Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke's Speech at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Poster for Matthew VanDyke's speech titled My Experiences as an American Fighting in the Libyan Civil War

March 19, 2013

A Fight for Freedom: American Matthew VanDyke spoke at Queen’s about his experiences in the Syrian and Libyan revolutions (The Journal, Queen's University)


Thank you for having me here to speak to you today.

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 held in solitary confinement for 5 and a half months by Gaddafi's regime 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. 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 the 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, 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 always 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 he 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 to help overthrow Gaddafi.

I wasn't met with doubt, no one attempted to dissuade me. I was welcomed, given a uniform, and on that very first day I was serving as a rebel, a thuwar. Nouri introduced me to his family. When I met his father he didn't react like I expected. There was no "are you crazy" or "you need to get out of here." No, Nouri's father wasn't surprised at all - it was perfectly natural that his son's friend would come help him overthrow the Gaddafi regime, that a friend would help another friend in a time of need. We retrieved a Toyota Helix 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. 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.

Once our truck and weapons were ready we prepared to defend Ra's Lanuf, but then it fell to Gaddafi's army, so we made plans to defend Brega instead. On my fifth day back in Libya Ali and I went with two other rebels to Brega on a reconnaissance mission. The plan was to scout Brega, familiarize ourselves with the layout of the city and the defensive positions, and then return to Benghazi for a day or two to pick up Nouri and other fighters, before returning to Brega to defend it against Gaddafi's army. We arrived in Brega on the night of March 12, and on March 13 began scouting the city. The people in the town seemed unconcerned - some were in the street and even had their children out in the street too. The other rebels were patrolling the town, and an attack did not seem imminent. The last thing I remember is a man serving us coffee.

The next thing I knew I woke up with my legs and feet bound behind me, screaming that the restraints were too tight. I lost consciousness after a few seconds, regained it long enough to hear the guard telling me that if I removed my blindfold he would kill me, and then I woke up again in a basement jail cell to the sound of a man being tortured in the room above me.

I have no memory of what had happened. I had a wound on the side of my head, and I still have the scar. I believe, from what little flashes of memory came to me, that we were ambushed sometime after my last solid memory that day. The wound on the side of my head was likely caused by being hit with a gun.

All I knew when I awoke in prison was that I was an enemy combatant and had been captured, and that I was likely to be tortured and executed, or face life in prison.

I was interrogated. They had my video camera with the most damning footage imaginable, video of me dressed in my Libyan military uniform and declaring my support for the revolution.

They had my passport with only 5 stamps in it - Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan - with no exit stamp from Afghanistan because I had taken a military flight out of the country after filming the US army for one of my films.

I had been captured with my notebook that had the name, rank, and phone number of a US military officer, a friend of the family, whom I had called a few days earlier for some friendly advice on how to use the mortars we had found at the Rajma weapons depot.
As if that weren't enough to irritate Gaddafi, I had been captured with a MP3 player with some speeches I had been studying to improve my own public speaking. Many of these speeches were by Ronald Reagan.

It couldn't be any worse - there was enough evidence to convict me even in a fair American trial, much less a Gaddafi sham trial. If I even got a trial.

I was still suffering from a concussion but I tried to manipulate the interrogation as best I could. I gave them information that I knew they would find out anyway - like the fact that I had been to Libya in 2008. I was being smart by trying to convince them that I had nothing to hide, making them believe that I was telling the complete truth so that I could get away with lies when I needed to. But I went too far - when they asked what I was doing in Libya in 2008 I replied that I had been traveling by motorcycle from West Africa to Afghanistan to make a film.

Their reply? You ARE in the CIA!

I told them that was ridiculous, and laughed. I then said "look, I've been treated well, and when I get back to America that's what I'll tell everyone." The translator replied, "You will never see America again."

They put me back in the cell and locked the door. The next day I was put on a commercial airliner, still blindfolded, welcomed with a furious barrage of kicking by an angry Gaddafi soldier on the plane, and then flown to Tripoli. The flight attendant told me not to worry, that I would probably be held two weeks and then released. I asked him how he knew that. He said he didn't really know, that he was just "the man on the plane," but that he believed so because "Libya respects the rights of the human." That's when I was sure he had no clue what he was talking about.

My blindfold wasn't removed until I was being put in the cell at Maktab al-Nasser prison in Tripoli. I opened my eyes to a 1.2 meter x 2.1 meter cell, about the size of a large closet.

I would spend the next 85 days there in solitary confinement, staring at the Arabic scratched into the walls by previous prisoners and comparing the number of scratches they had made to mark their days to my own. When theirs stopped around 30 and mine continued far past that, I started to get really worried.

There were no books, nobody to talk to, nothing to do. I was in an isolated wing of the prison with the other cells around me emptied. I was let out 3 times a day to use the bathroom. The rest of the time I was made to urinate in bottles.

Late at night I could hear the sobs of men being violently interrogated, possibly tortured, echoing in the prison. I trimmed my fingernails and toenails down with a broken plastic spoon so that Gaddafi's interrogators could not rip them out during torture. I rehearsed what I would say, and tried to anticipate their questions. I tried to remember what damning footage was on that camera and the hard drive I had been captured with.

