Clare Gillis Recounts Detention in Libya

Finally home safe, the freelance journalist described the confusion, fear, and absurdity of her month-and-a-half in the hands of Libya's chaotic government


James Foley and Clare Gillis arrive at the Rixos Hotel on May 18. Louafi Larbi/Reuters

A few hours after loyalist troops captured her near Libya's front lines, taking her along with three other journalists, Clare Gillis slid her ring off and scratched the date into the wall of her military prison cell. "Tuesday April 5, Surte, CMJ" The CMJ stood for Clare and fellow travelers Manuel Brabo and James Foley. The fourth, photographer Anton Hammerl, had been shot in the stomach by Libyan troops only hours earlier and left to die on the desert floor. Gillis would dutifully record the date nearly every day for the 44 days until her release, using her ring as a writing tool and the calendar on her wristwatch to track the time.

"I'm trained as a historian, I like to know when things happen. I always make calendars," she told me, recounting her month and a half of detention by the Libyan government. "I wanted to leave my name in the wall. If somebody else comes here, they know I was here." She described a daily life in captivity that, after the initial panic and fear subsided, slowed into a grind of uncertainty, boredom, and a constant dread that they might never make it home.

"I was just completely at the mercy of whatever they wanted me to do," she said. Her captors -- a rotating cast of soldiers, interrogators, and Libyan government officials whose ranks stretched from prison guard up into the Qaddafi family itself -- never seemed especially motivated by either malice or good will, she said, but rather by the bureaucratic paralysis and lazy self-interest that often marks autocracies.

Some days she was given cigarettes or allowed calls home; on others, she was stood up before hostile judges or blindfolded for hours-long interrogations. On most days, nothing happened. Gillis, who was variously detained on her own, with Foley and Brabo, or at one point with four African women in a small Tripoli women's prison, subsisted on small talk, her thoughts, and prayer.

"Nobody wanted to take the responsibility. And I think it's also a system that certainly breeds a lot of incompetence, and just reluctance to take any kind positive action. Because as long as things motor along in this very slow and very unproductive way, at least nothing's getting fucked up," she said. "It's a chaotic society. It labors under this mental blight of nobody ever expects anything to work out. They don't expect it to happen on time, they don't expect it to happen in a speedy manner. They don't expect competence."

One detained journalist, UK freelancer Nigel Chandler, only made it out of Libya when prison guards mistook him for Foley, who they had been ordered to move out of jail and into a safe house for eventual release. The bureaucratic mix-up delayed Foley's release from prison -- and thus Gillis and Brabo's release from Libya -- by a week, but it may well have saved Chandler's life.

Gillis, who earned her PhD in history from Harvard University only months before leaving for Libya, where she reported as a freelancer for The Atlantic and USA Today, kept meticulous records of her time in detention. She was held for two nights at a temporary detention facility in a military camp in Surte, about 200 miles behind the front lines.

"We were being guarded by two -- really, they looked like teenagers. Eighteen, 20 years old. And they'd be cleaning the gun, or taking the clip out and sticking it back in, just making these gun noises to keep us on edge. And it worked," she said. "I was certainly worried about getting raped. It didn't happen. Once we got to Surte, the danger zone for that had largely passed. I was very worried about it. I know the guys were too. They had their hands tied behind their backs. They wouldn't be able to do anything."

From Surte, the three were moved to a military detention center in Tripoli. Brabo was separated from Foley and Gillis, who shared an office-like cell. They stayed for 12 days, during which they had no news or contact with the outside world. Though their fear had subsided, the two struggled against boredom.

"We did favorite books, favorite movies, life history, romantic life history," she said. After they ran out of topics to discuss, they took turns retelling movies that only one of them had seen. "We're went through them scene by scene," she laughed. "You have to imagine it's actually George Clooney saying this, and not me," she'd told Foley. "And we prayed. We prayed a lot. We prayed all the time."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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