GlobalPost correspondent James Foley and Clare Gillis, a freelance reporter for USA Today and The Atlantic, returned to the U.S. over the weekend after being held captive in Libya for 44 days. The two were captured by Libyan forces on April 5, along with Spanish photographer Manu Brabo.
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NEAL CONAN, host:
Earlier this week, we spoke with NPR foreign correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and senior producer J.J. Sutherland about some of the challenges of covering Cairo, Tripoli and Benghazi over the past few months.
Journalists James Foley and Clare Gillis know those risks firsthand. They were captured by Libyan government forces while covering the civil war, held in Tripoli for a month and a half and only released a week ago today, and they join us now from our bureau in New York.
James Foley is a correspondent with GlobalPost. Clare Gillis, a freelance reporter for USA Today and The Atlantic.
And thanks very much for coming in, both of you. Welcome home.
Ms. CLARE GILLIS (Freelance Reporter): Oh, thank you so much, Neal. We're really happy to be here.
CONAN: I bet you are.
Mr. JAMES FOLEY (GlobalPost): Thanks so much for having us.
CONAN: And is it fair to say that the worst hour of this long ordeal was the first hour?
Ms. GILLIS: I think definitely.
CONAN: Tell us what happened.
Ms. GILLIS: You want the story from where? From when the shooting started?
CONAN: Well, you took a cab up to the oil port of Brega. Is that right?
Ms. GILLIS: Yes. We did. We took a taxi to Brega. We sent the taxi home, and basically we wanted to ride with the rebels close to the front lines because it was starting to get difficult to get through checkpoints if you were in a civilian car. So we did that.
And we were riding around with the rebels for a while, and then we were walking on the street. It's on the main road. And what happened is we got some intelligence that Gadhafi ground troops were 300 meters up the road, and we pretty much looked at each other in disbelief. We didn't believe that it was true. They have very long-range missiles, and they just don't tend to get that close to the opposing ground forces.
CONAN: And James Foley, when she says we, it's you and Clare Gillis and a couple of other people.
Mr. FOLEY: Yes. It was myself, Clare and Manu and Anton, so it was four of us. We tried to get off the road, as she mentioned, because we were afraid of projectiles, missiles.
And immediately two heavily armed Gadhafi vehicles came over the rise of the hill shooting heavy AK-47 fire. We pressed ourselves as close as we could to the ground and immediately knew that we were in danger for our lives by the amount of gunfire and how close they were coming.
CONAN: And as I read the story, it was you who shouted out: Is everybody OK?
Mr. FOLEY: Well, I had I had heard Anton call for help. He was in front. He was hit, and I heard him, I heard him yell help. And I called Anton: Are you OK? And more faintly he said no. And that was the last I heard of him. That was the last we heard of him.
CONAN: Clare Gillis, you - the three of you were bundled into the back of a truck, and Anton was just left behind?
Ms. GILLIS: As far as we can tell, that's what happened. We all glanced down at him as we were being taken by, and I saw him just lying in a pool of blood. And then we were put into the truck and our heads were pushed down. We weren't able to see anything that happened after that to him.
CONAN: Anton Hammerl from South Africa, lived in London. Has his body ever been found?
Ms. GILLIS: Not to this not to this day.
Mr. FOLEY: We've had reports, and we're talking with members of Human Rights Watch and other people in the United Nations. And fortunately the rebels appear to control that area where we were taken, so we're really trying to pinpoint the exact location. It's difficult because it's relatively desert terrain.
CONAN: You two and the third person, Spanish journalist Manu Brabo, were then taken to Sirte first, Colonel Gadhafi's hometown.
Mr. FOLEY: We sure were. We were blindfolded and our hands were tied in a small sedan. And it was an excruciating ride, and it was scary as well because we kept being harassed at different checkpoints, having no idea where we were.
Finally, we arrived in Sirte. The first night we were interrogated a little bit. The next night they wanted us to appear on state TV, Libyan state TV. We all kind of decided this is actually a good thing because maybe our families might see this somehow, and it would also make - actually ingratiate us with these authorities.
CONAN: Clare Gillis, even a little interrogation goes a long way. It's not fun.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GILLIS: Yes, indeed. Indeed.
CONAN: What was it like for you?
Ms. GILLIS: Well, the main interrogation that I had was actually when we got to Tripoli. And we showed up in Tripoli from Sirte around midnight. And I was taken in for questioning about 1:00 in the morning. I was blindfolded. I think around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning they told me, oh, if you're tired, you can take a break, you know, we can finish some other time. And I said no, I'd like to finish. And then I heard the morning call for prayers, then I heard the birds start chirping. And by the time they took the blindfold off to have me sign the papers, it was 7:00 in the morning.
And it was really terrifying because by the end they were pressing hard with their main focus, which was you're a spy. You came here to be a spy. And then they made me sign about 20 pages of paper, which had written out in Arabic everything that I'd said in the interrogation. And I got really upset at that point because I had no idea what I was signing.
CONAN: You don't read Arabic.
Ms. GILLIS: I can read the Alphabet and I have a very primitive vocabulary. But I was in no position to have an idea of what was going on.
