Clare Gillis Recounts Detention in Libya

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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

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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."

"Hello, I'm Saadi, I'm here to take you out of this place."

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."

"If any one of us had been alone, it would have been so devastating," she said. "Just the fact that we were able to be together for so much of our captivity ... carrying around this terrible knowledge that we had about Anton, it just made a big difference to be able to look over the room" and know she was not alone in her grief for Hammerl, though they always discussed him and his death in code for fear of reprisal.

Gillis was interrogated twice, once for six straight hours, always blindfolded. After so much time had passed with no news or apparent progress in her case, she was frustrated and, though she sensed the danger, grew combative with her interrogators. "I can't really explain why I was angry instead of scared," she said. "I was really pissed. I was angry, and that probably wasn't the best frame of mind to be interrogated in." She harangued her interrogators for the military's theft of her things, mocked them for mistaking her as Spanish, and argued with their insistence on speaking Arabic, in which she is minimally proficient.

On April 19, the three journalists were brought before a judge, who sentenced them to prison for illegally entering the country and reporting without permission. Gillis was taken to a two-story building that served as a small women's prison. She relied on informal sign language to communicate with the four other inmates, who were all from Libya or neighboring countries.

One day, a man who described himself as a personal aid to Saadi Qaddafi, one of Muammar's Western-oriented sons, visited to ask how she was faring. He brought a cell phone and allowed her to call her parents. He showed up again the next day. Then, late on the night of April 26, Saadi drove his armored SUV up to the prison. The prison guards panicked. "You have to get your stuff," they told Gillis. "Right away, right now, hurry hurry hurry."

"Hello, I'm Saadi, I'm here to take you out of this place," he told her. They drove to the Corinthia Hotel, which had housed most Western journalists in Tripoli until they had moved to the Rixos across town a few days earlier. Gillis was given her own room with a phone, which she used to contact her parents and a handful of friends. She was also given a laptop and internet access, which she used to read, to great surprise, some of the hundreds of news articles describing her captivity. She was outraged to read the articles quoting Libyan officials who said Hammerl was safely in the government's capivity.

Saadi told Gillis that she would be released within a few of days. I asked if she believed him. "I really did, I really did," she said, recalling Saadi's intention to release her on World Press Freedom Day on May 1. "That sounded like a great plan. I was really into it," she joked. Many of us back in the U.S., including Gillis's parents, believed her release was imminent as well.

After three nights at the hotel, however, it became clear that Gillis was not to be released. She was moved to a retired military officer's guesthouse, where she rejoined Foley and Brabo. Chandler was also there, having been brought to the house by mistake.

The four of them stayed at the guesthouse for nearly three weeks. They watched satellite TV, mostly Al Jazeera English, a network the Qaddafi regime has accused of inciting the protests in Libya, and countless movies, including the 1963 remake of Cleopatra. The group sometimes quarreled over their limited supply of cigarettes -- Brabo wanted to ration them -- but mostly remained friendly.

They frequently discussed their situation and how to move forward, puzzling over "the logic of the court system," on which their release seemed at the time to hinge, among other questions. "Do we need a lawyer? Do we need to demand lawyers? Is it significant that they're not handcuffing us to go outside anymore?"

Ultimately, Gillis said they resigned themselves to not knowing what was happening or how their case would resolve. "My conclusion was, look, we can speculate until the end of time. But there are a number of factors. The incompetence, the chaos of the situation, and the misdirection that you get in a police state," she recalled. "And between all of these factors, looking for logic, we are always going to be disappointed, and we're just going to break our heads open on the wall."

Finally, after three weeks, the journalists were again taken before a judge, who gave them a suspended sentence of one year and order their release. The next day, on May 18, a military convoy arrived at the guesthouse, blindfolded them, and drove them across the city to the Rixos Hotel, where most of the foreign press corps was staying. Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim welcomed them, announcing that the Libyan government had treated them well and inviting the four to stay in Tripoli and continue reporting.

"We'd been talking about the possibility of some publicity stunt," Gillis said, but the group was amazed at the bald absurdity of the government's apparent plan to spin their release. "We just got swarmed by these reporters," she said of their arrival. "It's uncomfortable for any reporter to be on the other side of the cameras and the questions."

They were tired and annoyed at having to face the reporter scrum at the Rixos, but happy to finally be on their way to freedom. Hungarian diplomats picked them up at the hotel and drove them to their embassy in Tripoli, which was informally representing U.S. interests in the country.

The next morning, a Hungarian diplomatic convoy drove the reporters to the Tunisian border three hours away. After spending all day waiting at long immigration control lines, they finally crossed the border into Tunisia and out of Libya. Brabo was whisked away by Spanish diplomats based in Tunis. On Friday May 20, Gillis, along with Foley and his brother Michael, took a long series of flights back to the U.S.

Gillis's parents, who had spent much of the past month and a half in New York and Washington raising awareness for their daughter's case, met her at the airport. "I was just so happy to be back in the country, to see them again," she said. "They're just incredibly strong people."

"I remember Jim said to me at some point, when we were still in the same cell at the military detention center, 'Look, I could do another couple weeks of this, it doesn't bother me that much. It's just not knowing how my family is, is making me absolutely crazy,'" she said. "It was bad but it wasn't terrible. But whatever our families is imagining is happening to us is a thousand times worse than what actually is happening to us."

Finally home in New Haven, Connecticut, Gillis's days are filled with phone calls to overjoyed family and friends. The Libyan military took her cell phone, leaving her glued to the house landline for most of the day.

"I'm so happy to be able to be with my family again, I'm so happy that my sisters came back," she said. "It's just normal family stuff. Hanging out, watching TV, arguing about stupid stuff. It's just nice. It's really nice."

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

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