Matthew VanDyke: 'I Went to Libya to Support Revolution'
UMBC grad who escaped after 166 days in prison says he hid true nature of travel from his mother and girlfriend.
Matthew VanDyke left Baltimore in February intending to pick up arms and join the fight to liberate Libya from the brutal regime of Moammar Gaddhafi--without telling those closest to him.
“I went over there to support the revolution,” he said after arriving at BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport on the night of Nov. 5. “My family did not know that when I left. You don’t tell your mother that you’re going to go fight in a war.”
When he was captured on March 13 in Brega, VanDyke was on a reconnaissance mission with three other rebels in a truck carrying weapons.
“I was supporting the revolution when I was captured,” he said. During his 166 days of captivity in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, VanDyke said he passed the time singing Guns n’Roses songs and trying to name all of the characters on Star Trek.
VanDyke escaped from prison on Aug. 24 as Tripoli descended into chaos. After his escape, he joined rebels fighting on the front lines in Sirte, the last stronghold of Gaddhafi loyalists and the place where the dictator was ultimately tracked down and killed on Oct. 20.
“When I got out of prison, I was going to finish what I came to do,” VanDyke said. "I made a commitment to that country when I went there to risk my life for it."
He enlisted in a rebel brigade and was given a military Jeep. “We put a Russian machine gun on it,” he said. “I was the gunner.”
The final battle for Sirte was intense, VanDyke said. “At the end, a lot of it was house to house,” he said. “Before that, it was a lot of mortars and rockets. A lot of people were killed. It was very intense, tough fighting.”
Gaddhafi's death marked the end of fighting in Libya. "It ended very quickly,"" VanDyke said. "Once Gaddhafi was killed, we were finished."
VanDyke, who made friends while traveling through Libya on motorcycle four years ago, was motivated to join the fight by stories he heard about conditions under Gaddhafi’s brutal 42-year regime.
“I had friends in Libya,” he said. “They were telling me, when the war started, about family members disappearing or being hurt. I wasn’t going to sit back and let this happen to people I cared about. I’ve spent a lot of time in northern Africa and the Middle East, and I see how people are suffering under regimes like this. It’s time for it to end.”
VanDyke said that he allowed people to believe that he was visiting Libya as a journalist. He has previously written for Baltimore Examiner and other publications.
“When I went to Libya, my family thought I was doing more filming than I was, and more writing,” he said. “My purpose there was not journalistic. That was assumed when I went missing, because I’d been a journalist.”
Several organizations and individuals rallied behind VanDyke during his captivity, including Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists and Rep. C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-MD.
“I appreciate their efforts, but in the end I escaped from prison,” VanDyke said.
“I’m appreciative that they spent time and resources, and that by keeping my story alive they did prevent the regime from executing me. And I’m very grateful for that.”
Sharon VanDyke said that her son looked good despite his eight-month ordeal.
“Looks just like himself, I think he looks great,” she said. “Eyes are as blue as blue. He’s obviously gained some weight back. I’m so happy for him.”
VanDyke said that he plans to work on books and documentaries about his experiences and is preparing for the next revolution in the Middle East.
“I’m keeping my eye on the Middle East for developments and what role I can play for the future,” he said.
Lauren Fischer, a Baltimore-area schoolteacher who is VanDyke’s girlfriend, said that she has mixed feelings about his activities as a freedom fighter.
“I understand the commitment and wanting to spread democracy; that’s very noble,” she said. “But I also attended a Quaker school, and so taking it that one step further is difficult for me.”