I knew it was hopeless. I spent a lot of time praying and trying to pick up Arabic words I could hear through the walls from the guard's television and their conversations. I thought about having left my mother alone - my parents are divorced and I have no brothers or sisters, and it caused me terrible guilt. I thought about my girlfriend Lauren, whom I had been with for nearly 6 years, and who I might someday see again in 20 or 30 years and meet her future husband and children who should have been mine.

During my entire time in the two prisons where I was held, all 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 the notorious Abu Salim prison, 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 Libya with a memory of having been treated better just before my release. I had no idea I was actually in the infamous 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 in 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.

Why did I return to combat on the front lines after escaping from Abu Salim prison, instead of returning home to my family in America? Most people will never understand my decision to stay, and that's fine - I don't understand why they cannot understand it. My decision was simple - I made a commitment when I came to Libya to stay until we won the war. I told the men, including those I was later captured with, that I wouldn't leave until Libya was a free country. That commitment had not changed just because I was a prisoner of war for six months. My mother raised me to honor my commitments, and she understood that I wasn't coming home. In fact, she knew it before I even told her, and later said that she would have been surprised if I had come home. My girlfriend, however, was less understanding of my decision to return to the front lines.

I also would never leave men behind. At that time I did not know if the men I was captured with were still alive and they might have been in prison in Sirte, Bani Walid, or other areas that had not been liberated. I wasn't going to leave them behind and return home just because I was free, and I wasn't going to leave any other prisoners of war behind either.

Many Americans and Europeans don't understand this. But I know Libyans do. "There is no surrender. We win or we die." Omar Mukhtar's words embody the Libyan spirit of perseverance. I wasn't the only prisoner of war to return to the front lines - I met others when I returned to combat, men captured during the war who went right back to the front once they were free. This is the Libyan character, and one of the many reasons why I believed Libya was worth fighting for.

Nouri's father, who had not been surprised when I first came to Libya to fight Gaddafi, wasn't surprised this time either. He welcomed me back from prison and wasn't the least bit shocked that I was going back to the front lines with his son. To him, again, this was all a perfectly natural thing to do. It was a Libyan thing to do.

So, Nouri and I returned to the front lines. We helped capture Harawa, and a week later we were fighting on the outskirts of Sirte. Commander Akfayer of katiba Ali Hassan al-Jaber gave Nouri and I a great amount of freedom with the jeep, which allowed us to fight alongside other units, or katibas when our own katiba was awaiting orders or holding territory. As a result, Nouri and I had 40 engagements with the enemy, and had many close calls where we were nearly injured or killed.

We fought with many katibas, but in some ways they were all the same. These were the bravest, most honorable, courageous men I have ever seen, and it was an honor to serve with them. Most of the country had already been liberated. These men could have easily gone home. Nobody wants to be the last man to die in a war and you can't ask a man to do that. He has to volunteer. And these men did, and some gave their lives doing so, to finish the war the way it needed to be finished, to hunt down the dog Gaddafi and his loyalists and give Libya a clean path to the future.

This was not easy. Gaddafi's forces were on the defense and had several advantages over us - they knew the terrain, they had setup defensive positions, they had zeroed in on our rally points with rockets and mortars, and they knew exactly where we would be each step of the way because there was only one road from Sirte gate to Sirte. They fought us every day and pulled back each night to a new position as we approached Sirte from the east, and when we got to Sirte they had the cover of buildings to fire at us as we approached across open fields and city streets. We fought street to street and house to house under a hail of gunfire and mortars, day after day to gain just a few hundred meters and squeeze the enemy into an ever-smaller part of the city.

But we kept going, and we lost many men along the way. The field hospitals had a fairly constant stream of wounded or dead men arriving, and injuries so horrific that nobody who saw them will ever forget. Men grieved for their dying friends and fired shots in the air yelling Allahu Akbar to honor them, then returned to the battlefield not knowing if they would be next.

Civilians too came to help us. Men brought food and water to use in trucks near the front line, and women cooked meals with small notes of encouragement included in the container. Medics and doctors ran hospitals; ambulance drivers drove through the gunfire to rescue wounded fighters. Weapons mechanics made sure our old and worn Soviet-era guns were clean and functional, sometimes inventing ingenious solutions when parts were not available.

I do not think there has been a mobilization of a population for a war effort like this since in the United States during World War II. People were, for the first time perhaps in their entire lives under the Gaddafi regime, taking the future into their own hands and molding it into what they wanted. The future was theirs and the future was now.

But we did not forget about the people in Sirte, either. Yes, many of them supported Gaddafi, and some of them still do. But we were fighting for them also, even those who still sided with Gaddafi. They were wrong but unless they were fighting us they were not our enemy, and we wanted them to survive and live in a future free Libya where hopefully they would someday understand how wrong they had been when they supported Gaddafi. We helped civilians evacuate from the city, putting ourselves at risk doing so.

We fought our way into the city. We took the new hotel in Sirte, the Emirates Apartments, Sirte University, and Ouagadougou. We fought at Dubai Street, and house to house in District 2. Gaddafi's men would not quit, but we forced them back and earned, with sweat and blood, every inch of ground we took as we slowly claimed street after street moving west through the city.

