In part 1 of this series we covered the exploits of Matthew VanDyke, an American Georgetown grad who traveled to Libya to join his friends and participate in the armed rebellion against Gaddafi’s 40+ year dictatorship. In part 2, Matt told me about the circumstances of his capture by the Libyan military.
“On March 12 I went with three other rebels on a reconnaissance mission to Brega. Ra’s Lanuf had just fallen to Gaddafi’s forces a couple of days before, and Brega would be attacked next. We did not think that Gaddafi would move so quickly after taking Ra’s Lanuf and thought we had a few days before Brega would be attacked. The plan was to recon the city, identify defensive positions, and then return to Benghazi to gather more men and weapons before going back to Brega to help defend it.
On March 13, during the reconnaissance mission, we were ambushed by Gaddafi’s forces. I was struck in the head during the ambush and woke up in a prison cell to the sound of a man being tortured in a room above me. I have no memory of the ambush or what happened to the men I was with. One minute we were talking to some locals in the street who served us coffee and I took their picture, and the next thing I remember was regaining consciousness for a few seconds with my hands and legs tightly bound and me being carried, and then I woke up in the prison cell.
I had what may have been a flash of memory about the ambush return to me during my first few days in prison, but cannot be 100% sure if it was a real memory or a dream. But I believe it is a memory.”
This is a difficult question, but do you want to go on the record regarding the mistreatment you received while you were held prisoner by the Libyan military?
“I wasn’t held as a prisoner by Gaddafi’s military for long. I was interrogated once, and then transferred to the custody of Libya’s Internal Security Agency and placed in Maktab al-Nasser Prison. I had video footage on me that showed me working as rebel and was captured with other rebels in a truck with a DShK mounted in the back and a RPG.
They didn’t need to ask me any more questions after the first interrogation. The reason they didn’t need to ask me any more questions after the first interrogation was because of the video footage, not because they got anything out of me. I never confessed to being a rebel fighter.
The interrogator accused me of being CIA or Mossad, which I denied. The reason they likely didn’t need to interrogate me again was because the video footage was better than any confession I could have given. I would never have had this footage with me if I thought we were in any danger of being captured in Brega during the recon mission (it would have been left in Benghazi when going to the front lines to fight).
I endured severe psychological torture in the form of solitary confinement. I was never told what I was formally accused of or if I would ever be released. I simply ceased to exist. The guards did not know who I was. I was in a 4×7 foot dark cell with a small skylight and nothing to read or do except stare at the wall. I was let out of the cell 3 times a day to use the bathroom. I was given food 3 times a day. After 30 days I was given a bucket to wash with. After some weeks the guards started allowing me to walk back and forth in the locked off hallway some during meal times for my health, because I had become unsteady on my feet.
I was not physically mistreated.”
(As the war continued to escalate, the rebels advanced on Tripoli and Matt was freed by other escaping prisoners. He had been held captive for 165 days. Hanging out in Tripoli, he linked back up with his friends and continued to fight with the rebels until they had sorted out Gaddafi and won the war.)
You mentioned on your website that you were nearby when Gaddafi was killed. I’ve been told privately that he had a PSD made up of former South African soldiers. Can you confirm who they were and elaborate on how Gaddafi met his fate?
“I’m aware of these stories but I have no first hand knowledge of who was with Gaddafi when he was killed. I was in Sirte but not at the scene when Gaddafi was killed. He was killed by fighters from Misrata (the West), and I was serving mostly on the East front lines. As for how Gaddafi met his fate, we’ve all seen the video. Other than that and what the press has reported, I don’t know anything else because I wasn’t at the scene when he was killed.”
(I also wanted to ask Matt about Western influence on the Libyan Civil War, including his own.)
I’m going to ask this question straight up because I know many others will be asking it in the future. At any time while fighting in Libya were you in the employ of any governmental organization?
“If you mean the United States or other non-Libyan government, no. After I escaped from prison and returned to the front lines I joined the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade of the National Liberation Army of Libya, which was under the control of the National Transitional Council (the new Libyan government). I was issued a military ID and was entitled to payment by the Libyan government like any other soldier in the National Liberation Army. But I never accepted this or any payment for my military service.”
While in Libya did you come in contact with any western soldiers or contractors working operationally on the ground?
“None, other than the private security advisors for some of the larger media outlets like Reuters who accompany journalists.”
We often hear information, misinformation, and disinformation all at the same time as Americans. From your experience, what is it the rebels in Libya really hoped to achieve? Were these goals accomplished or did the toppling of Gaddafi just create a vacuum to be filled by religious extremists?
“The rebels wanted to overthrow the regime. In addition to the human rights abuses, imprisonment, disappearances, and executions carried out by the regime, Libyans were fully aware of how ineffective, inept, and corrupt a leader Gaddafi was. They knew that with their oil wealth, small population, and proximity to Europe that Libya should look far more like Dubai.
The goals of the rebels were simply freedom and democratic governance.
The goals were accomplished. There will be elections, and Libya will surely develop into a successful, peaceful, democratic country. It may take some time, however, after 42 years of authoritarian rule, to establish a stable, democratic country. I predict that by the end of 2012 Libya will be well on its way to becoming the envy of the Arab world.
Religious extremists don’t have much power in Libya. They never have and never will. Even some of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members want a democratic government, and likely realize that they can win elections playing within the system. And they should be welcome to participate in the electoral process, it is up to Libyans now to determine their future using the ballot box in a free and open system.”
Stick around for part 3 of this series with American freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke, where he explains the improvised weapons used by the Libyan rebels and rates the various rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers that they had or captured from Gaddafi’s forces. Matt will also explain how he feels about the future of Libya. You can find Matt at his blog and freedom fighting, and also on Twitter and Facebook.