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)

The events and experiences contained in this article can now be seen in two films, Point and Shoot and Gaddafi’s American Prisoner

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.”

The Arab Spring and the Democratic Domino Theory

The Arab Spring and the Democratic Domino Theory

Democratic Domino Theory and the Arab Spring

The Democratic Domino Theory

You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences. – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower’s answer to a question about the spread of communism in 1954 would later be developed by others into the domino theory.  The theory was simple: if a country fell under the influence of communism, then neighboring countries would also, and communism would spread throughout a region.  The domino theory became a major influence on American foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

The concept of a domino theory was given new life in 2003.  Termed the “Democratic Domino Theory” (or “reverse-domino theory”), it became one of many rationales for the war in Iraq.  Some in the Bush administration believed that establishing a democracy in Iraq would lead to the spread of democracy in the Middle East, and lead to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes hostile to US interests.  This was a short-lived iteration of the domino theory (and one that few have even heard of), and was discredited as years passed when the Iraqi model failed to inspire change in the region.

Although Iraq was clearly not the domino that set off the chain reaction that many had hoped for, the Arab Spring has shown that the Democratic Domino Theory is alive and well.  The dominoes are authoritarian regimes, and they are falling.

What happened?

Just a few years ago the dominoes appeared to be glued to the table, unmovable and permanent.  Authoritarian rulers were grooming their children to take office when they died, and talk in the media and policy circles focused on hopes that the son wouldn’t be as bad as the father.

On December 18, 2010 the world changed.  Unrest erupted in Tunisia in response to a young man setting himself on fire in protest the day before.  Tunisians took to the streets and within a month the regime of Ben Ali collapsed.

The first domino had fallen.  Inspired by the protests in Tunisia, Egyptians overthrew President Hosni Mubarak after two weeks of an intense standoff between the people and the regime.

The Arab Spring was underway.  Protests erupted across the Arab world, and in many cases the authoritarian regimes responded with bloodshed.  Libya and Syria were the worst examples of how far the despots would go to cling to power, as they plunged their countries into civil war.  The Libyan civil war, which I fought in, was successful and we overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.  As of this writing, however, Bashar Assad of Syria remains in power.

How did all of this happen?  The catalyst for the Arab Spring was social media.  Expanded internet service gave Arabs access to social media like Facebook and Twitter, which allowed them to communicate and coordinate on a mass scale.  Suddenly, it became possible to quickly call thousands of people to protest.  Revolutions could be engineered with a few clicks of a keyboard.  Social media became the turpentine that once poured on the table dissolved the glue that kept the dominoes standing.

Ironically, it was the authoritarian regimes that paved the way for their own demise through internet access.  Gaddafi’s son ran the largest internet service provider in Libya, Assad was head of the organization that introduced the internet to Syria, and internet service in Tunisia was mostly provided by Ben Ali’s government.

After Ben Ali was overthrown the regimes learned quickly: a principal strategy of quelling Arab Spring unrest in their countries was to limit internet access.

Why the Arab Spring?

It is a significant intelligence and analytical failure that the Arab Spring took the West by surprise.  The phenomenon was entirely predictable to anyone who had spent enough time in the region.  The unrest was there, a seething anger waiting for the spark to ignite it.  During my years traveling the region by motorcycle, living among the local population and making friends throughout the Arab World, I would hear the murmurs of discontent.  Sometimes more than just murmurs.  Arabs were usually cautious and reserved in their criticisms, worried about who was listening, but every now and then someone would reveal the truth about what people thought of their government.  The discontent was boiling just beneath the surface.

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote of similar experiences during his travels in authoritarian states:

Someone in a café makes an offhand remark. A piece of ironic graffiti is scrawled in the men’s room. Some group at the university issues some improvised leaflet. The glacier begins to melt; a joke makes the rounds and the apparently immovable regime suddenly looks vulnerable and absurd. – Christopher Hitchens

Add to this the ability to organize via social media and the formula for mass uprising was complete.

But why did it spread so quickly from country to country, toppling authoritarian regimes like dominos?  This too was predictable.  A pan-Arab opposition to the governments of North Africa and the Middle East has existed for years, and has been stoked by Al Jazeera, the universally popular news network in the Arab World.  Virtually every television in the Arab World uses a satellite dish, and with the unifying language of Arabic most get their news from arabic Al Jazeera.  What a commentator says on Al Jazeera reaches the ears of millions, and the images shown can inspire the rage of even more.

Additionally, pan-Arabism and a culture of protest already existed because of opposition to the policies of Israel and the West, particularly with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war.  The authoritarian rulers applauded and helped incite these protests, unaware of the seeds they were sowing.

