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.

Within a week, guards came by at night and told me to get ready. “Am I coming back here?,” I asked. “No,” they said. “Hurry up!” I said goodbye to my cell mates and gathered my things, as the guards hurried me on.

Downstairs, Mr. Shebani greeted me and made an introduction: “Here is the engineer Saadi.” It was close to midnight, and in the dimly lit parking lot, Saadi seemed to glow in his white robes. I reached out to shake his hand, but he recoiled: “Sorry, I don’t shake hands.” His English was fluent and idiomatic.

Along with his two bodyguards, we climbed into his gold-colored armored SUV, and I noted with surprise that he drove himself. After gathering that I was fine, Saadi, like everyone else, asked me what I thought about the rebels: “Tell me, are they crazy?”

“They’re not crazy, they just want the freedom to elect their own leaders,” I told him. “Oh,” he said, and dropped the subject.

Our destination was the five-star Corinthia Hotel, its lobby a neoclassical cavern lined with velvet couches. I was put in a suite overlooking the seawall. More surprising, I was allowed access to the Internet, and I stayed up until 6 a.m. trying to figure out what was going on in the world. I was shocked to see that the Libyan government had sworn up and down that Anton was alive and well and being held in Tripoli. The papers noted that Anton—unlike Jim, Manu, and me—had not yet called home.

Over the next three days in the hotel, I settled into a rhythm of eating three meals a day, watching preparations for the British royal wedding on TV, and talking with my mom by phone every few hours. A security detail shadowed me whenever I left the room. I sat in the café and drank cappuccinos, eavesdropping on conversations held in English by a professional-looking group of Europeans who appeared to be part of a human-rights organization or other international delegation. Guys, I wanted to tell them, I’m right here. Get me out. But I worried about jeopardizing the diplomatic gears already in motion. I was in Saadi’s personal custody, and it would be embarrassing for him if I tried to escape. Besides, I had no papers, and what about my friends?

One afternoon, Saadi invited me to his penthouse suite, just upstairs from my own. Bowls brimmed with fresh fruit, and gilt-edged religious books were everywhere. He wore long robes again, this time dark blue with a pinstripe, and black-leather motorcycle boots with silver buckles.

We talked about the rebels and eastern Libya in general terms, and then I asked him, “How do you get along with your father?”

“As a father and son, very well,” Saadi replied in measured tones. “But I have many ideas for how to develop the country, that he doesn’t take seriously.” He spoke of an idea for a tourist town near the Tunisian border, a tax- and visa-free zone like those in Aqaba and Dubai. “I feel like my brother [Saif al-Islam Qaddafi] and my father don’t listen to me.”

“I hope you don’t take offense,” I said, “but that is the same kind of thing I have heard from the rebels. It’s what made a lot of them upset enough to want a new government.”

“I was not with my father on many things before the rebels started attacking him. But now I am with him, against them.”

“What do you think will happen in your country?”

“There is no future for him in this country—and there is no future for the rebels. He will not forgive them.”

I had the sense that Saadi was asking for my advice. He’d played professional soccer abroad and even tried producing movies in Hollywood, and he, too, seemed to be looking for a way out of the current situation. I felt a profound sense of irony as I watched the sun set from the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel with the son of a dictator, both of us wondering what our fates would be.

A Gilt Cage, and Freedom

The day after my meeting with Saadi, Mr. Shebani told me I could move into a house, where Manu and Jim would be joining me. There, the next three weeks would play out as the same day repeated again and again, with minor variations.

Manu did arrive, but instead of Jim, we received Nigel Chandler, a British freelance photographer, into the special custody we enjoyed. Though he’d been detained for a month and a half, Nigel’s case was unknown to the media. We quickly realized that someone in the prison office had made a mistake. While we all feared that Nigel would be sent back to jail, Manu and I also worried about Jim. After a week, though, he was delivered. “I thought I was the only one left,” he said.

The house where Saadi put us up belonged to a retired army general. It was luxurious, even opulent: satin bedspreads and silk drapes complemented white rococo furniture replete with intricate gilded flourishes. But NATO bombs kept us awake at night, some landing close enough to shake the building. The general himself stopped by on occasion and asked curtly how we were enjoying his house, and when we planned to leave. “I guarantee that we want to leave more than you want us to leave,” I told him.

We went back regularly to the courthouse, where the officials clearly believed we were still being held in prison. Who is in charge here?, I wondered.

Diplomats gained access to us on our 35th day of captivity. After Turkey closed its embassy in Tripoli, Hungary had taken over as the de facto “protecting power” for U.S. and British citizens in Libya. We were tremendously relieved to meet the Hungarians and hear that they were pursuing all possible channels to secure our release. (A Spanish diplomat visited Manu.) The diplomats’ comments confirmed our own thoughts: generally speaking, those in power wanted to free us, but no one wanted the responsibility of signing off on the actual release.

After eight more days, Jim, Manu, Nigel, and I were granted a trial. A judge in a shiny green robe told us that we would each be fined 300 dinars—about $250—and released. Our euphoria wore off as we waited again: first for paperwork from the courthouse, then again when we were locked in the paddy wagon while our guard watched a feeble pro-Qaddafi protest. We were free, but we still had to get out.

The next day, we were told to pack, and we thought we were on our way to Tunisia. But after being taken to the Rixos Hotel—where we were offered the option to stay and report from Tripoli with government permission—we wound up with our respective diplomatic hosts: Manu at the Spanish residence; Jim, Nigel, and I with the Hungarians in what felt like a Soviet-­era bachelor pad.

Every inch toward freedom seemed designed to cause us maximum frustration. At the Tunisian border the next day, we had to wait three hours while someone decided how to process our passports for exit, given that we had no entrance stamps. After the Libyan officials finally let us cross the border, we were driven to Djerba, Tunisia, where we met diplomats from South Africa and Austria—Anton was a dual citizen—and told them the full story of Anton’s death. We asked the diplomats whether Anton’s wife, Penny, wanted to talk to us. An hour later, they returned with a phone: she did.

“Hi, Penny, this is Clare.” I heard sobs on the other end of the phone line.

“Just tell me what happened,” she said. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

I told her the story. I spoke of Anton’s love for her and his family, and I felt my own tears coming. “What can I do for you, Penny? I want to do the right thing for him and for you guys.”

“You can tell his story, just tell everyone what happened. Tell his story, and tell your own.”

Jim and I spent the next weeks doing just that. But not before we got to hug our parents, when they met us, along with State Department representatives, on the jetway at Boston’s Logan airport.

A web site has been set up, www.friendsofanton.org, where prints can be purchased and donations made to benefit Anton Hammerl’s three children.

Presented by

Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance journalist currently in the Middle East.

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