TRIPOLI, Libya — An American writer and filmmaker who ended up in Libya's most notorious prison during the turmoil of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi feared he would be one of the dictator's forgotten victims.
When rescue came this week, Matthew VanDyke told Associated Press on Saturday, he did not at first believe his ordeal was over.
A crowd wrestled open his Libyan jail cell after six months of tortuous solitary confinement. He feared an angry mob that believed he was a CIA spy. It was rebels and prisoners breaking the 32-year-old from Baltimore out of Tripoli's Abu Salim prison, he told Associated Press Saturday.
VanDyke was captured in March by government soldiers in the eastern oil town of Brega and then held incommunicado for six months in Tripoli — a third of it in a tiny four foot by seven foot (1.2 meter by 2.1 meter) cell.
"I was in solitary confinement the whole time with nothing to do but stare at the wall," said VanDyke, speaking outside the Tripoli hotel where he is now staying. Lanky and bearded, he wore his loose, dark prison uniform, the only clothing he has.
He described the months of enforced isolation with nothing to do as a kind of "psychological torture." He didn't realize when his 32nd birthday came and went. To distract himself, he read the ingredients on the milk cartons he received with his meals.
"When I got a German milk box somehow that had five languages on it, that was quite a treat," VanDyke recalled. "Keep that one and try to learn words in various languages — anything to break the monotony of staring at a wall."
His only human interaction was with the guards that brought him his food. Though when he was transferred to Tripoli's Abu Salim prison, all they did was slide his plates through a metal slot.
He feared he would be cut off from the world for decades — no one knowing whether he was alive or dead.
VanDyke hadn't come to Libya in March to work, but rather to visit Libyan friends caught up in the mad euphoria of the early days of the uprising against Gadhafi in the east. VanDyke had just finished traveling from Iraq, through Iran and into Afghanistan by motorcycle.
He was riding in a pickup truck through the oil town of Brega snapping pictures of smiling children when a surprise advance by government forces caught him and his rebel friends unaware. He doesn't remember what happened next.
"Then I woke up in a cell with a man being tortured in the room above me," he recalled. They took his footage and camera, briefly interrogated him and then he was flown to a prison in Tripoli where he stayed for 85 days in a cramped cell where there was barely room to move.
Around a dozen foreign journalists were taken by Gadhafi's forces in the fluid desert battlefields of eastern Libya, including a team from the New York Times, Agence France Presse and a batch of freelancers.
All were released in a matter of weeks, save for South African photographer Anton Hammerl, who was left dead in the desert after he was shot in the stomach by government troops.
VanDyke had no media credentials, and it is not clear what the Gadhafi regime thought he was doing or why he was held. The government denied his existence until just a few weeks ago.
By the light of a cell skylight the size of a dinner plate, he recorded his days in solitary on the wall next to marks made by the cramped room's previous occupants. His row grew to two to three times the others.
"And that's when I realized there was a big problem with my situation," he said.
Eventually, without explanation, he was transferred Abu Salim. In 1996, Gadhafi massacred 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim. But VanDyke found it to be an improvement, with a larger cell containing a bathroom.
"I had more room to pace, so I started pacing back and forth so that I could sleep and have dreams that weren't about prison life," he said.
He said the guards seemed confused about why he was being held. They passed on rumors he might be traded as a CIA spy or al-Qaida agent.
And then one day with stunning speed it was over. There was a series of loud noises and then he could hear a crowd breaking open the gates to his cell bloc.
As they bashed open his cell door he expected to be grabbed and lynched as some CIA spy. Instead they just moved on to the next cell.
"One guy said 'Gadhafi is finished!' and I didn't believe it," he said. Other prisoners hesitated to leave their cells, fearing it was some kind of trick.
VanDyke met an inmate who spoke English and had been inside for 15 years. The man helped bring him to the safety of a nearby mosque where people were handing out food to the escapees.
Since his escape, VanDyke has spoken with his mother, describing the conversation as "surprisingly normal." He has no immediate plans to go home. He wants to find the Libyan companions he last saw in Brega.
He said he told them "I would stay until Libya was free."