Since escaping Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison in August, American Matthew VanDyke has either been fighting “lunatics” loyal to Moamer Kadhafi or giving battlefield tours to foreign journalists.
The Baltimore, Maryland, native said he joined the uprising against Kadhafi to free Libya of the privations of the mercurial strongman’s 42-year rule and open it up to the pleasures of the American way of life.
“Nobody needs to die. Even Kadhafi lunatics need to enjoy McDonalds and all the other good things that are going to come once Libya is free,” said VanDyke.
“The future of Libya is very, very bright,” said the American, sporting combat fatigues, his hair blowing in the desert breeze beneath a long, brown headdress.
VanDyke was captured by Kadhafi’s forces shortly after joining the Libyan uprising as a volunteer fighter in mid-March. He was jailed for more than five months and spent most of that time in solitary confinement in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, where he turned 32 in June.
He escaped with other prisoners in August when troops loyal to the National Transitional Council overran the capital, forcing Kadhafi and his family to flee.
VanDyke said Libya had always been very “special” to him and it was the “suffering of Libyans” which brought him here in March.
He has no formal military training but said he has enough “combat experience now” as he takes charge of a Soviet-designed dushka heavy machinegun mounted on an open-top van criss-crossing the battlefield around Kadhafi’s hometown Sirte.
“I have friends here. It was a clear decision to me. People were suffering,” he said, recalling that it was only later that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other Western leaders took up the rebels’ cause.
“I came here when there was no NATO or Sarkozy. It was only us against Kadhafi,” he said, as two Grad rockets fired by the ousted strongman’s loyalists strike just metres (yards) in front of him.
“Most guys here are not trained, even Kadhafi’s diehards,” he said, adding his worst time in Libya was when he was captured and his family and girlfriend back home thought he was dead.
“I was in solitary confinement and that is a lot of psychological torture. My family and girlfriend were worried. Kadhafi’s men had captured me and were planning to execute me,” said the volunteer fighter, who had previously travelled across Iraq on a motorbike.
VanDyke is accompanied by his Libyan friend Nouri Fonas and the two have seen some of the fiercest fighting of the uprising, including the battle for the key oil refinery town of Brega as well as the continuing struggle for Sirte.
When they are not fighting, the pair are escorting foreign journalists to the front.
“When there is fighting, I am on my dushka. When there is no fighting, I am taking journalists on battlefield tours,” he said.
“I know a journalist’s job. It is important to tell the story.”
VanDyke acknowledged that capturing Sirte was proving difficult in the face of the ferocious resistance put up by Kadhafi loyalists.
“Sirte will take a couple of weeks. Snipers are too much of a problem,” he said.
“I too have had some close calls and returned fire. Those guys are diehard fanatics.”
He vowed to see the campaign through to the end, however.
“My family has raised me to keep my commitments. They know I will return after the war is over,” he said, adding that his mother had been unaware he would be joining the rebellion when she dropped him off at the airport.
“The war is very harsh right now. The fighters have a lot of heart. They are doing their best. Their weapons are old, most of them from the 70s and 80s, some even from World War II made in the US.”
He said that when the final victory came, he wanted to celebrate it back home.
“I want to enjoy in America. I want to be with my girlfriend and have some beer.”