Eight months after he disappeared into the black hole of Libya’s civil war, and in defiance of predictions that he was dead in the desert, Matthew VanDyke touched down Saturday night at the airport near his Baltimore home.
VanDyke, 32, had been a freelance journalist and filmmaker, but he said Saturday night that he had gone to Libya to become a freedom fighter.
“Victory!” he said, holding up a new Libyan flag at Baltimore- Washington International Marshall Airport. “We won!”
VanDyke left for Libya in February, days after the uprising against Moammar Gaddafi began. In earlier travels through the Middle East and North Africa, he had visited Libya and made friends there.
He told his family that he hoped to document that country’s extraordinary events as a coda to a film and book he was working on. But that was not his true goal, he said Saturday night. “You don’t tell your mother and girlfriend that you’re going to go fight in a war,” he explained.
While on a reconnaissance mission six days after he arrived in Libya, he was caught by surprise when the frontline shifted in Gaddafi’s favor. He was held in solitary confinement for six months in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.
VanDyke was not the only Westerner to be caught by Gaddafi’s forces, but in other cases Gaddafi officials generally acknowledged that they were being held and they were released.
VanDyke’s fate, however, remained a mystery. Despite the efforts of the State Department, Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Hungarian and Turkish diplomats, Gaddafi officials never said they had him.
Ignoring advice to move on and accept that he probably wasn’t coming back, his mother, Sherry VanDyke, rallied local officials and the news media to keep her son’s story alive. In July, a rumor surfaced that he was in Abu Salim. Human rights officials visited but could not find him.
Then, in August, as rebels routed Gaddafi loyalists in Tripoli, his girlfriend in Baltimore got a call. It was VanDyke. He had escaped from the prison after the guards had fled. He was dazed and had lost weight; the only clothing he had was his prison uniform.
And he had no intention of coming home while Gaddafi was at large. Instead, he joined the fighting in Sirte. “I wasn’t going to leave until Gaddafi was out of power,” he said. “And he’s gone, so I’m home.”
Thin, bearded and wearing rebel fatigues and a kaffiyeh on his head, he said: “I think I’m going to start training for the next Arab revolution. This is spreading.”