The American Filmmaker Who Became a Freedom Fighter in Libya
Matthew VanDyke has had an interesting few years. In 2008, the Baltimore-born filmmaker set off on a three-year motorcycle expedition around North Africa and the Middle East, pretending to be either Afghani or Icelandic to avoid hassle from jihadists or anyone else in the region who isn’t particularly keen on Americans. During that time, he popped into bin Laden’s old home, went to cockfights in Iraq, visited mausoleums in Afghanistan and generally had a pretty nice time from the sounds of it.
In February of 2011, as he was finishing up his trip, Matthew was contacted by friends in Libya who explained the burgeoning social strife in the country, telling him that their family members were being arrested, injured or disappearing completely. In a bid to help, VanDyke flew out and became a freedom fighter against Gaddafi’s forces. Until March 13, when he was hit in the head during combat and woke up in a prison in Sirte, before being transferred to two separate Tripoli prisons, where he spent a total of six months in solitary confinement.
After he disappeared, Matthew was described in the media as a freelance journalist, and various NGOs—including the Committee to Protect Journalists—lobbied Gaddafi’s government to release him. After he was eventually broken out of his cell by other prisoners, VanDyke returned to the battlefield, which pissed off a number of journalists, who accused him of choosing to be a “journalist” only when it suited him—i.e., when he wanted to go back to freedom fighting.
Those journalists obviously didn’t quite understand the full details of his case—specifically that he’d never told anyone he was a journalist—but he remains a controversial figure in certain circles (circles that presumably don’t have any access to the internet) nonetheless. Matthew’s latest documentary, Not Anymore: A Story About Revolution, focuses on the human impact of the Syrian revolution. I gave him a call to talk about his new film, his time in prison and the distinctions between being a journalist and a documentary maker.
Matthew on his motorbike in Afghanistan.
VICE: Hi, Matthew. What has your time in the Middle East taught you about humanity?
Matthew VanDyke: I’ve basically seen the full range of humanity, from the coolest to the worst. During my years in the region, there were times that I had problems and people helped me, showing me very generous hospitality. Some of the friends I made, especially in Libya, were higher quality friends than the ones I have in America, really. But, of course, I’ve also seen some of the worst things in Libya and Syria that I’ve ever seen. It’s the full range of human experience.
What was the worst experience you had during your time there?
The worst, I guess, was when I was in prison in Libya, hearing men being violently interrogated or tortured through the walls. I’ve seen people whose feet had been beaten, I’ve seen people Gaddafi had executed – dead bodies put in graves, unmarked except for just a concrete block. On my first day in Syria, I saw a baby without a head brought into the hospital. That they would even bring the infant to the hospital had a whole other level of horror to it. They were still under shock from what had happened, I guess, so they wrapped the child in a blanket and brought it there, just hoping that something could be done.
Libya Is Getting Better and Better for Teenage Arms Dealer
The gun sellers on Tripoli’s Al Rashid Street are doing a brisk trade. They’re chatting and laughing and all look like they’re about 17 years old. Younger boys are playing near the stalls, some of them riding BMXs and weaving in and out of the tables that comprise the weapons section of the Libyan capital’s central marketplace.
Most of the guns on sale here look badly made, but at least they’re dirt cheap. A trader wearing a baseball cap and gold chain introduces himself to me as Hamid and hands me a pistol. Hamid says the gun is from Turkey and he can do me a special deal, for the “business price” of 160 dinars (just over $125).
Six months ago the stalls here were laden with fireworks, as the city saw euphoric celebrations marking the two-year anniversary of the revolution. Libyans were overflowing with optimism and enthusiastically talking of the progress their country had made since Muammar Gaddafi was deposed, captured, and killed. But since then progress has stalled and the euphoria has disappeared. Many of the locally organized militias that helped to oust Gaddafi refused to disarm, preferring to stay strapped and cast themselves in the role of “guardians of the revolution.” Broadly speaking, the country remains split in two. On one side are the relatively liberal federalists from the north-western city of Zintan and their pals from the oil-rich Eastern province of Cyrenaica. On the other are the strutting Spartans of the war-ravaged city of Misrata and their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, who are currently trying and failing to lead a central Libyan government in Tripoli.
