What I Lost in Libya

While covering the Libyan civil war, the author was seized by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces and held in captivity with two colleagues; a third was killed. This is the story of how an academic found herself imprisoned in Tripoli.
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Manu Brabo

Capture

Tuesday, April 5, started off as an exceptionally successful day. We had located the ever-changing front line of the Libyan civil war, a conflict we had come from all over the world to cover. Before the day was over, it would be exceptional in another way entirely—brutal, heartbreaking—as our initial success made us forget the cardinal rule of war reportage: don’t die.

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Clare Morgana Gillis’s Dispatches From Libya

The freelance journalist filed for TheAtlantic.com before being captured by Qaddafi's forces. Read how her Libyan adventures played out in real time.

There were four of us that morning, freelancers who had already racked up our share of near misses, together and separately. I’d known Jim Foley, a fellow American, the longest. He’d come to Ben­ghazi from Afghanistan in time to catch Qaddafi’s attack on the city on March 19, and he and I had been close ever since. He tended to address other men as “brother” within seconds of meeting them. Manu Brabo, a rangy Spanish photographer, also had a ready grin. We hadn’t gone out reporting as a group before, but we’d spent a lot of time talking in the media center and the hotel. I’d met Anton Ham­merl, a photographer from South Africa, only a few days earlier. His quiet charisma and professionalism had impressed me during an interview with a general in Ben­ghazi, and later that evening he had bounded up to me in the hotel, showing off a picture of his son, with whom he’d just chatted on Skype. And then there was me, covering the conflict for The Atlantic, USA Today, and other publications. The dissertation in medieval history I’d completed less than a year earlier had left me unsatisfied with academia and determined to work in journalism, where I could get a look at history being made.

Our spirits were high as we set out at 7 a.m. from our base in Ben­ghazi toward Brega, an important oil town in eastern Libya, where the front line of the rebel offensive had stagnated. At a checkpoint outside Brega, we dismissed our driver and secured a ride with some rebels, in a red van that we quickly concluded was a scout vehicle. “They would have more luck with two guys on foot with binoculars,” Anton observed. As we rode, I used the zoom lens on my camera to scan the crest of a hill above us. When the van stopped near some other rebel vehicles, we climbed out.

“Qaddafi soldiers at 300 meters,” a rebel in another car told us. Bullshit, I thought. The four of us looked at each other and shook our heads. We’d seen no such thing, and had frequently gotten faulty intelligence from rebels. We milled about for a while, asking if we could ride with the rebels when they launched a counteroffensive. We moved to the side of the road in case of shelling, which tended to hit the center of the road. That’s when we heard automatic gunfire; the warning was right. I heard Anton shout, “We have to get in a truck!” But the only rebel vehicles in sight were fleeing the scene and we weren’t close enough to get in, so we ran deeper into the desert to take cover in a small copse of trees.

Manu and I reached the trees first and fell flat on our bellies; nettles embedded in my palms. Jim was a bit behind, and beyond him lay Anton.

“Help!,” I heard Anton cry out. “Are you okay?,” Jim shouted back. “No,” came the weak reply.

Two tan army trucks pulled up on the side of the road, and several men jumped out. Jim stood, held up his hands, and said “Sahafa (Press) over and over, and the soldiers didn’t shoot any more. Lying under the trees, I couldn’t shake from my mind the rebel propaganda about African mercenaries Qaddafi sent into the field, pumped up on Viagra and ordered to rape. Play dead, I told myself.

An older-looking soldier I took to be the squad leader ran over, screaming, and clocked me in the face with his fist. I didn’t feel anything. It was like watching a scene in a movie: Boy, that doesn’t look good. And now they are dragging her by her hair to the trucks.

I saw Anton lying on the ground, his blood darkening the sand, as soldiers tied our hands and piled Jim, Manu, and me on the floor of one truck. The squad leader, sweat pouring off his face, sat on my legs. “You make patrol, you make patrol!” he shouted gleefully, slapping my ass again and again. (Manu would later tell me, “Don’t take it personally. He slapped my ass too.”) Jim’s eyes were closed, and blood was pooling under his head. “Are you okay?,” I asked him. The squad leader slapped my head and said “Don’t talk!,” but not before I heard Jim murmur “Yes.”

