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Mother’s vigil for missing son in Libya ends

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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 once revolution 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.

The trailer ended with a reenactment of Matthew and Britt behind bars in an unnamed jail.

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.”

© The Washington Post Company