There is also a history of political movements sweeping through the region.  First was the spread of Islam.  In the 20th century there was Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism.  Now is the time of the Arab Spring.

Furthermore, Arab culture tends to emulate success.  Many Arabs talk of wanting to develop their countries and introduce economic models to be like Dubai.  They want a democratic form of government because they see the freedom, liberty, and successes of the Western world.  Even on a micro-level following in the footsteps of success is a tradition.  When a friend or relative immigrates to another country and is successful, many more want to do the same.  Imitation is inherent in culture, but from my experiences in the Arab World I have found it to be an especially strong force in North Africa and the Middle East.

It was intuitive and predictable that once a regime fell, the Arab Spring would spread rapidly to other countries.  The dominos had been arranged long ago, and that the regimes would fall in succession was just as predictable as dominos falling once the first is pushed over.

The Iranian Spring

Once Syria falls, Iran is the next major domino down the line.  The loss of Iran’s main Arab ally in the Middle East will be devastating to the regime’s influence in the region.  Iraq is slowly taking Syria’s place, but with extensive problems of its own, Iraq is a poor substitute.

Sanctions have devastated Iran’s economy.  Their currency has lost half its value, inflation is rising, and assets have been frozen.  Iran will likely have to sell oil to Asia at discounts, in barter agreements, or on other unfavorable terms to stay afloat.

The Iranian people are suffering the effects of their government’s policies towards the West and their pursuit of a nuclear program.  A recent Gallup poll found that nearly half of Iranians claim there were times in the past year when they couldn’t afford to buy food for their families.

Iranians already rose up against the current regime during the Green Revolution of 2009.  The government crushed it with an iron fist, and the world stood by and did nothing.  Some Iranians have clearly demonstrated a desire for regime change, and now that those on the sidelines find themselves suffering under sanctions because of their government’s wreckless international policies, the conditions are being set for a larger uprising the next time.

When Assad is removed from power in Syria it will be taken as a sign of Iranian weakness.  Iran’s nuclear facilities will likely be destroyed by an Israeli or American air strike at some point as well.  This will also be viewed as regime weakness, and possibly anger some Iranians that they have suffered under sanctions for a program that their government couldn’t even defend.

Finally, the Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with Saudi Arabia at the helm, are engaged in a sectarian rivalry with Shia Iran that is rapidly coming to a head.  They are energized and mobilized by the uprising in Syria, and have their sights set on further weakening Iran.  Once they get rolling on Syria they won’t want to stop until their conflict with Iran is resolved as well.

What Comes Next?

“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same–everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same–people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” – George Orwell

The Arab Spring has inspired protests around the world.  Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and even the island nation of Fiji have seen protests break out in response to the successes of the Arab Spring.

Most of these protests did not amount to much – they were snuffed out by the regime or died off on their own, or had modest goals that were achieved.  Africa and Asia, however, are two regions where change is long overdue.  The dominos are almost ready to fall, and few of them will fall peacefully.

As long as the momentum of the Arab Spring continues there is little that can stop a wave of democratization from leaping country to country, and region to region.  Once one domino in these regions falls, it should accelerate the collapse of neighboring regimes.

Picking Sides

The battle lines have been drawn.  On one side are the democratic countries, assisted by a small group of non-democratic ones (like those of the GCC) that have joined them in order to take advantage of revolutions for their own strategic interests.  On the other side are the authoritarian and non-democratic (and deeply-flawed democratic) countries, consisting of both vulnerable regimes and their allies who support them for political, economic, and strategic interests, as well as a desire to prevent the Springs from spreading to them.  The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index provides a good visual illustration of where countries stand in this fight:

Democracy Index map showing democratic and authoritarian countries

2011 Democracy Index (Dark green countries are the most democratic, dark red countries are the most authoritarian)

A Responsibility to Act

The countries of the free world have a responsibility to encourage and assist in the overthrow of authoritarian regimes.  In the 21st century no man should have to live his life under an oppressive government.

In 2010 only 11.3% of the world’s population lived in democratic countries.  Of the 88.7% who didn’t, 37.6% lived under authoritarian regimes.  This means that 6.12 billion people don’t live under fully democratic systems of government, and nearly 2.6 billion of them are ruled by authoritarian regimes.

2.6 billion.  In the 21st century.

There is no excuse for allowing this to continue.  We have planted the flag of a democratic country on the moon, yet allow a third of the population on Earth to live under authoritarianism.

Those of us who live under the blessings of democracy cannot abandon 2.6 billion people to medieval forms of government that corrupt and destroy everything it means to be human.

The authoritarian regimes of the world have been weakened.  The despots are scared, and they should be.  They know what is coming.  We can eliminate this scourge with an aggressive, unwavering strategy of isolating and destabilizing their governments, and supporting revolutions against authoritarian rule.

The Democratic Domino Theory should be a major influence on US and EU foreign policy.  The regimes are desperately trying to glue their dominos to the table (and the glue is often made in Russia and China) by better arming themselves, engaging in increased surveillance of their populations, and restricting internet access.  There is a window of opportunity to liberate many more countries from authoritarianism while the momentum is still on the side of freedom.  Allowing authoritarian regimes to learn from the mistakes of those that have fallen and further entrench themselves in power is a mistake that will have profound moral, strategic, and historical consequences for the 21st century.

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke in the Libyan Civil War

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke working as a DShK machine gunner in the Libyan Civil War

Why I Fought in the Libyan Civil War

Why I Fought in the Libyan Civil War (The Libyan Revolution)

(also available in French here)

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke in the Libyan Civil War

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke in the Libyan Civil War

If I die, please tell your friends about me.  On February 25, 2011 when my friend Muiz made this request, the revolution against Gaddafi had been going on for a week.  On the streets fighting…fighting with hands…but we have no guns…people dying for Libya.  His brother in law had already been killed, and Muiz was resolved to die as well.  You have to know something, we Libyans aren’t scared to die anymore.  I love Libya and I don’t want anything to happen to it.  I will die for it.

I never imagined having such a conversation with a friend on the internet.  The last time I saw Muiz in Tripoli he was happy, smiling,  and carefree, a computer engineer and fellow motorcycle enthusiast with his whole life ahead of him.  Now his city was under siege by the mad man Gaddafi, one of the worst dictators of our time, and Muiz’s world was being destroyed.

Muiz was part of a group of a dozen Libyan bikers who had become good friends of mine during my time in Tripoli in 2008.  Hitem was their leader, a heavy-set, jovial biker with a heart of gold and smile always on his face.  He was a master mechanic, and lived and breathed motorcycles.  I asked Muiz if he had talked to Hitem.  He said he tried to call him but there was no answer.

I had been introduced to the bikers by Tarik, who had gotten me into the country at a time when Americans were not being issued tourist visas to Libya.  He had bribed an official to get me a business visa that said I worked for a company I had never heard of, for what was supposed to be a one week “tour” of the country.  Tarik let me stay in his office instead of a hotel, and I remained in Libya for six weeks before he was brought in for questioning by the regime and told by an official that he had to get me out of the country within 48 hours.  We drove over 1,000 kilometers from Tripoli to Tobruk in one day to make sure I got out in time.  We did, and Tarik had no problems from the regime.

He had problems now, like everyone else in Libya.  My lawyer cousin was shot in the leg yesterday while protesting.  And Abdou, the bald guy who’s always with us, his  cousin was shot with an anti-aircraft gun where Hitem lives. Two pieces when buried.  I was out and saw three gunned down right in front of me by snipers.

Tarik had made his decision.  I’m going to see if I can buy an AK-47 tomorrow morning from a guy in the army.  This is a duty.  What has to be done shall be done.

The words of my friends haunted me.  I watched the news as the revolution began to unfold.  The international community appeared to be doing nothing.  There was no appetite for military intervention.  Gaddafi had the weapons, the ammunition, the tanks, most of the army, and his air force.  The rebels had some pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the back and Kalashnikov rifles.  It was a dire situation, and the world seemed to not care.

Muiz asked me why nobody is helping them.

That was it.  I told him I would be there.  I called my mother and told her I was flying to Libya to help my friends.  She understood and was supportive.  I then called my girlfriend at work and told her that she should come home soon because I was leaving for Libya that evening.  She was naturally not as understanding or supportive.

I wasn’t going to sit by and watch as Gaddafi killed my friends and their families.  Tarik was right, it was a duty, and what had to be done would be done.  I would go and stand by my friends, fight with them for victory and freedom, or die with them trying.

I had spent years living and working in the region, filming a motorcycle adventure documentary in eight Arab countries, and had witnessed and occasionally experienced firsthand what life was like under authoritarian regimes.  The Arab Spring was a pure revolutionary movement, one that was long overdue, and one that was noble, just, and necessary.  There would be only one opportunity to overthrow the regimes, because each would learn from the mistakes of the other, and each would arrest the troublemakers and spread the fingers of their security apparatus so deep into society that they’d have children informing on their own parents by the time it was over.  There was only one chance to get it right, all or nothing, before the regime could get back on its feet.

My ideological belief in freedom and democracy, formed by years in the region, combined with my strong friendships in Libya compelled me to take up arms as a freedom fighter.  I would not have gone if it weren’t for my friends.  I would also not have gone if the war was taking place along mere ethnic, religious, or sectarian lines.  I would have had no role in such a fight, even to help my friends.  But when my friends were fighting for freedom I could not abandon them.

