much I was able to move in and out of military bases without restriction, and do my job.  Nobody would question Nouri because of his family name and reputation.  I had few problems working as an undercover American Thuwar.
      We were preparing to go to Ra’s Lanuf, but then it fell, so we made plans to defend Brega instead.  On March 12 I went with Ali and two other men, Mohammed and Sharif, to Brega to do reconnaissance on the city.  We were supposed to stay there one or two days scouting the city and identifying good positions to fight from, then return to Benghazi, get Nouri and other men and weapons, and return to Brega to defend it against Gaddafi’s forces.
      But on March 13, while scouting the city, something happened.  To this day I am not sure what.  We were ambushed, and I was hit in the head and woke up in a prison cell with the sounds of a man being tortured in the room above me.  I still have the scar on the side of my head, and only flashes of memory about what might have happened.  To this day I do not know what happened to Ali, Mohammed, and Sharif.  They remain missing in action.
      I believe now that I woke up in Sirte.  I was interrogated, told I would never see America again, and flown to Tripoli.  I was held in a 7 by 4 foot dark cell at Maktab al-Nasser prison.  And I thought my life was over.
      I was captured in a truck with other rebels, weapons and ammunition, on the front lines.  I had a video camera with me that had footage of me declaring my participation in the revolution as a rebel fighter, carrying weapons and ammunition, and pledging to the men that I would not leave Libya until Libya was free.
      I was sure I wouldn’t get out of prison for 20 or 30 years, and that I might be executed.  I would probably never see my mother or girlfriend again, perhaps I wouldn’t see anyone except the guards for the rest of my life.  I was a terrorist in the eyes of the regime, and I couldn’t complain.  When you try to overthrow a dictator and you get caught, that is what happens.
      I spent 85 days in Maktab al-Nasser prison, in a 7 by 4 foot cell, in solitary confinement, staring at the walls without anybody to talk to, no books to read, nothing.  The psychological torture began to play tricks on my mind, and I nearly went crazy.  I was let out of my cell three times a day to use the toilet, and given food three times a day.  I was given a bucket to wash with after 30 days, when my stench had become so bad it was bothering the guards. 
      A few times, late at night I could hear men weeping while being violently interrogated.  I trimmed my fingernails and toenails down so that they couldn’t be ripped out by interrogators if I was tortured.
      On day 85 I was put in a prison transport vehicle and taken to Abu Salim prison.  I spent the next 80 days there, again in solitary confinement the entire time.
      During my entire time in these two prisons, 165 days, I was never told what I was accused of or if I would ever be given a trial.  I simply ceased to exist.  The guards did not even know who I was.  I now know that the Gaddafi government denied having me in custody for four and a half months, wanting the outside world to just accept that I was dead.
      The funny thing is that when I was transferred to Abu Salim, it was an upgrade from Maktab al-Nasser.  I now had my own toilet, sink, and shower in my room, and it was brightly lit.  They gave me a toothbrush for the first time, and new underwear.  This, combined with some of the psychological effects of the solitary confinement that had confused my mind, led me to believe that I was in upgrade conditions because the regime wanted me to leave with a memory of having been treated better just before my release, for propaganda reasons.  I had no idea I was actually in the notorious Abu Salim prison, and that there were no plans to ever release me.
      A few times I could hear what sounded like men being whipped.  I could also hear anti-aircraft fire, and occasional explosions.  But I did not know about NATO.
      When I went to Libya to join the revolution there was no NATO.  At that time, in early March, many of us were certain that the international community would not get involved in this war.  I was certain of this until about an hour after my escape from Abu Salim.
      The entire time I was in prison, I thought Gaddafi had basically won the war.  Because of what I thought I heard in Arabic from the guards’ television down the hall from my cell at Maktab al-Nasser prison, I was certain that Brega had fallen to Gaddafi and that there were now two Libyas, with Brega as the dividing line between free Libya and the Jamahiriya.
      So when I heard anti-aircraft fire, I thought it was celebratory gunfire.  When I heard the bombings, I thought it was Gaddafi’s jets breaking the sound barrier.  When bombs hit near Abu Salim Prison in late August, I concluded it was just Gaddafi’s air force buzzing the prison and breaking the sound barrier in order to rally his army.
      When I heard men yelling and banging metal outside the prison, I was sure that something had happened in the war that the guards didn’t like and that they were coming to get me, to take me out of my cell, stack tires up to my neck, douse me with gasoline, and set me on fire in the prison yard.  I simply lay back and waited as I heard them break the lock off the door at the end of the hallway, walk down the hall, and begin breaking the lock off my cell door.
