Friday, October 7, 2011

Matt Van Dyke Checks in from Sirte

Matthew Van Dyke, an American who is fighting with the anti-Gaddafi forces at Sirte said, "They are not going to give up." Van Dyke, who said he came to Libya seven months ago to visit friends, was arrested by Gaddafi forces, and joined the fighting on his release. "It's going to take a while. (Because of) the snipers, we are going to take a lot of casualties."

"It's like people who stay in Ocean City during a hurricane." - Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who was one of several in the government who had helped VanDyke's family get information about him while he was missing

Baltimorean taking up the Libyan rebel cause
Writer witnessed, then joined, Libyan war

October 08, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

As described by those who know him, Matthew VanDyke comes off as footloose and maybe a little feckless. He has worked sporadically, sometimes getting freelance writing or teaching gigs but more often traveling to the Middle East for months at a time with plans to do something, someday, with his jottings and photography.

Leaving Baltimore for Libya last February was entirely in keeping with his wanderings. VanDyke wanted to support friends he'd made on a previous trip. They had gotten caught up in the uprising against the country's longtime strongman, Moammar Gadhafi, and the 32-year-old took his camera and netbook computer to capture the unfolding drama.

VanDyke, though, got too close to the action — in March he was captured by Gadhafi forces and imprisoned for nearly six months. After his surprise release when rebels forced open the prison in Tripoli, VanDyke decided to take up arms himself. In recent news photos transmitted worldwide from Libyan battlegrounds, VanDyke smiles and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with rebel fighters.

That shift, from journalist to fighter, has caused no small amount of consternation among human rights workers, governmental agencies and family members who had advocated and tried to locate him during the months in which he vanished into the Libyan prison system.

"We all worked hard to try and locate him and get him home safe for all those months, and it is a bit tragic to now see him try and join the fight as a rebel," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email.

The international rights group was among those who rallied to VanDyke's cause and were heartened when he was freed with others when rebels took control of the capital in August. But they are not the only ones concerned about his decision not to return to Baltimore but to instead fight with the rebels — a decision that leaves him vulnerable should he fall into trouble in the future.

"We'll take every situation as it comes, but we don't want to put American lives at risk," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who was one of several in the government who had helped VanDyke's family get information about him while he was missing. "It's like people who stay in Ocean City during a hurricane."

VanDyke's mother said she supports her son's decision to remain in Libya but is worried that he is fighting. "He's a young man who wouldn't even pick up a gun and go hunting," said Sharon VanDyke, a retired principal. "He's in the middle of it, and he has no training."

From recent news footage, VanDyke no longer appears to be the boyish young man who posed in front of pyramids and sphinxes in the photos that decorate his childhood home in South Baltimore. Instead, he cuts an almost cinematic figure, in camouflage fatigues and a burgeoning Che Guevara-like beard, with an assault rifle strapped across his chest, riding in a machine gun-mounted Jeep in a Libyan desert.

It is just the latest twist in an already unlikely saga, which drew widespread attention when his mother reached out to the State Department, elected officials, international aid organizations and others when she lost contact with him in mid-March.

Information was scant or unverifiable amid the turbulence: Arab Spring protests had sparked a violent government crackdown, launching a civil war that, backed by U.S. and NATO airstrikes, ultimately ousted Gadhafi. The Libyan leader has not been seen in months, although some loyalists continue to fight on his behalf.

It was not until August, when Tripoli fell, that VanDyke emerged — he had traveled to the eastern oil town of Brega, the site of intense fighting, and had been taken captive by Gadhafi forces and imprisoned, most of the time in the notoriously brutal Abu Salim prison in the capital.

After the prison was liberated, VanDyke chose to stay in Libya, saying he felt committed to find out what happened to the friends he had accompanied to Brega and to see the war through to its end.

"He had the opportunity to come home," Ruppersberger said of a flight arranged for Americans in Libya at the time. "That was what we all hoped he would do."

VanDyke's decision to stay troubles Bouckaert, who met with the Baltimorean in Tripoli after he was freed from Abu Salim. The prison was used by Gadhafi to detain, torture and massacre political opponents. While VanDyke has said that he was not mistreated there, he called it "psychological torture" to be in solitary confinement.

"Matt went through a horrible ordeal during his imprisonment at Abu Salim, and he really should be going home to get some treatment and be with his family," Bouckaert said. "I care about Matt and have had long conversations with him, and I don't think he is in the best frame of mind to make decisions for himself. His months in solitary confinement have deeply affected him, and I am worried about him."

