Baltimore writer still missing in Libya

Sharon VanDyke's phone rang Monday afternoon, but after quickly dispensing with the call, she said, sadly, "Well, it wasn't Matthew."

The wait continues for the retired principal, who has searched for the past five months for her son, a 32-year-old writer and photographer who went to Libya to chronicle the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi but is believed to have been imprisoned with rebel forces. Now, with those insurgents on the brink of toppling Gadhafi, VanDyke is bracing for whatever that means for her son.

"I've been more worried in the last 24 to 48 hours than ever," she said Monday, after a mostly sleepless several days of monitoring the events in Libya from her South Baltimore rowhouse. "He's in the middle of it."

"It" being the NATO airstrikes and rebel fighting that brought the six-month insurgency to Tripoli this weekend for what appears to be the beginning of the end of Gadhafi's rule. Sharon VanDyke has been told that Matthew is in prison in the Libyan capital, but with events still in flux, she has not gotten any more recent information about him.

U.S. officials said they are committed to locating Matthew VanDyke and other Americans believed to be in the country, but could not offer any specifics as Gadhafi continued to hang on Monday despite heavy fighting as rebels took control of much of the capital city.

"It's still very volatile," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, who has been seeking information on the missing American. "We want to make sure he's safe and protected. We still have a long way to go. Gadhafi has a lot of firepower. He has the ability to hurt a lot of people."

A State Department official, requesting anonymity, told The Baltimore Sun that the agency remains "focused on the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens who are believed to be trapped or held in Libya." The department continues to monitor the situation by working with Hungary, which took over U.S. diplomatic interests in Libya after the American embassy there was shut down.

"As you know, the situation in Tripoli remains fluid, but we are focused on obtaining information about these U.S. citizens and assisting them to depart Libya," the official said.

Throughout the last several months, Sharon VanDyke has kept up a brave front. She and Matthew's girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, whom he met in Spain and who now teaches school in Baltimore, have agreed to never let a tear fall when they're interviewed; They don't want pity, they want attention. The focus, VanDyke said, has to remain on Matthew, and getting him home.

To that end, the 65-year-old VanDyke, who retired last year as principal of Federal Hill Elementary School, has spent much of the past five months developing contacts both in and out of government, and among media and international rights groups. She is careful to stay in close communications, yet cautious not to annoy someone who might prove helpful.

But despite accumulating more than 100 contacts, there came a point when that wasn't enough. VanDyke decided in May that she had to go abroad, even harboring the idea that she might try to get into Libya herself.

"I'm not one to sit back and let someone do it all," said VanDyke, a petite, steely-eyed blond.

With Turkey one of the few countries that still had diplomatic relations with the pariah nation, VanDyke had been trying to see the Turkish ambassador in Washington. Failing to get an appointment, she decided to go to Turkey.

"I figured there was a Turk in that country who would talk to me," she said. "I didn't tell anybody but my cat sitter. I didn't want anybody trying to convince me not to go."

As she flew there though, the ground shifted under her: By the time she landed, Turkey had joined most other countries and shuttered its embassy in the increasingly turbulent Libya. VanDyke continued nonetheless, knocking on the doors of various embassies in Ankara, telling her story and leaving Matthew's pictures.

VanDyke is accustomed to doing things herself: She has no siblings, her parents are both dead, and she and Matthew's father split up before their son, her only child, was born. That independent streak no doubt runs through Matthew as well: He has often traveled alone through the Middle East and had returned to Libya in early March to add to a book he was planning on his journeys.

He last called his mother and girlfriend March 12, saying he was en route with three friends from Benghazi, the rebel capital, to Brega, an important oil town that has repeatedly changed hands over the course of the fighting.

Information has been scant and hard to verify, especially as the fighting and the NATO bombings intensified. Through friends and sources that she will not name, VanDyke said she was told her son was taken prisoner. In July, she was told he was taken to a prison in Tripoli.

Fred Abrahams, a special adviser with Human Rights Watch, a worldwide nonprofit and advocacy group that has been helping VanDyke, said Monday that a high-ranking Libyan government official would neither confirm nor deny that Matthew VanDyke was in custody. But Abrahams said the rebels' successes in the past few days gave him new hope.

"It certainly offers the possibility to get new information," said Abrahams, who was in Tripoli from Aug. 4 to Aug. 11. "[Matthew] was taken in the company of rebel forces. Those forces are now in control of large swaths of the country."

Sharon VanDyke, who spent 42 years as a teacher and administrator in city public schools, says her son's travel savvy has gotten him through numerous tight spots — he's been detained or arrested multiple times during his travels through such places as Iraq and Iran.

Matthew's time in Libya, though, has been the longest VanDyke has gone without speaking with him, she said as she sat in a living room filled with pictures of her son from his travels. She is shown in some of them, having met him in places like Egypt and Morocco, where they posed in front of pyramids, and atop camels.

For all the anxiety his disappearance has caused her, she remains proud of the son who she says started reading at age 2 and became fascinated with the Middle East in recent years. Now, he has friends around the world, including those in Libya who encouraged him to return to the country and tell its story.

"I raised him to follow his dreams and give back to his community," she said. "And your community doesn't have to be your neighborhood."

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.