I have often been asked how I was received by the other thuwar. I have spent years in North Africa and the Middle East and have been accused in various countries of being CIA, FBI, and even Al Qaeda. I have been arrested, harassed, and imprisoned in countries like Iraq, just because they find an American alone on a motorcycle to be suspicious. But in Libya I was on the battlefield, with a gun in my hand, shooting and being shot at day after day, and everyone knew I was an American. Yet I was never bothered, never harassed, and never insulted - I was welcomed as an equal, as a brother in arms. Years of Gaddafi's anti-American rhetoric and the Arab media's attacks on America over issues like Iraq and Palestine had no affect on how I was received by other thuwar. I was accepted in almost all cases without suspicion or paranoia, and I was welcomed to serve Libya like any other man on the front lines.

I was in District 2 on October 19. We fought house to house and street to street that day, pushing Gaddafi's men back into a small area where they knew the end was coming. I was close enough that one of the men with me filmed the face of one of Gaddafi's last fighters as he fought us from a window several hundred meters away, moments before I fired my weapon at him.

The next day we were preparing to return to District 2 for another long day of combat when news came of Gaddafi's death. His men had retreated as far as they thought they could in District 2 and tried to make a run for it. The rest is history.

After we won the war in Libya, I returned to the United States. I believed strongly that we needed to export the revolution, to continue toppling authoritarian regimes throughout the region, and perhaps the world. I turned my attention to Syria, a country I had traversed by motorcycle 3 times in 2008 and 2009.

Many Libyans went to help in Syria, and I nearly went with them. What kept me from going was the lack of weapons and ammunition for the fighters they already had. They had the men, but not the materials. The revolution needed money. So I decided to make a film that would improve the international image of the revolution and be used as a fundraising tool for organizations raising money for Syria.

I had very little money myself, having spent nearly all of 2011 volunteering for the Libyan revolution. So I tried to fundraise for the film, and failed. I was faced with the decision of spending what little money I had left on the film, or giving up. I knew that for every dollar I put into the film, the film would later raise several times that in contributions for the cause. So I went and made the film anyway.

I spent nearly $15,000 making the film. I interviewed countless FSA fighters and civilians for this film. There is a lot of footage beyond what you will see here. But things were not going well; I was not getting the compelling characters I needed to make not just an informative film, but an emotional one. Viewers have to care about the characters on the screen.

After weeks, I had one great character, Omar, who uses the nickname Mowya. He was witty, clever, and very good on camera. He was a natural talent.

But he wasn’t enough for the film by himself. Wit and cleverness wouldn’t carry the film, that wouldn’t get people to open their hearts and their wallets for Syria.

Then one day in November, I met Nour and everything changed. She started helping me with the film, getting up earlier than anyone else and working as hard as me (sometimes harder) to get the film done. And as she was guiding me around Aleppo to film, I began to turn the camera on her.

I sensed that I had a star.

I have worked in eight Arab countries since 2007, and fought in one Arab war. I have met thousands of people during those years, and I can say with certainty that Nour is not only the most impressive individual I have met in the region, but perhaps in my entire lifetime.

Nour has a degree in Arts and Literature from Aleppo University, and before the war, she was an English teacher at an elementary school. She was engaged. When the war started, her fiancée wanted her to stay at home and keep out of the revolution.

So she left him.

And she left her job as an English teacher as well, and went to protest in the streets, risking her life against the Assad forces. She did many things for the revolution, from activism to working in a field hospital among other things, before finding her passion in combat photography. She was hired by Reuters and spent much of her time on the front lines, risking death and injury to show the world what is happening in Syria.

A couple of months ago, she was wounded by a tank shell. Part of a wall collapsed on her ankle, breaking it in two places. She has shrapnel scars from that attack and from an earlier incident in her career when she came under fire by regime aircraft. She has battle scars.

She went to Turkey for surgery on her ankle and returned to Aleppo only a few days later. Nothing could stop her.

In addition to her courage, brilliance, individualism, and tireless hard work, she had the heart of a real revolutionary. She lived and breathed the revolution just as I do – she was a true believer. She was willing to risk her reputation to do the right thing and keep fighting the regime no matter what. She was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of her country.

She was a hero. She became the star of my film.

Yes, I spent a small fortune to make this film and I do not see any way to recover the money I spent on it. But I would have spent double that to bring Nour Kelze to the attention of the world, because what she represents and what she can inspire in people is priceless.

I present Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, starring Mowya and Nour.

A working version (not the final version, which was saved for film festivals) of Matthew VanDyke's Syria war documentary film "Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution" was shown to the audience.

I would like to conclude with the words of William Alexander Morgan, the American who fought in the Cuban Revolution 55 years ago. People of the time could not understand why Morgan had left the United States to fight against a dictator in Cuba.

Morgan explained his actions as follows: “I am here because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others. I am here because I believe that free men should take up arms and stand together and fight and destroy the groups and forces that want to take the rights of people away."

This is why I fought in Libya. And this is why I am helping in Syria as well.