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Americans Emerge After Months in Gadhafi's Prisons

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Americans Emerge After Months in Gadhafi's Prisons

Matthew VanDyke, a freelance journalist from Baltimore, was held in solitary confinement in Libya for five months before he was freed last week. At left, he’s shown in February, before he went to Libya, at right, after his release.

AP left, Jason Beaubien

Last week, Matthew VanDyke, a freelance journalist and travel writer from Baltimore, went from solitary confinement in one of Moammar Gadhafi’s most notorios prisons to one of Tripoli’s most luxurious hotels.

VanDyke acknowledges that in early March, shortly after the uprising against Gadhafi began, he arrived in Libya in order to help the rebels.

“I was here to do whatever I could to help the revolution and I’ll leave it at that,” said VanDyke, who is now a guest at the Corinthia Hotel in the Libyan capital.

Under Gadhafi’s rule, tens of thousands of people disappeared into the regime’s prisons. The state security apparatus regularly tortured detainees and held them without trial, according to human rights groups.

When the rebels stormed into Tripoli last week and drove Gadhafi from power, many prisons were opened up and inmates were allowed to go or managed to escape. Five U.S. citizens, including VanDyke, were among them.

Captured With Rebels

Back on March 13th, VanDyke was with three rebel friends in the coastal town of Brega when they were captured by Gadhafi troops.

“I’m taking pictures of smiling people one minute, and next thing I know, I wake up in a cell, there’s a man being tortured in the room above me. I could hear it,” VanDyke recalled. “And no memory — some flashes came back later of the ambush and being transported — except no real memory of what happened.”

VanDyke vanished into Gadhafi’s state security system like so many others. For months, Libyan officials denied they were even holding him. And except for the time he was moved from one prison to another, he was kept in solitary confinement.

“I never encountered any other prisoners,” he said. “I thought I heard a few violent interrogations at night, which made me think they were going to come and get me. So I prepared myself for getting tortured.”

He said he trimmed his fingernails and toenails so they couldn’t be pulled out. “I just tried to be ready,” he said. “I didn’t know which night my night was going to be.”

Held In Tiny Cell

But in the end, he says he was never physically abused. Instead he was locked away in a cell seven feet by four feet and was all but ignored. There was nothing in the cell except a foam mattress and a filthy blanket.

In the first prison where he was held, he just sat and stared at the walls day after day. Then he was moved to the Abu Salim prison, the place where many of the country’s political prisoners were sent.

There, VanDyke said, he had a slightly larger cell.

“I could walk two or three steps back and forth. Two or three steps, turn around,” he said. “So I would do that all day, with the idea that if I could make myself tired, I could sleep. And if I could sleep I could dream, and in my dreams I wasn’t in prison. And then when I’d wake up, the nightmare would begin.”

The photos of VanDyke before his arrest show a tall, athletic man in his early 30s with a confident air. He emerged from prison incredibly thin, the skin on his face pulled taut over his cheekbones and his bony shoulders poking at a limp dress shirt.

He says solitary confinement was psychological torture and he wouldn’t even want Moammar Gadhafi to have to endure it.

American Contractor Seized

Richard Peters, an American construction and security contractor, also emerged last week after six months in captivity.

Peters was in a different prison, where he had a bit more space and a Bible. And he says his experience was very different from VanDyke’s.

“I did pushups, I did dips, I did pullups, isometrics. Everything. An hour’s worth,” he said, adding that he ran for up to 30 minutes a day and walked for hours. He also read his Bible regularly.

“My agenda was pretty positive — working out, reading the word and praying to God,” he said.

Peters, 62, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was in Tripoli trying to secure what he says was a $500 million construction contract from the Gadhafi regime when the fighting broke out in February.

He was captured trying to drive from the capital to the east where he hoped to use his military background to offer training to the rebels.

Peters and VanDyke have both remained in Tripoli since regaining their freedom. Peters says he believes there will be huge construction and security contracts awarded in the coming months, and he wants in on that business.

VanDyke is staying because he says he promised his rebel friends back in March that he would not leave until Libya was free.

“It came as a real shock to me that my freedom came with Libya’s freedom,” he said. “I came here to help however I could help the revolution. And in the end, the revolution helped me and gave me my freedom.”

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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