In Baltimore, Sharon VanDyke said that during her telephone calls from Matthew, "he sounds exactly like himself." She doesn't have a way to reach him, but he occasionally borrows a satellite phone from reporters covering the battle in Sirte and calls home.

She realizes that after snubbing the government and humanitarian officials who had arrayed to help extract him from Libya, he's largely on his own now. She told him as much during a recent conversation.

"I said, 'You've burned all your bridges,'" she said. "If something happens, I can't go back to them and ask for help."

Her son's girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, an elementary school teacher in Baltimore, said she has told him repeatedly that this is not his war and that it's not his responsibility to find his missing companions. But given that they can speak only for a minute or so every once in a while, she said she has stopped arguing with him

In a sense, Fischer said, she's less worried about him now than when she and his mother had no idea where he was.

"To some degree, he's made the decision himself, to put me and his mother in this position, so I'm not going to worry. I'm not just wringing my hands," Fischer said. "Before, it was, 'Who can we call, what can we do, who have we not talked to?' Now, he understands, his mother has made clear to him that if something happens, no one is coming to look for you."

Since his release from prison, VanDyke has frequently been interviewed by journalists, and has given sometimes conflicting statements on what he was doing in the country. He has said he didn't "come to Libya to do journalism," but also that he was "documenting history."

Fischer said she has challenged him over such statements. "I don't know why he keeps saying that," she said. "I said, 'Were you writing down notes? Were you taking pictures? Were you going to put this in your book?'" she said. "Well, then you were a journalist."

At least one group that sought to help him agrees.

"Matthew at the time, based on all the information we got, was a journalist," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, who coordinates the Middle East and North Africa program for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "He could be a journalist still."

Abdel Dayem said the committee assists not just members of the mainstream media but writers, bloggers and others who are not affiliated with a newspaper or broadcasting network. And in fact, they tend to be the most at risk when covering hot spots like Libya.

"They're more vulnerable and they get into more trouble," he said. "And when they do, they don't have the institutional backing."

For the moment, VanDyke has become a source for other writers, featured in articles and quoted by correspondents covering the war in Libya. A USA Today article on Friday, for example, simply quoted him as "a revolutionary fighter."

Should he write about this himself down the road, VanDyke might have to re-create much of it from memory.

"His camera is gone. His netbook gone. One of his hard drives is gone," Fischer said of what VanDyke lost after his capture.

But apparently he isn't totally bereft. Sharon VanDyke said her son's Libyan friends have provided him with clothes, food, shelter and other necessities.

"Someone gave him money," she said, "to buy a camera."

Matthew VanDyke missing in Libya
By Maureen Bunyan

The violence in Libya has become personal for a family with ties to Maryland and the District. A freelance journalist with ties to the area is missing.

Matthew VanDyke went to Libya in February to stay with friends. He wanted to witness the uprising against leader Moammar Gadhafi and write a book about it.

His family last heard from VanDyke on March 12. "When he answered the phone, there was a lot of noise," his mother Sharon VanDyke said. "He was in a truck and he said 'Mom, I can't talk now, it's noisy. I can't talk now. Can you call me tomorrow?'"

Now his mother and girlfriend nervously wait for any news on his whereabouts.

He told his girlfriend about plans to take a day trip from Benghazi to Brega -- the same day that government forces stormed a rebel strongpoint in the region.

"They didn't go there to see a fight and Gadhafi's forces rolled in unexpectedly," said Lauren Fischer, his girlfriend. She said that VanDyke had press credentials with him.

He has a degree from Georgetown University in foreign service and security, speaks Arabic and has reported in war zones before. But this time, his loved ones believe he may have been taken prisoner.

"I want to know where he is and that he's okay," said Fischer.

They're doing all they can to find him, with hopes that he will be freed. The State Department says it's aware of VanDyke's case, according to the Associated Press.

"I can't fall apart because I can't spend that kind of energy in self-pity right now," Van Dyke's mother Sharon said. "I've got to spend the energy getting his picture out there so someone may see him or can help us."

