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.

Then we went through the same questions as before. I asked if they had Googled me to check the articles I’d told them I’d written. “Yes, of course,” said the translator. “Which ones?,” I asked. He was annoyed. “All of them!” “Really?,” I asked. He huffed: “We don’t need to read Western newspapers. All say the same: ‘Qaddafi a dictator, oppresses his people.’”

The next morning, one of our regular guards woke us up. “You free,” he said, pointing to me. “Just me?,” I asked. “What about my friends?” “Just you,” he said.

Blindfolded again, I was taken to a building I later learned was the courthouse, or mahkama. I waited for about three hours, then the guards returned me to the cell I’d left that morning. “What happened?,” Jim asked me. “Absolutely fucking nothing,” I fumed, and tried to go to sleep. “Tomorrow, inshallah,” they had told me—“God willing.” Inshallah. Infuckingshallah. If there was ever a word I grew to hate in prison, that was it.

The next day, I was taken again to the courthouse. After some discussion, I was handcuffed. Then, to my delight, Jim and Manu were brought in. We hugged as well as we could with the handcuffs. We were certain we would appear in front of an official, apologize, and be sent on our merry way.

I was the first to go before the prosecutor. His translator was an odd little man with a moustache and a dapper suit, whose cell phone kept ringing. “You have to face two accusations,” he told me. “One, you enter the country illegally, with no visa. Two, you report without permission from Tripoli.”

“No one at the border asked me for a visa. And I had permission from the Ben­ghazi media center.”

“Prosecutor will review your case. You come back maybe one week.”

Jim and Manu went through the same routine, and we were all put into a paddy wagon. When it stopped, the guards motioned for the men to get out but for me to stay put. The door closed behind them, and the van drove off. This is not good at all, I thought.

Less than 100 yards farther along, the van stopped again. I got out and saw other women for the first time since our capture. This was the women’s side of the civilian prison al-Jdeida.

Women’s Prison, and a High-Level Intervention

From the moment I was split from my comrades, I was convinced that my bad situation had only gotten worse, and every subsequent sign seemed to confirm it. None of my new fellow inmates spoke English beyond how are you and sex—the latter being the reason for a couple of the incarcerations. My Arabic was regularly strained to the breaking point. And the four other women with whom I shared a cell—we were the only inmates on the women’s side—presented themselves as staunch counter­revolutionaries. Within minutes of my arrival, I watched two of them fight over who got to be the first to kiss a photograph of Qaddafi in the newspaper.

There was H., who’d been raped by her boyfriend. Her brother, a cop, had wanted to kill her to uphold the family’s honor, but cooler heads prevailed and she wound up here instead. She told us she was pregnant, even though she’d gotten her period soon after arriving. “My baby is dead,” she said, looking at me with eyes full of fear. “She’s crazy,” said M., a Nigerian serving time for an immigration violation. “There is no baby.”

B. was a mother of two, imprisoned for something I couldn’t understand, and she took a shine to me. “You’re my friend, and I’m your friend,” she said once, kissing me fiercely on the cheek. R., by contrast, seemed to be a troublemaker. She was the one who knew the word for sex, which she, too, was in for. She told me she had said no to the boy in question—who was locked up on the other side of the prison—but I was skeptical.

Within days of arriving at al-Jdeida, I got what I’d been dreaming of since the day we were captured: my first phone call to the outside world. A short, bespectacled man with gray hair, who spoke excellent English and was obviously paid to hover, delivered a new-looking cell phone to me, and I dialed my parents’ number, the same number they’d had my whole life. They weren’t home, but luckily their outgoing message included my mother’s cell-phone number.

“Hi, Mom. It’s me.” Tears came to my eyes as I assured her I was fine, and she told me she and my dad were at that moment in The Atlantic’s Washington, D.C., office, where they had earlier met with the magazine’s owner, David Bradley. They had been on the Today show that morning to talk about my predicament.

I was stunned. Jim and I had assumed that because we were freelancers, our publishers would do some research, publish the story, and call for our release. But we had no idea how quickly and thoroughly this had become a media affair. I learned of Facebook pages and interviews on TV and NPR.

I told my parents that Jim and Manu had also been fine the last time I’d seen them, and then they asked about Anton.

“Anton … I don’t know. He wasn’t captured with us.” I concentrated on the truth of this statement, and thought again of his family, waiting for the phone call that mine had just received, a phone call they’d never get.

Having been able to reassure my parents that I was all right, I never again felt as guilty and worried as I had in the first couple of weeks. From then on, it was just a question of time. A day or two later, I went before the prosecutor again, and he sentenced me to another 15 days.

On one of those days, I received a visitor. “My name is Mr. Shebani,” said a small man in a shiny, dark-silk suit. “I am a friend of the engineer Saadi Qaddafi”—the third son of the Leader himself. “He has taken a special interest in your case.” Mr. Shebani had a list with our four names on it, and I told him just what I had told my parents: Jim and Manu were on the men’s side of al-Jdeida, and I had not seen Anton since April 5.

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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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