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.

We got through the basics—how I’d arrived in Libya, why I was there—in civil tones. Then the Inspector asked, “If you were a professor at Harvard, why did you quit your job to come risk your life in Libya?”

I explained as best I could that I had not been a professor but a graduate student, and part of my training was teaching undergraduates. The academic job market was tough and demoralizing, and the rigidity of the academic lifestyle had never appealed to me that much anyway. I had suspected for a few years that I’d be temperamentally better suited to working as a reporter.

“Why you work journalist? You don’t study journalism, you study history!”

We eventually settled on the explanation that I wanted to see “new history.” I tried to convey to them that I’d watched empires rise and fall, blood flowing in the streets of Jerusalem, new worlds discovered—but all from the distant remove of Harvard’s Widener Library. I wanted to write about history as it was unfolding, when we didn’t yet know the ending.

“The Inspector does not believe you,” the translator warned me. “You are making the Inspector very angry!”

They grilled me about everything I’d done since arriving in Ben­ghazi six weeks earlier—where I’d stayed, whom I’d talked with, everything. I explained that I had no way to remember it all: it was in my notes, which had been taken when I was captured. They asked me how much I was paid for my articles, and because I didn’t want to seem to be profiting from their war, I lowballed the number.

“Pardon me, Miss Clare,” the translator said, “but you are very bad at your job! You don’t make any money.”

At one point, the translator commanded, “Answer in Arabic. We know you know Arabic.” When he switched to that language, I understood the phrase in which paper, but nothing more. That was the extent of my Arabic: enough to arouse suspicion, but not enough to make me self-reliant.

The translator eventually switched back to English: “What questions do your newspapers ask you? ‘Who are the rebels, and how is their training and military equipment?’ These are not newspaper questions, these are intelligence questions!” A short while later he added, “It’s clever of your government to send a woman. They think we won’t beat you!”

But soon he again assumed a confiding tone. “Tell us, Miss Clare. What do you think of the rebels? You can be honest with us.”

I went through my usual description: the rebels were ill-equipped, untrained, and undisciplined—­and, yes, a lot of them were high all the time. But they also said they wanted freedom and democracy, and I believed and supported that.

No one said anything for a minute. I continued to sense silent presences in the room, and sure enough, a new voice emerged, seemingly from right above my head: “You are a spy. Just tell us you are a spy.”

“I’m not a spy,” I said in a hollow voice. In Ben­ghazi, I’d come to feel I was living in a movie—riding around with rebels, interviewing generals and politicians, writing late into the night with all my buddies. This was the alternate plot of that movie. And people in movies who say they’re not spies invariably are.

The interrogation had begun at about 1 a.m. Now I heard birds chirping outside. I was tired and cold, and I could see where this was headed. “I’d like to stop now and go to sleep,” I said.

The men agreed, and I heard people leaving the room. The translator removed my blindfold and said, “You just have to sign these.” He handed me 15 or 20 pages covered with lovely blue Arabic. “I can’t sign that, I don’t understand it,” I pleaded. “What if it says I’m a spy?”

When he held out a pen, I started crying. Next to each place I signed, I put a green-ink thumbprint. I couldn’t help thinking how rich the Libyan archives must be—built, like those in all police states, on mountains of paper. I hoped the material would be secured, and not destroyed when the rebels took Tripoli.

It was 7 a.m. when I got back to our cell. I sat on my bunk and started crying again. Jim woke up and came over. “They think I’m a spy!,” I said. “I’m really fucked.”

“No, no way,” Jim said. “They can find out you’re a journalist, no problem. They’re just doing their job. It’ll happen to me tomorrow.” I was eager to be reassured, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

For the next 14 days, this cell was our home. What did we do in prison? We talked: favorite books, movies, life histories. We knocked on the walls and spoke to our neighbors through the electrical sockets. We heard from Manu through the wall and via the guards who visited us. We made balls out of the tape that I spent hours removing from the window frames. Push-ups, sit-ups, yoga. Showers. Prayer. Jim and I reenacted whole scenes from The Big Lebowski, and vowed that we would watch it again, with Manu, when we got out. Sleep was the greatest pastime of all—it literally passed the time.

As I lay in bed and waited for sleep to come, I would think of the times my parents and friends had told me to be safe, and I’d responded, “I’m very careful.” It wasn’t true, at least not always. I remembered talking with a friend the night before I headed to the Middle East. “I want to see the edge,” I’d said. “And I might not know the edge until I’m on the other side.” I’m on the other side now, I thought.

The inner door to our cell was made of metal grating, and Jim and I would climb it so we could look out the high window above it. The prison was right off a main road, and we could see a hospital, a soccer field, a parking lot. The window faced west, so I would climb up to watch sunsets, and feel fresh air on my face.

Once, a guard arrived while I was on the door, and I leapt down just as he opened it. He chastised and blindfolded me, and took me upstairs.

The same translator and the Inspector were there, and the guard made a hurried explanation in Arabic. “You’re climbing the door?” the translator rebuked me. “This is a military place. They will shoot you! You’re very curious, you know. It’s not good for you.”

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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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