Mother’s vigil for missing son in Libya ends

By Tara Bahrampour, Published: August 25

For 51 / 2 months, Sherry VanDyke refused to cry. She refused to acknowledge that her only child, Matthew VanDyke, a mostly unemployed freelance journalist, might be dead. Or to entertain doubts about her decision to drive him to Dulles International Airport so that he could witness the burgeoning rebellion against Col. Moammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Six days after Matthew arrived there, he vanished into the vortex of Libya’s civil war.

His disappearance threw his mother, a retired Baltimore school principal, into her own vortex, one that involved State Department officials, middle-of-the-night overseas phone calls and a trip to Turkey to press for answers from representatives of Gaddafi’s government.

As winter turned to spring, there was no sign of Matthew. He had disappeared on a day of violence near the front line in eastern Libya, when rockets were exploding and those hit were left to die in the desert.

“There were people who said, ‘She doesn’t want to believe the truth, she doesn’t want to admit it,’ that he could have been shot,” said Sherry, 64.

But she and her blue-eyed, sandy-haired son shared a deep connection, and she said she could feel that he was still alive in the world.

On Wednesday, her belief was confirmed when Matthew, 32, walked out of a Tripoli prison and borrowed a cellphone to call home. He had been in solitary confinement for months, despite efforts by the U.S. government, international diplomats and human rights organizations to find him.

“I’m so relieved,” she said just after they’d spoken for the first time in nearly half a year and her vigil was finally over.

When Matthew returned in the coming days, she would show him the binders she had filled with clippings and e-mails about his disappearance and tell him of the hours she’d spent publicizing his plight. When Matthew returned, he was going to see just how hard his mother had worked to bring him home.

Tangle of contradictions

What was Matthew VanDyke doing in Libya?

His mother says he went there “to witness history in the making” and document it for a film and memoir he was working on. But it was more complicated than that.

He had earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 2004. Yet instead of pursuing a career in foreign policy or nongovernmental organization work, he decided to ride a motorcycle from Morocco to Afghanistan.

The journey would stretch over five years, paid for mostly by his trust fund and supplemented by his mother. Aside from some freelance writing, overseas stints teaching English and a tire sealant deal he had once helped to broker in Kurdistan, he had never held a job.

He was, by his own assessment, raised as a spoiled brat: His mother continued to do his grocery shopping and laundry even as he lived in a Dupont Circle concierge apartment that she paid for while he attended Georgetown. Her protectiveness may have stemmed from Matthew’s difficulties with obsessive-compulsive disorder. His condition manifested itself in a variety of ways, most recently as a fear of sugar and trash so severe that he would sometimes refuse to go outside for days. Yet it didn’t stop him from traveling to some of the world’s most dangerous places.

His life was a tangle of contradictions. While one part of him was terrified and coddled, another part longed to pass tough tests of masculinity. His journey to Libya came as no surprise to those who knew him. It was part of his quixotic, itinerant quest to be his own man.

Craving adventure

Whenever the question comes up of why she funds Matthew’s meandering lifestyle, Sherry’s face softens. “Because he’s my son,” she said. “He’s my world.”

Matthew doesn’t remember his father, a seafood broker who separated from his mother shortly after Matthew’s birth in 1979. She never dated again.

Sherry gave Matthew everything she could: new skis, expensive vintage baseball cards, cars, a private-school education. Once, when he asked to do chores to earn his allowance, she refused and gave him the money as a matter of course, according to the memoir he was working on.

A neatly groomed woman with short blond hair and trifocals, Sherry retired last year after 42 years in the Baltimore public school system. She lives in the house where she was raised and where she raised Matthew, in a middle-class neighborhood in south Baltimore where postage-stamp back yards are separated by low chain-link fences. The matching curtains and tablecloth in her dining room change with the seasons — lavender in spring, sunflower yellow in summer. A framed map on the wall traces her father’s trajectory from Normandy into Germany during World War II, a journey so harrowing that he never left North America again.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder began to plague Matthew in his teenage years. It limited his sexual encounters in college (he feared catching a disease), and made him reluctant to drive (he would check accident reports along routes he had just driven, terrified that he had hit a pedestrian).
But he also craved foreign adventure. In 2006 he began traveling and met Lauren Fischer, another Georgetown graduate, in a Madrid youth hostel. They became a couple, and his views on his childhood began to change.

“The way he was brought up, where everything was done for him, I slowly and not so subtly made him realize that that’s not okay,” said Fischer, 28, a teacher in Baltimore. “It’s not normal for your parents and grandparents to bring you groceries or clean towels.”