So I went.  My plan was to go to Benghazi, join the revolution in whatever capacity I could (as a fighter or civilian volunteer, if they refused my participation as a fighter), check on my friends in Tripoli when the war was over, and come home.  When I got to Benghazi I called my Libyan friend Nouri Fonas, whom I had met in Mauritania in 2007.  Nouri, who was a hippie the last time I had seen him in 2008, had become a warrior.  When I saw him now in his military uniform and flak jacket, a man who had travelled the world for ten years in the name of “peace and love” but who now talked of it being “the time for war,” I knew that yes, it was the time for war, and that I could join the ranks of the Libyan rebels.

Starting that first day I was working for the revolution, helping to repair the pickup truck we would be using, moving weapons and ammunition, and planning for the war.  I called Americans I knew with military experience to ask for advice on weapons.  We worked tirelessly to get ready for our departure to the front lines, as Gaddafi’s forces swallowed one town after another on their way towards Benghazi.

On March 12 I went to Brega on a reconnaissance mission with three other men while Nouri continued his work at an army base in Benghazi.  On March 13 we were captured in an ambush.  Knocked unconscious during the ambush, I have no memory of what happened.  I woke up in a prison cell to the sounds of a man being tortured in the room above me.

I was kept in solitary confinement for 165 days, undergoing severe psychological torture.  The Gaddafi regime denied having me for over 4 1/2 months.  The world thought I was dead.  Finally they admitted I was in custody but refused to say where I was.  I was in Libya’s most notorious prison, Abu Salim.

On August 24 escaping prisoners broke the lock off my cell and we ran for our lives from Abu Salim Prison.  I waited in Tripoli for Nouri to arrive from Benghazi, and checked on my Tripoli friends I had come to fight for.  Muiz, Hitem, Tarik and the others had all survived.  Nouri and I returned to the war.

Some people in America questioned my decision to return to the front lines.  I had just spent five and a half months undergoing psychological torture in solitary confinement in one of the world’s worst prisons, and they thought I should come home.  So did my girlfriend.

My mother didn’t pressure me to come home.  She knew what I would do after prison.  She was the one who raised me to keep my commitments.  I had made a commitment to the revolution when I went to Libya, a commitment to my friends and to the men I was captured with that I would not leave Libya until Libya was free, and I was going to honor that commitment.  She also knew that I wouldn’t leave behind the men I was captured with.

Nothing had changed just because I went through a horrible experience in prison.  I was still alive, still physically able to continue service, and I had an obligation to return to duty.  If anything I owed more because I had not been able to contribute during the time I was in prison.

My reasons for fighting in the war had changed, however.  My friends in Tripoli were now safe.  But there was no way I would leave Libya while the three men I was captured with, Ali, Mohammed, and Sharif, might still be alive in prison somewhere in Libya.  Furthermore, as a POW I wouldn’t leave the country if there were any POWs still being held in Libyan prisons.  When all cities in Libya were free, then I would go home.

Nouri and I returned to the front lines together.  We joined the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade of the National Liberation Army of Libya.  I was issued a Libyan military ID and we were assigned a jeep, which we outfitted with a Dushka heavy machinegun.  Nouri was the driver, and I was the machine gunner.  We had 40 engagements with the enemy, mostly at the Battle of Sirte, and were nearly killed a few times.  We served honorably and helped defeat Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte.  On October 20 Gaddafi tried to escape Sirte, and was captured and executed.

With the war over, Gaddafi dead, and all POWs free, I said goodbye to my friends in Tripoli and Benghazi, boarded a plane, and came home.  The men I had been captured with in Brega were never found, and the information we have suggests that they were executed by the regime with many other prisoners shortly before Tripoli fell in August.

I have no regrets about fighting in the Libyan Civil War.  I would do it again without hesitation, and if Libya ever faces the threat of authoritarianism again, I’ll be there helping to overthrow that regime as well.

My experiences in the war and in prison changed me forever.  Serving with brave and honorable men on the battlefield, suffering in solitary confinement, hearing the cries of those tortured by the regime echo through the prison walls, and seeing people’s faces as they celebrated freedom for the first time radically transformed me.  I am now defined by an unyielding opposition to authoritarianism, and will do whatever I can to remove this blemish from the pages of human history.

A wave of democratization is sweeping across the world.  Authoritarian regimes will fall like dominoes, and I will do whatever I can to help kick those dominoes over, including participating again as an armed combatant.  This begins with the Arab Spring, but it ends with the Iranian, African, and Asian Springs.

The 21st century is the century of freedom.