      I wasn’t going to let them have the satisfaction of an American begging for his life.  I came to fight in a war, and I was going to die with honor.  I wasn’t going to let Gaddafi hear that the American was scared when he died.
      When they flung open my cell door and asked me to come out, I politely refused.  I wasn’t going to make it that easy for them.  But the man, who was now telling me “Gaddafi finished, Gaddafi finished!” wasn’t a guard.  He was dressed like me, in prison clothes.
      After hesitating for a minute, I decided to take the chance.  I followed them down the hall, and we walked and ran out of Abu Salim prison and to a nearby mosque.  People gave us money.  We then went to a house in the neighborhood, where a young Libyan man took us into his home to give us a safe place to rest and eat while we waited for the gunfire in the neighborhood to die down.  That night, I went to a neighborhood on the west side of Tripoli with one of the prisoners I had escaped with.
      I spent a little over a week in Tripoli, giving interviews to the press.  I didn’t want to do any interviews, except my mother told me how the press had been helpful in keeping my story alive while I was missing, so I had to do interviews.  The NTC paid for me to stay at the Corinthia Hotel, and I got to see some of my friends in Tripoli whom I had come to fight for.
      Some of the journalists and Human Rights Watch workers were concerned that I had PTSD or other problems.  They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t leaving Libya.  They thought I must be seriously psychologically damaged if I was still in Libya a week after escaping from five and a half months of solitary confinement, wandering around the Corinthia Hotel as if waiting for something.     
      What they didn’t know is that I was waiting for something.  For Nouri.  When he learned of my escape from prison he took the boat from Benghazi to Misrata, and then got a ride to the Corinthia Hotel.
      A few days later we were headed back to Benghazi.  We spent a night or two in Benghazi and then went to Ra’s Lanuf.  I met with the Commander of Katiba Ali Hassan Jaber, Mohammed Akfayer, and asked if I could join.
      He agreed, and I was issued a Libyan military ID.  He gave Nouri and I use of a military jeep, and gave us the freedom to use it however we wanted.  We later got a Dushka from Nouri’s brother and had it mounted on the jeep with the help of the Ajdabiya weapons mechanic unit and others.
      The fact that Akfayer allowed us to use the jeep as we wanted gave us unlimited freedom during the war.  While Ali Hassan Jaber was waiting for orders, we were still free to fight alongside other katibas, and we did.  Nouri and I were involved in around 40 engagements with the enemy and we had many close calls.  I fought as a Dushka gunner and infantryman at various times in the Battle of Sirte, both with Ali Hassan Jaber, and with other katibas.
      Nouri and I were serving in the war together, as we had always intended before my capture.  I got to fight alongside one of the Libyan friends I had come to fight for, a man I had known for years, with him as the jeep driver and me as the jeep gunner.
      I am grateful that Mohammed Akfayer gave me the opportunity to serve in the National Liberation Army and fulfill my commitment to my friends and to the Libyan people.  He took a real chance on letting a non-Libyan American into the army, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity he gave me. 
      I am not a military man.  The closest I came was working as a war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But the majority of rebels in Libya weren’t military men either.  They were waiters, shopkeepers, and students who when the time came, stepped forward and did their duty for their country. 
      I will never forget their courage and their comradery.  They are some of the greatest men I have ever known.  I saw men who were visibly shaken advancing as bullets whizzed overhead, pressing on to take ground from the enemy.  I saw wounded men return to the battlefield for another day of combat.  I saw a thuwar in a wheelchair at the front line with his rifle in his hands.      
      Libya is not my country.  But this struggle wasn’t just a Libyan struggle.  I am not Libyan, but I am human, and this was a human struggle for freedom, liberty, and for life itself.
      I went to Libya because my friends were suffering, and because a place that I had truly loved, Libya, was being destroyed by the tyrant Gaddafi.
      My time in Libya, socially, and as a prisoner of the Gaddafi regime and as a Thuwar, has changed me profoundly.  I now have an appreciation for freedom, its meaning and what it costs to obtain and keep it, that most Americans will never understand.  But Libyans understand it, and Egyptians, and Tunisians, and hopefully Syrians will too, inshallah.
      In conclusion, there is something I miss from the revolution, and I am hoping that you all can help me out with it.  I think you all know what to do.
Takbir.  (audience replies - Allahu Akbar)
Takbir.  (audience replies - Allahu Akbar)   
Takbir.  (audience replies - Allahu Akbar)
Libya Hurra.

Matthew VanDyke with Libyan Ambassador to the UN Ibrahim Dabbashi at the Libyan Mission to the United Nations after the Libya civil war