This Egyptian Lingerie Salesman Is Now an Illegal Weapons Dealer
Rising unemployment combined with rapid inflation has left many Egyptians jobless and desperate. High-profile violence and political instability have tanked Egypt’s tourism industry, a major player in the Egyptian economy. During the Mubarak era, before the Arab Spring of 2011, the police were more or less omnipresent: stationed on most street corners and extremely diligent when it came to snuffing out any sign of public dissent, crime, or infraction. Now though, many view the police as inept, undisciplined, corrupt, or simply absent. Their disappearance from the streets is leaving a power vacuum that is being filled by a crime wave.
In this fraught climate, families and business owners have taken to arming themselves. The porous border with Libya, combined with the widespread looting of police stations during the revolution, has flooded the country with a new stock of weapons. I sat down with Sayed—a lingerie salesman turned arms dealer, based in Port Said—to learn more about Egypt’s burgeoning private gun market.
A Mass Grave Raises Questions in a Libyan Ghost Town
At an army checkpoint on the way into the Libyan city of Misrata, an angry police officer with a pistol tucked into his pants demands I give a blood sample before locking me in a trailer. For what should be obvious reasons, this is a deeply paranoid town. When I eventually get into the center of the city, a protest against the Tawergha—a black-skinned tribe that used to live 25 miles away in the neighboring town of the same name—is in full swing. Worked-up young men tell me they’re ready to kill if they don’t get what they want.
The demonstrators want to know who I am. They want to know where I’ve come from and they want to know what I think about human rights. “So what do you think of this organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW)?” Hassan, a former English teacher, asks me.
I quietly assure Hassan that I view all human rights organizations as parasitic scum feeding on the aftermath of war and turning it into dirty money to be squirreled away into its employees’ snakeskin pockets. “They turn tragedy into PR stunts,” I tell him. “They have to transform victors into villains. That’s how they make their money. It’s sad. It’s perverse. But it’s all they know.”
Hassan nods slowly while other anti-Tawerghan protesters crowd around.
"Public opinion matters a great deal to us," he says, seriously. "During the revolution, Misrata withstood great pressures and made great sacrifices. It was a hero, a champion. But now people are starting to say that we are the bad guys. It’s not right."
The acid of toxic loathing that’s disfiguring Misrata’s public image is its intense hatred of the Tawergha tribe. It’s one of many tribal feuds that have festered since the revolution, further destabilizing the country at a time when the government is struggling to maintain any semblance of control. The feuds have also helped to ensure that violence, guns, and explosions continue to slosh around the country, staining the reputation of free, postrevolution Libya.
A Syrian Proxy War Is Being Fought in Syria
“If we all piss on them at the same time, they will drown.” The Sunni fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh tells me this while gesturing up the hill towards the neighboring Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen. Over the past eight days, fighting between these two neighborhoods in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli has claimed nearly 30 lives and resulted in over 200 injuries. But while Tripoli’s Sunnis may outnumber Alawites to a ratio of 4:1, there is little chance of either side gaining an advantage any time soon. Instead, an ongoing battle of attrition is being played out, in the middle of which the Lebanese army regularly finds itself caught.
Clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are nothing new. The two have been going at it for decades, yet they have started clashing far more regularly since the beginning of the uprising in neighboring Syria two years ago. This latest outbreak of violence began at the same time as an Hezbollah supported assault just over the Syrian border in the strategic town of Qusair. This has only served to fuel speculation that what’s going on in Tripoli is not just linked to the Syrian civil war, but is actually a directproxy of it—with the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen supporting embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh on the side of the rebels who are trying to topple him.
Saadi Gaddafi is “a fun guy” and not a war criminal, says his bodyguard.
Libya in Vitro
After Libya’s revolution in 2011, tens of thousands of citizens wounded in bloody guerilla battles needed good hospitals and doctors the war-torn country didn’t have. As a quick fix, the interim government established a medical program for Libya’s patients, sending them to some 44 countries with the promise that their medical bills would be covered. And because of its historic ties with Libya and its high-quality, under-utilized medical facilities, Jordan quickly became the top destination for Libya’s post-revolution wounded. Beginning soon after the death of Gaddafi in October 2011, Amman’s hospitals and hotels saw an influx of Libyans—a dozen per week were arriving at one point—and soon, a mounting tab of IOUs from Libya.
