Baltimorean taking up the Libyan rebel cause

As described by those who know him, Matthew VanDyke comes off as footloose and maybe a little feckless. He has worked sporadically, sometimes getting freelance writing or teaching gigs but more often traveling to the Middle East for months at a time with plans to do something, someday, with his jottings and photography.

Leaving Baltimore for Libya last February was entirely in keeping with his wanderings. VanDyke wanted to support friends he'd made on a previous trip. They had gotten caught up in the uprising against the country's longtime strongman, Moammar Gadhafi, and the 32-year-old took his camera and netbook computer to capture the unfolding drama.

VanDyke, though, got too close to the action — in March he was captured by Gadhafi forces and imprisoned for nearly six months. After his surprise release when rebels forced open the prison in Tripoli, VanDyke decided to take up arms himself. In recent news photos transmitted worldwide from Libyan battlegrounds, VanDyke smiles and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with rebel fighters.

That shift, from journalist to fighter, has caused no small amount of consternation among human rights workers, governmental agencies and family members who had advocated and tried to locate him during the months in which he vanished into the Libyan prison system.

"We all worked hard to try and locate him and get him home safe for all those months, and it is a bit tragic to now see him try and join the fight as a rebel," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email.

The international rights group was among those who rallied to VanDyke's cause and were heartened when he was freed with others when rebels took control of the capital in August. But they are not the only ones concerned about his decision not to return to Baltimore but to instead fight with the rebels — a decision that leaves him vulnerable should he fall into trouble in the future.

"We'll take every situation as it comes, but we don't want to put American lives at risk," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who was one of several in the government who had helped VanDyke's family get information about him while he was missing. "It's like people who stay in Ocean City during a hurricane."

VanDyke's mother said she supports her son's decision to remain in Libya but is worried that he is fighting. "He's a young man who wouldn't even pick up a gun and go hunting," said Sharon VanDyke, a retired principal. "He's in the middle of it, and he has no training."

From recent news footage, VanDyke no longer appears to be the boyish young man who posed in front of pyramids and sphinxes in the photos that decorate his childhood home in South Baltimore. Instead, he cuts an almost cinematic figure, in camouflage fatigues and a burgeoning Che Guevara-like beard, with an assault rifle strapped across his chest, riding in a machine gun-mounted Jeep in a Libyan desert.

It is just the latest twist in an already unlikely saga, which drew widespread attention when his mother reached out to the State Department, elected officials, international aid organizations and others when she lost contact with him in mid-March.

Information was scant or unverifiable amid the turbulence: Arab Spring protests had sparked a violent government crackdown, launching a civil war that, backed by U.S. and NATO airstrikes, ultimately ousted Gadhafi. The Libyan leader has not been seen in months, although some loyalists continue to fight on his behalf.

It was not until August, when Tripoli fell, that VanDyke emerged — he had traveled to the eastern oil town of Brega, the site of intense fighting, and had been taken captive by Gadhafi forces and imprisoned, most of the time in the notoriously brutal Abu Salim prison in the capital.

After the prison was liberated, VanDyke chose to stay in Libya, saying he felt committed to find out what happened to the friends he had accompanied to Brega and to see the war through to its end.

"He had the opportunity to come home," Ruppersberger said of a flight arranged for Americans in Libya at the time. "That was what we all hoped he would do."

VanDyke's decision to stay troubles Bouckaert, who met with the Baltimorean in Tripoli after he was freed from Abu Salim. The prison was used by Gadhafi to detain, torture and massacre political opponents. While VanDyke has said that he was not mistreated there, he called it "psychological torture" to be in solitary confinement.

"Matt went through a horrible ordeal during his imprisonment at Abu Salim, and he really should be going home to get some treatment and be with his family," Bouckaert said. "I care about Matt and have had long conversations with him, and I don't think he is in the best frame of mind to make decisions for himself. His months in solitary confinement have deeply affected him, and I am worried about him."

In Baltimore, Sharon VanDyke said that during her telephone calls from Matthew, "he sounds exactly like himself." She doesn't have a way to reach him, but he occasionally borrows a satellite phone from reporters covering the battle in Sirte and calls home.

She realizes that after snubbing the government and humanitarian officials who had arrayed to help extract him from Libya, he's largely on his own now. She told him as much during a recent conversation.

"I said, 'You've burned all your bridges,'" she said. "If something happens, I can't go back to them and ask for help."

Her son's girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, an elementary school teacher in Baltimore, said she has told him repeatedly that this is not his war and that it's not his responsibility to find his missing companions. But given that they can speak only for a minute or so every once in a while, she said she has stopped arguing with him.

In a sense, Fischer said, she's less worried about him now than when she and his mother had no idea where he was.

"To some degree, he's made the decision himself, to put me and his mother in this position, so I'm not going to worry. I'm not just wringing my hands," Fischer said. "Before, it was, 'Who can we call, what can we do, who have we not talked to?' Now, he understands, his mother has made clear to him that if something happens, no one is coming to look for you."

Since his release from prison, VanDyke has frequently been interviewed by journalists, and has given sometimes conflicting statements on what he was doing in the country. He has said he didn't "come to Libya to do journalism," but also that he was "documenting history."

Fischer said she has challenged him over such statements. "I don't know why he keeps saying that," she said. "I said, 'Were you writing down notes? Were you taking pictures? Were you going to put this in your book?'" she said. "Well, then you were a journalist."

At least one group that sought to help him agrees.

"Matthew at the time, based on all the information we got, was a journalist," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, who coordinates the Middle East and North Africa program for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "He could be a journalist still."

Abdel Dayem said the committee assists not just members of the mainstream media but writers, bloggers and others who are not affiliated with a newspaper or broadcasting network. And in fact, they tend to be the most at risk when covering hot spots like Libya.

"They're more vulnerable and they get into more trouble," he said. "And when they do, they don't have the institutional backing."

For the moment, VanDyke has become a source for other writers, featured in articles and quoted by correspondents covering the war in Libya. A USA Today article on Friday, for example, simply quoted him as "a revolutionary fighter."

Should he write about this himself down the road, VanDyke might have to re-create much of it from memory.

"His camera is gone. His netbook gone. One of his hard drives is gone," Fischer said of what VanDyke lost after his capture.

But apparently he isn't totally bereft. Sharon VanDyke said her son's Libyan friends have provided him with clothes, food, shelter and other necessities.

"Someone gave him money," she said, "to buy a camera."