BALTIMORE (WJZ)– Baltimore’s Matthew VanDyke gained international attention when he joined the front lines of the Libyan revolution. He spent nine months in the war-torn country, caught in the gunfire and held in prison.
Now, VanDyke opens up about his capture, dramatic escape and why he stayed to fight someone else’s war when he could have come home.
Denise Koch spoke with him about his experience.
Freedom fighter or misguided radical? Matthew VanDyke’s journey from South Baltimore to Libya’s most notorious prison plays like a Hollywood movie.
“I wasn’t going to sit by and watch my friends be killed,” he said.
He says his commitment to Libya’s struggle came from forging deep friendships during years of travel in the Middle East.
“My friends were telling me about family members being arrested or disappearing or being injured,” he said.
Koch: “So why did you go to Libya?”
VanDyke: “They would say to me things like, ‘Why doesn’t anybody help us?’ So I said I would be there.”
In late February, VanDyke, a documentary filmmaker leaves his South Baltimore row house to fight alongside his rebel friends determined to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
But after only a few weeks, pro-Gadhafi forces ambush him.
Koch: “Did you assume they were going to kill you?”
VanDyke: “Yeah, I worried about being executed.”
Instead, VanDyke is thrown in prison where he spends five and a half months in solitary confinement in a 4×7-foot dark cell.
Koch: “What did you do to keep yourself sane?”
VanDyke: “I sang Guns N’ Roses songs. I tried to name Star Trek characters that I could think of. It was absolutely horrible. I would have rather if they’d just taken me out and beat me everyday and then put me in a cell with somebody else.”
Through these dark hours, he has no idea Libya is about to fall.
“One day there was so much noise outside the prison, so I thought they were coming to kill me,” VanDyke recalled. “And they come down the hall and they bust the lock off my cell and they open the cell and I’m prepared to die.”
Koch: “Were you begging for your life?”
VanDyke: “No. I was not going to let Gadhafi have the satisfaction of hearing the American was crying or something when he killed him. And the guy who opened it said, ‘Gadhafi’s finished! Gadhafi’s finished!’ And I said, ‘That’s impossible.’ ”
“I think all of us were pretty much in shock,” VanDyke continued. “You could hear gunfire. It was still a dangerous situation.”
But then, VanDyke makes a decision many still question. Despite the work by his mother, his girlfriend, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger to win his freedom, he stays in Libya.
Koch: “So the moment you got out, you were released. Why not come home? What made you decide to stay?
VanDyke: “I was prepared to kill for freedom. I think the more interesting question is, ‘Why am I the only one who went to Libya to help?’ It’s not, to me, strange that I went. It’s strange that nobody else went.”
A joyous reunion for family and friends this weekend at BWI Airport as VanDyke finally returns home from a battle few understand.
“People who criticize me are free to do so,” he said. “The freedom to do that is what I was fighting for in Libya.”
VanDyke plans to continue his writing and filmmaking but is ready to head back to the Middle East if another Arab revolution begins.
Web Extra: Matthew VanDyke’s Inside Story Part 1:
Web Extra: Matthew VanDyke’s Inside Story Part 2: