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U.S. writer recounts torment of Libyan jail

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 said Saturday, he did not at first believe his ordeal was over.

A crowd wrestled open his Libyan jail cell after six months of torturous 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 said.

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 4 foot by 7 foot 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.

His only human interaction was with the guards who brought him his food.

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.

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.

"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.