Alum to Document Surging Violence in Syria
VanDyke fought and was captured with rebels in Libya last year
Published: Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, August 28, 2012 19:08
When Matthew VanDyke (GRD ’04) returned to the United States after being detained for six months in a Libyan prison, he was already planning his next trip to the Middle East.
“I’m going to start training … for the next Arab revolution,” he told reporters crowded around him at Baltimore/Washington International Airport when he landed on American soil last November.
In a few weeks, VanDyke will follow through on that promise. This time, he will be heading to Syria, where he hopes to film a documentary about the country’s ongoing civil war.
“Syria’s the next step in the Arab Spring movement, the next regime that needs to go,” he said in an interview with The Hoya. “This is the best way I can help.”
He will be filming alongside Masood Bwisir, a Libyan musician famous for singing rebel songs on the front lines during the Libyan revolt.
VanDyke, who has a master’s degree in security studies from the School of Foreign Service, has had a longstanding interest in the Middle East. According to his mother, Sharon, he begged his family to go on a vacation to Egypt during elementary school.
Between 2007 and 2011, VanDyke rode a motorcycle across the Arab world, working as a freelance journalist during the trip. He visited Syria between 2008 and 2009 and says that he saw signs of civilian dissatisfaction with its government even then.
“[Syria] was one of the countries where I heard rumblings of discontent. I was told a story about the police torturing somebody,” he said.
In February 2011, VanDyke called his mother and told her he was booking a flight to Libya so he could write, film and support his friends fighting the dictatorial rule of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Sharon VanDyke didn’t realize that her son would wind up fighting alongside the rebel forces, dressed in army-surplus fatigues and toting a gun.
“You don’t tell your mother you’re going to fight in a war,” VanDyke said at BWI last November.
On March 13, VanDyke and his companions were ambushed by Gadhafi’s forces while on a mission with the rebel army at the strategic oil port town of Brega, according to VanDyke’s website.
He spent the next six months in solitary confinement in a number of government prisons. He was not physically abused, but he told his mother that the isolation was a form of psychological torture.
Meanwhile, as VanDyke’s mother fervently lobbied for her son’s release, the Gadhafi regime denied having ever detaining him.
On Aug. 24, as rebel forces closed in on the capital, VanDyke’s guards fled, and he was able to escape to Tripoli. However, he was not ready to leave Libya just yet. VanDyke announced that he would not return to the United States until Gadhafi was pushed from power. He remained in the country until early November, manning a mounted Russian machine gun for the rebels.
Sharon VanDyke was not surprised by her son’s decision to remain in Libya after his escape or by his vow to return to the Middle East this fall.
“He was raised that if you start something, you finish it,” she said. “Though when I told him that, I meant not joining the lacrosse team and wanting to quit halfway through the season. I didn’t necessarily mean fighting in someone else’s war.”
Sharon emphasized that her son’s upcoming trip will be very different from his trip in Libya last year, and she does not expect him to engage in armed conflict this time around.
“It’s not the same as Libya, where he had friends and wanted to fight alongside them,” she said. “It’s a very different war.”
Yet the violence in Syria is escalating even as VanDyke enters the final stages of his travel planning. Fighting has reached the Syrian capital of Damascus, where dozens have died from shells and gunfire. On Aug. 20, United Nations observers left the country at the end of a four-month mission that failed to negotiate a ceasefire between the government and the rebel army. Overall, the death toll from the war is thought to exceed 20,000.
The dangers of traveling to Syria hit especially close to home last week, when freelance journalist and Georgetown Law student Austin Tice (SFS ’02, LAW ’13) was declared missing while reporting from the war-torn country.