Gillis, one of four captured journalists released from Libya this month, was detained for six weeks. Reuters journalist Al-Khalidi was confined for four days in Syria. Both were beaten and accused of being spies by interrogators.
On April 6, Gillis said she and three other journalists — James Foley, Manuel Varla and Anton Hammerl — were traveling with anti-government forces in Berga when they were fired upon by Libyan soldiers, captured and then taken to a military camp. Hammerl, a photographer with South African and Austrian citizenship, was fatally shot in the stomach. (His body has not been returned to his family.) Gillis says she was hit in the face by a soldier. “I got a wicked black eye,” she told the Associated Press.
The 34-year-old told the Atlantic, a news organization she writes for, that she was initially scared, but later became bored and anxious, fearing she would never be free. After six weeks at two detention centers and the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, Gillis, Foley, Brabo and U.K. freelancer Nigel Chandler were released May 18. Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim invited the four to stay in Tripoli and continue reporting, which Gillis said amazed the group. “We’d been talking about the possibility of some publicity stunt,” she told the Atlantic.
Al-Khalidi was arrested in Damascus March 29 “after reporting on protests in the southern Syrian city of Deraa,” he wrote for Reuters. During his four-day confinement, he said he was beaten and accused of being a spy by Syrian intelligence officials. He was released by Major General Ali Mamluk, the director of Syrian State Security, who told him his “reporting from Deraa had been inaccurate and had damaged the image of Syria.”
Both journalists said they used mental games to help them get through the detention. “We did favorite books, favorite movies, life history, romantic life history,” Gillis said to the Atlantic. Al-Khalidi said he “tried to fix my mind on old childhood memories.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are at least 15 foreign journalists being detained by Libyan authorities at this time. Matthew VanDyke, a freelance journalist from Baltimore, traveled to Libya in March and is missing. A senior Libyan official said Wednesday that he had no knowledge of VanDyke’s whereabouts . This month, Al-Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz was freed after being detained in Syria and later deported to Iran.
Watch Gillis discuss her detention the “Today” show: