Gaddafi fall a blessing for jailed US filmmaker

TRIPOLI - US filmmaker Matthew Vandyke paces up and down the Tripoli prison cell where he had languished after being nabbed by loyalist troops and says with a sigh of relief, “If Kadhafi had not been toppled I would never have got out.”

By (AFP)

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Published: Wed 31 Aug 2011, 3:24 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:42 PM

Revisiting the cell in the Abu Salim prison where he was held for 76 of the 161 days he was in the hands of Moamer Gaddafi’s forces, Vandyke still can’t believe he is free.

“I thought I’d be here for 30 years and I could be executed,” he says, explaining that he managed to escape his cell, measuring three metres by two (10 feet by six feet) when rebel forces last week overran Tripoli.

The 32-year-old, a native of the city of Baltimore in Maryland state, arrived in Libya in February, at the start of an uprising against the strongman’s 41-year-rule.

Vandyke just wanted to “live the revolution” with his Libyan friends. He wanted to spend time with the rebels, watch and record their battles on film, he says, insisting he was not there to fight.

But in mid-March, during fighting in the eastern oil hub of Brega, his luck ran out.

“We fell into an ambush. I was wounded in the head. I just remember waking up in prison and hearing the sound of a man being tortured. I thought it was all over,” he recalls.

He believes that prison was near the port city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and now one of his very few remaining bastions of support.

Next, he was transferred to Abu Salim prison, where political prisoners were kept under Gaddafi’s regime. The cells at the jail were relatively clean. He had a wash basin, toilet, shower and mattress. He says he got three meals a day, and was not tortured or abused.

But he was kept in isolation, and that took its toll.

“All the time I spent there, I never left (the cell) — nothing to do, no book, nothing to read except the milk carton labels in French; no one to talk to, no one who came to see me,” he recalls, except the guard who delivered his meals through a small window of the cell.

His situation was made complicated because he was not there as a journalist, and therefore was suspect.

“They thought I was CIA, (Israel’s) Mossad. They said you will never see the United States again,” he remembers.

In prison, he tried to keep his sanity and his health, pacing back and forth 10 hours a day in the small cell, clinging to a picture of a girl on a soap cover who looked like an ex-girlfriend from his youth.

Every night, he feared they would come for him and he would be tortured.

“Being alone is psychological torture. I wanted to stay fit. But my mood was awful. I was worried about everything, it was constant; I began to lose control,” he recalls, saying he became obsessed with constantly washing his hands.

Cut off from the city and the rest of the world, he was unaware that a NATO-backed international operation was in progress, and that the rebels had turned the eastern city of Benghazi into their stronghold. He did not know they were making gains against Gaddafi’s forces. And he suspected nothing when they stormed the capital last week.

When he heard explosions outside the jail, he thought it was Gaddafi’s air force bombing the rebels, and the gunfire he thought was Gaddafi loyalists celebrating victories.

When one night last week a prisoner opened the door of his cell and urged, “come,” he thought they were going to make a prison break.

Once outside, he heard cries of “Gaddafi is finished!” About 200 prisoners were out in the streets. He took refuge in a house where the television was on.

“It was only then that I understood.”

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