Mish kwayyis” (Not nice), the squad leader said, as he tried to cover my hair with my scarf. After giving up, he fondled my breasts briefly, then patted my head in what seemed an attempt at tenderness. His poor wife, I remember thinking.

At what seemed to be a civilian house repurposed as a temporary military camp, our captors seated us on turquoise couches and inspected our injuries. None of us had been hit by the gunfire, but Jim and Manu had scalp wounds from the butts of AK-47s, and Jim and I each had a black eye. Eventually, the soldiers gave us Marlboros, Fanta Orange, and chunks of some kind of meat in red sauce.

We were guarded by two young men with AK-47s, and other soldiers wandered in and out, sometimes taunting us. When the guards let us speak to each other, Jim told me, “Anton’s dead.” “Are you sure?,” I asked. “Absolutely,” he replied, as Manu nodded. I’d lost my glasses when the soldier punched me, and did not see what Jim would later describe as a “serious abdominal wound,” and Manu, as “His insides were on the outside.”

They blindfolded us and stuffed us into a small sedan, three tall people with their hands bound behind them. This is what they mean by a “stress position, I remember thinking. I don’t know how long that ride lasted—two hours, three?—but it seemed longer. The car’s sound system played a somber remix of Qaddafi’s famous “zenga zenga” speech—in which he pledged to purge Libya “alley by alley”—set to the martial theme of the movie 300. At the point in the speech when the Leader rhetorically demands “Who are you?” the guard who was riding shotgun instructed us, “Say it, say Qaddafi.” “Qaddafi,” I mumbled.

Upon arriving at a military base in Sirte, we were questioned briefly and then locked in adjacent basement cells. Mine had a mattress on the floor, with a blanket. After some food and cigarettes, I carved our initials and the date into the wall and went to sleep.

The next evening, a Libyan state-TV crew came to film us. The segment, in which an interviewer asked us to describe the rebels—I said “happy,” Manu said “stoned,” and Jim said “ill-equipped”—never aired, probably because our black eyes and bruises wouldn’t have played well.

The following morning, we were brought out of our cells, this time with our hands free and no blindfolds, and loaded into a white van with another captured reporter, from Algeria, and his two camera­men. They had a whole pack of Rothman cigarettes, and the guards gave us butter biscuits. We smoked and ate and joked, dubbing the vehicle the “sahafa party van.” In a more serious moment, Jim, Manu, and I agreed that for our own safety, we couldn’t say anything about Anton. “If someone judges me for that later, I don’t care. They were not in my position,” Manu said, voicing our mutual sorrow, confusion, and animal sense of survival.

After a five- or six-hour ride, we were in Tripoli, where banners with pictures of the Leader and the rising-sun motif seemed to hang from every building. We arrived at one complex only to be directed to another, which bore the legend, in English, without security there is no freedom. But apparently that wasn’t the right place for us, because we left and returned to the first complex. This time, the guards came to our van, shouting “Heads down!” and pushing our faces into our laps. They blindfolded us, tied our hands behind our backs again, pulled us out, and led us into our new cells. Sahafa party van, end of the line.

Interrogation

It was about midnight when we arrived. Jim and I, thank God, were placed in a cell together. In the absence of a male relative, evidently, our hosts entrusted me to the custody of a countryman. Not long after, a guard came in, waving a blindfold. “You, come with me,” he said to me.

The guard led me up several flights of stairs to a room where at least three other men sat: the translator, someone he called “The Inspector,” and a third man who occasionally added his own questions. I felt that other people were in the room, too, but perhaps that was merely the blindfold doing its job.

As I sat down, a thought popped into my head: It may look as though these guys are in charge, but you’re the one with all the power. I’m not sure where this absurd pep talk came from; maybe I’d read too much Foucault in graduate school. The setting even reminded me of my comprehensive exams, during which I’d sat in a small room with four distinguished scholars. But there I’d had tea and biscuits, and I could look my interlocutors in the eye.

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Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. She recently completed her PhD in history at Harvard University.

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