At the same time, Matthew was becoming more aware of the contrast between his life and those of his more independent peers. “He looked around at all his college friends, and said, ‘Oh, this is different, I should do something about it,’ ” Fischer said. “His idea of what to do about it was to go drive a motorcycle through the Arab world.”

He rode through Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, returning frequently to Baltimore to see Fischer and his mother. He sold the occasional story to the now-defunct Baltimore Examiner and the Kurdish Globe. Last year he brought along a photographer friend, Daniel Britt, for what was to be the last leg of his journey.

They wore video cameras embedded in their helmets and hidden in their lapels. Along the way they were arrested or detained more than a dozen times, and once, in an Iraqi jail, they underwent a mock execution.

Britt, who lives in San Francisco, described his friend as skittish about small problems but unflappable in the face of large ones.

“I’ve never been with someone so collected under pressure,” Britt said.

Yet even in the most frightening situations Matthew could not escape his old obsessions. On one trip to Iraq, when guards who thought he was a suicide bomber ordered him at gunpoint to lie on the trash-strewn ground, he refused, deciding he would rather be shot than come into contact with a smashed Fanta can lying by his feet.

He returned home in December, planning to live with Fischer, work on his memoir and make a movie about his travels. The film, tentatively titled “Warzone Bikers,” was going to be “about war fear, the way people interact with others in these stressful situations,” said Britt, who planned to work on it with Matthew.

Matthew also had another project in mind, Britt said. Once “Warzone Bikers” was finished, he hoped to make a documentary in which he would locate his father, knock on his door and introduce himself with the cameras rolling.

But Matthew put all his projects aside oncerevolution began to roil through Libya.

High-risk lifestyle

Matthew had spent six weeks in Libya in 2008 and had been enchanted by the strange totalitarian state whose citizens were so warm and welcoming. Libya was also the cleanest country he’d seen in the developing world, an important detail for him. He had hooked up with a community of motorcycle enthusiasts and filmed them doing wheelies in the desert.

When Gaddafi’s army began firing, his friends in Libya “were e-mailing him and asking, ‘Where are the Americans? Where are the British?’ ” Sherry recalled.

On Feb. 26, Matthew flew to North Africa to help them. His mother was not surprised, nor did she try to persuade him not to go.

“We’re very close,” she said, describing her reaction to his journeys, “but I send him off, I help him pack, and I almost wish I was going with him.”

Fischer was another matter. “I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t happy,” she said. “He’d just gotten back.”

In an instant-messaging exchange March 1, as he sat in Cairo planning his trip into Libya, she wrote, “Think about how your risks affect me and your mom.”

Matthew: My mother is supportive of my high risk lifestyle
Fischer: that doesnt mean it doesnt affect her.
Matthew: well, sh e wouldn’t want me living differently just for that reason
Fischer: and doing something foolish like being taken by qadaffi would certainly affect her
Matthew: that is not my plan
Fischer: but it seems a strong possibility
Matthew: there have always been risks . . . but my life, as much as it sometimes sucks, is an adventure and thats how I’m going to live it.

On March 6, he crossed from Egypt into eastern Libya. In the rebel-held city of Benghazi, he moved in with his friend Nouri Fonas, a tall, mustachioed Libyan writer. He got a local cellphone number and stayed in daily contact with his mother and Fischer as he inhaled the fumes of revolution.

In eastern Libya, citizens could speak freely for the first time in four decades. They danced in the streets, covered the walls with anti-Gaddafi caricatures, and broke into abandoned military bases, loading up on heavy armor and weaponry. Fonas was among them.

On March 11, Matthew’s fifth day in Libya, he told his mother he was heading to the oil port of Brega the next day in a truck with three of Fonas’s friends or relatives.

She urged caution: “I said, ‘Matthew, this is not your war.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not with the soldiers fighting; we’re in the next line back and I’m taking pictures.’ ”

They drove straight into an area that was about to be ambushed by Gaddafi’s forces.
When Sherry called Matthew’s phone on the 13th, she heard an automated message in Arabic. She called his phone again and again, unable to get through. She told herself Matthew must be back at Fonas’s, unable to make contact because the phones were down.

Then, at 4 a.m. March 22, her phone rang.
“Matthew?” she asked, recognizing the number.
“No, no, no,” said a man speaking English with an Arabic accent.
The man hung up; she dialed the number back.
“I kept saying to him, ‘Why do you have my son’s cellphone?’ and he said, ‘You dialed the wrong number.’ ”
“I hope you find your son,” he said, and hung up.

