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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.