But the war-wounded weren’t the only ones getting a free ride. Amidst the dysfunction of the transitional government, many non-fighting Libyans took advantage of the system, using loopholes to receive treatment for non-war related injuries. Among some 60,000 total patients, an estimated majority of Libyans took advantage of Jordan’s expertise in dentistry, plastic surgery and in vitro fertilization. If you’re in the market for getting pregnant with a test tube, it turns out there are few better times for medical tourism than after your dictator of thirty years is removed through a violent uprising. Apart from Israel (which happens to provide free IVF to its citizens, all the time), Jordan boasts some of the best IVF care in the Middle East. In all, thousands of Libyan women were treated for IVF, some of them twice if need be, on the government’s bill.
ON THE ROAD WITH LIBYA’S LIONS OF THE DESERT
The smoke from Taha’s massive cone joint flowed through the cabin of our silver Hummer. The A/C was on high and blew long fingers of smoke to the back seat. We were all mellow. Taha’s aviator sunglasses hid his tiny black eyes as he cranked the volume on the Arabic Reggae beat until it became painful. Then he floored it.
Jesus Christ, he’s PTSDing again, I thought as the speedometer cranked past 100 mph.
“He has to drive fast here,” Hamid said in flat Arabic-accented Canadian English. “This is where the snipers were, and if we didn’t do this we were dead.”
The Hummer slalomed as we sped towards the sea west of Misrata. The dark asphalt was covered with sand on the edges, and I prayed Taha could keep the car from sliding out of control as it swung side to side on the twisting road. I kept thinking about what my father had taught me about a tire’s contact patch and how small it is; his father had been a champion racecar driver in Havana in 1920. I’ll never get to see Havana I thought sadly, convinced Taha was about to roll the car.
A white Mazda pickup appeared over a rise, coming straight at us. Taha expertly pulled right and slid the Hummer around him, lining us up on the sea road. We sat there for a second, staring at two T-55 tanks, burnt hulks that sat guard on the road like ghosts. Taha sat crouched in the driver’s seat, his sunglasses barely over the steering wheel as sweat covered his brow.
Hamid dialed back the music as Taha leaned back and we continued to Misrata.
“See, I told you he has to drive fast here.”
“Hashish no problem. Whiskey no problem. Music problem.” Taha said. His English was meager and talking to him was like conversing with George “The Animal” Steel. I looked at Lucian my cameraman.
“You get that?” I asked.
“Got it,” he said, sitting up next to me, taking the camera down from his face, rubbing it against his perfectly trimmed beard. At first I thought he was lying down next to me fearing for his life until I realized he was angling for a shot of Taha, the joint, and the speedometer.
I was back in the US after two trips to Libya in three months when I pitched Dan Rather with the idea of doing a documentary on Muammar Qaddafi’s death. I used to be one of the UN’s war crimes investigators in Libya after the war. I primarily looked at NATO’s bombing. But we were short staffed, and so I was also given the lead on investigating Qaddafi’s death. The UN wanted to know if he was “EJE’d” or Extra-judicially Executed as they say in international legal circles. It was an odd request I thought. Who gives a shit if he was EJE’d I asked? Should we give the guy a medal? If someone popped Bashar al-Assad earlier in Syria wouldn’t we all just be better off? Maybe so, but this was serious stuff so I went about it seriously doing two trips to Libya—November 2011 and January 2012—along with a team of about a dozen war crimes investigators.
Working for the UN is funny. Everyone thinks we have some great karmic authority. It is as if people say, oh, it’s the UN, how can we help? The reality is sometimes you show up at a site and an old bespectacled Libyan in fatigues and a beret tells you, “Take your fucking paper and shove it up your ass,” in perfect English. We drive around in huge white Land Rovers that scream “HERE I AM, SHOOT ME” and we are often confined to base for security reasons while our colleagues and friends in human rights organizations and the press call us from shisha bars on the beach in Tripoli telling us “It’s safe. Get your ass out here.”
We flew to Libya via Rome in November, shortly after Qaddafi was killed. There were 12 investigators, a chief of security, and a close protection guy that had the guns. The chief of security was a massive dark-skinned Brazilian and the close protection guy was a dashingly handsome Tunisian who never stopped smiling. We flew to Rome from Geneva when the Italian police showed up. It was a buffet of heavily accented English.
“What do you mean no guns?” the chief of security asked.
“Prego, we are sorry but there is a UN arms embargo on Libya. You must send your weapons back.”
“But we ARE the UN.”
Waiting for al-Quaeda: Will radical Islam take over in Libya? Watch Part 1 of our report from the ground.