A trip to Turkey

From that day on, Sherry became consumed with finding Matthew. Her house became a command center. She spent her days talking to State Department officials and human rights organizations; inviting reporters into her home; compiling articles by and about Matthew, printing out e-mail correspondences, and filing everything neatly in color-coded binders.

“This is all I’ve done for the past two months,” she said in May. “It’s what I do every day. I get up at 2, 3 in the morning to try to contact people overseas.”

Archiving Matthew’s life came naturally. She still has every school paper and every report card he brought home along with his baseball card collection and Popsicle stick art projects.
Since the United States no longer maintained a diplomatic presence in Tripoli, Turkish diplomats were acting as go-betweens. But they could find nothing on Matthew. Sherry decided to go to Turkey: “If I could get people to see a real person who has a mother who is searching for him, maybe that would make a difference.”

While she was en route, Turkey pulled its staff out of Tripoli. Her reason for traveling there was moot. Undeterred, she knocked on the door of the Libyan Embassy in Ankara. “Next thing I know we’re sitting in the office of the press consular and they brought tea and I’m asking them to help find my son.”

The Libyan press consul suggested that she go to Benghazi herself, and she seriously considered it, despite the danger.

“I just want to be where he was, to talk to some people,” she said at the time. “I guess it’s the mother in me . . . so I could know in my heart that I had done one more thing to find him.”

Not long after she returned from Turkey, she opened her laptop and clicked on a promotional trailer for “Warzone Bikers” that Matthew had put together before he left for Libya.

It showed him riding helmetless through Iraq, receiving a beating on the soles of his feet, firing a machine gun in the desert, getting swept along in river rapids, being arrested by an angry Afghan policeman who punched him in the face before moving to handcuff him.

He had also strung together scenes showing a cave full of bats, a sheep slaughter, children playing with a dead rat on a string, and a close-up of a man’s infected, amputated arm stump, all set to a pounding song by Guns N’ Roses:

Ain’t it fun when you feel like you just gotta get a gun . . . Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young.

As the screen went black, a smile tugged on Sherry’s lips. Rather than causing her anxiety, the video seemed to energize her.

“It’s exciting,” she said brightly. “I understand why he felt the need to go.” If she were younger, she said, “I wouldn’t think twice about going myself.”

Found at last

In July, a sudden ray of hope: Matthew had apparently been spotted by one of Fonas’s friends in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. Sherry rejoiced and sent out e-mails saying he had been found.

But neither the State Department nor the Hungarian government, the new go-between for Americans there, was able to confirm it. And when a team from Human Rights Watch visited the prison and asked about Matthew, an official told them he was not familiar with the case.

Sitting in her house last week, not knowing her son’s fate, Sherry declared that if she had another chance, she would drive him to the airport all over again. She remained confident that Matthew was alive.

But when the rebels began to fight Gaddafi loyalists for control of Tripoli, she called it “the most horrendous weekend for me since this began.” Glued to the television, hardly sleeping or eating, she fretted about what the battle meant for her son. And doubts began to gnaw at her. Maybe he’d never been in the prison in Tripoli at all.

Then, on Wednesday afternoon, Fischer’s phone rang. It was Matthew. He had just been liberated by fellow prisoners at Abu Salim.

Overjoyed, Fischer called Sherry and gave her the number of Matthew’s borrowed phone.
The first thing he said were the two words Sherry VanDyke had waited nearly six months to hear.

“Hi, Mom.”

U.S. film-maker released after six months in solitary in Gaddafi hellhole jail

• American missed his birthday and was close to suicide
• He feared he would be 'forgotten about'
• And he worried that he would be holed up for '30 years'
• Cell was 7ft by 4ft and had next to no light

By OLIVER PICKUP 30th August 2011

An American filmmaker who was held in solitary confinement in Libya's most notorious prison for months has told of his harrowing ordeal, now that he has been released.

Matthew van Dyke, a 32-year-old from Baltimore, was close to suicide after spending six months in a cell measuring 7ft by 4ft at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison - where, in 1996, Colonel Gaddafi had ordered the massacre of 1,200 prisoners.

Just as the revolution against they Libyan tyrant's 42-year rule was beginning to gather speed, he was caught up in the paranoia of the man known as mad dog.

One minute he was taking a photograph of a man serving coffee in the small north-eastern town of Brega, and the next he was being hauled into jail by government forces, where a man was being loudly tortured in the room above him.

And now, with Colonel Gaddafi seemingly defeated and Tripoli liberated, Mr van Dyke, who said that his Christian faith helped him though the ordeal, has been freed and can tell his story.
When a crowd wrestled open his tiny cell after six months he feared it was an angry mob who thought he was a CIA spy and would lynch him.

But, to his relief, it was rebels and prisoners breaking him out of Abu Salim prison at the end of last week.

Mr van Dyke was captured in March by government soldiers and, after being interrogated in a basement in Brega overnight, he was then held incommunicado for six months in Tripoli
'I was in solitary confinement the whole time with nothing to do but stare at the wall,' the now lanky and bearded man said.

He described the months of enforced isolation with nothing to do as a kind of 'psychological torture'.

He didn't even realise when his 32nd birthday came and went and, to distract himself, he read the ingredients on the milk cartons he received with his meals.

'When I got a German milk box somehow that had five languages on it, that was quite a treat,' he said. 'Keep that one and try to learn words in various languages - anything to break the monotony of staring at a wall.'

His only human interaction was with the guards that brought him his food, though when he was transferred to Abu Salim in Libya's capital, all they did was slide his plates through a metal slot.

'It does incredibly unbelievable things - I'm still coming to terms with what I went through,' he said.

'It's absolutely shocking. I'm not really ready to talk about the extent of what went on psychologically to me.

'I would rather they [the guards] had just taken me out and beat me, even every day, than go through the solitary confinement, because what it does psychologically is astonishing.

'I had no idea that the brain could work in the ways that it did in my case.'

The filmmaker, who had just finished travelling from Iraq, through Iran and into Afghanistan by motorcycle, had not even visited the North Africa country to work - rather, he was visiting friends.

But he figured that Gaddafi's men thought that he was an American spy, or a member of the CIA, and thought he would be cut off from society for decades, with no one - his family or loved ones knowing whether or not he was dead or alive.

He was riding in a pickup truck through Brega, snapping pictures, when a surprise advance by government forces caught him and his rebel friends unaware. He doesn't remember what happened next.

He had no media credentials and continued: 'I woke up in a cell with a man being tortured in the room above me.

'I thought I was [going to be] there for 20 to 30 years. I knew I was in a lot of trouble and I knew they were thinking things because of the footage I was captured with, and that I was doomed.
'I was there and there wasn't going to be any reason why I was getting out.

'I thought it was over and I would never see my family again. One guy at the interrogation said, "You will never see America again," and I thought he was right.'

By the light of a cell skylight the size of a dinner plate, he recorded his days in solitary on the wall next to marks made by the cramped room's previous occupants. His row grew to two to three times the others.

'That's when I realised there was a big problem with my situation,' he said.'Those cells seem designed either to temporarily hold people or to break their mind.'

Though he was allowed out of the cell three times a day to use the toilet and was given food such as bread and cheese, couscous, rice, pasta and chicken, he admitted that he manufactured a make-shift noose.

'I took yarn from the blanket and I made bracelets and a ball and a belt to hold my pants up, which was eventually taken from me because they thought I might hang myself with it.

'I also made it strong enough so it would double as a noose if I needed it, and I hid a plastic bag from them in case I needed it. In case I decided to take my own life, I wanted to have the means available to do it.'

And then, suddenly, it was all over - there were a series of loud noises and then he could hear a crowd breaking open the gates to his cell block.

As they bashed open his cell door he expected to be grabbed and murdered for being a spy, but instead they just moved on to the next cell.

'One guy said "Gaddafi is finished!" and I didn't believe it,' he said, and other prisoners hesitated to leave their cells, fearing it was some kind of trick.

Mr van Dyke added: 'I said: "How [is Gaddafi finished]?" [One of the prisoners] said: "We don't know. We don't know. Let's go." So I took a chance and thought all right, let's go.'

When free he called Lauren, his girlfriend of five years, and his mother, Sharon, who had been lobbying hard for his release.

However, he does not want to return home to Baltimore until he discovers the fate of his three friends, whom he believes may be imprisoned in Gaddafi's hometown, Sirte.

'I told them: "I go home when Libya is free." And that's why I'm still here.'

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