CONAN: James Foley, there are periods, undoubtedly, of terror like Clare Gillis is just describing. If you're being held - at least it was my experience. This was long ago and in different place but there seemed to be long periods where very little happened. And it was...
Mr. FOLEY: Yeah.
CONAN: ...you know, hard to explain to somebody, but it was incredibly boring.
Mr. FOLEY: So true. So true. Clare and I were in a cell together for 12 days and, you know, I'm just so thankful we had each other because it was incredibly boring. We couldn't go outside. We couldn't have access to any literature and really couldn't even see the sunshine. And we spent so much time trying to piece together what was going to happen next, which was very difficult. So turned to a lot of prayer, some, you know, exercise in a room (unintelligible) and you know, different topics of conversation over the nights, you know, life stories, most influential movies, people. So we tried to make it happen and just - just waiting in this kind of cell, not knowing what was their next move.
CONAN: Clare Gillis, what were your guards like?
Ms. GILLIS: They - I mean, there were a whole bunch of different characters. Some were very friendly and would come by just to see how we were doing and toss us a few cigarettes, which we asked for, I think, pretty frequently. Some seemed to come by and - this was more in the prison, not in the military detention center - but they seemed to take some joy in taunting us with, you know, saying God, Moammar and Libya, that's it. And tell us how great the leader was and just try to get a rise out of us in one way or another. So it was really - you know, you see the full spectrum.
CONAN: And through this, there is still the specter of what happened to Anton Hammerl. That has to be in your minds and worrying - well, at this point you can't have come to any other conclusion than that he was dead.
Mr. FOLEY: Right. It was by far the hardest thing we had to deal with. Manu, Clare and myself, we all knew on some level that we had to hold this secret until we were free and able to speak, or we might put ourselves in danger. But it was just so difficult knowing that, of course, of course he had - we knew he had a wife. We knew he had three kids. And we knew he was only planning a two-week trip. And we were filled with a lot of guilt and a lot of a lot of, a lot of knowing, wow, our parents can at least have a chance of seeing us, and Penny, Anton's widow, will not.
CONAN: I was held with people from Spain and people from Brazil and a couple of Americans, myself and another person. And we were afraid sometimes that all our guards spoke English, or at least some of them did. So we tended to communicate in - all of us could manage really bad French...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: ...between us. Did you - were you afraid that if you talked about this you would be overheard and this would be a problem?
Ms. GILLIS: Absolutely. And we did talk about him - not frequently. He was on our minds a lot more than he was talked about between us. But whenever we did talk about him, we referred to our friend. You know, I'm feeling very sad about our friend. And we would say prayers for him and his family all the time, just to ourselves.
CONAN: After this long and strange period together, then you started to move around. Things started to happen.
Ms. GILLIS: Yes. We were taken to the courthouse for the first kind of official court proceeding. And at that point, thankfully, they dropped all the pretense of accusing us of being spies. The accusations were just illegal entry and reporting without permission. So that was actually - that was a very good thing, and I don't know if we even perceived how good that was at the time. But after that initially interview at the courthouse, we were moved to the civilian prisons, and then we were split up, because I had to go to the ladies' side and Jim and Manu went to the men's side.
CONAN: Well, let me ask Jim first. What was the men's side like?
Mr. FOLEY: It was really, really interesting. I was happy to be out of the courthouse. And immediately you're brought into this cell where there's about nine - I think the most people we had in one cell by - it was about 11, 11 people in a 12-by-15-foot cell, all Libyans except for myself and an Egyptian. And it was amazing. I mean, I was immediately treated as a guest. I was immediately offered a bunk bed, you know, the best food, chai, cigarettes. There was a real sense of camaraderie. These were all political prisoners. They were all in from charges as minor as sending a text message, making fun of Gadhafi, to an imam preaching against Gadhafi.
And you know, with the little Arabic I had, I started to learn each one's different stories.
CONAN: Clare Gillis, what was your experience like on the women's side?
Ms. GILLIS: It was quite different. None of them were political prisoners. In fact, they would occasionally have fights about who got to kiss Moammar's picture in the newspapers that we occasionally got. They were very pro-regime or doing a great imitation of it.
And what they seemed to be in for - no one spoke English at all. And so I got this from my primitive Arabic and sign language. But one girl was apparently raped by her boyfriend, and her boyfriend ran away. Her brother is a policeman and wanted to kill her and decided to turn her over to the authorities instead. And she was quite disturbed, I would have to say.
One of the other girls was - it was some other kind of sexual offense. And there was also an immigration violation with a woman from Niger, and another charge that I really can't figure out. And that was all the prisoners that were on the women's side, in my in - we were all together in one cell, but that was also the total number of female prisoners in this prison at that time.
CONAN: Clare Gillis reports for USA Today and The Atlantic. James Foley is a correspondent for GlobalPost. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And then, Clare Gillis, some high up people began to take an interest in you.
Ms. GILLIS: Yes, they certainly did, much to my delight. A man showed up to visit me one day and he said I am a friend of the engineer Saadi Gadhafi and he's very interested in your case. And we would like to move you out of this place.
And I said, well, I've just been sentenced to 15 extra - to 15 further days in prison. And he said, well, you know, we're going to try to get you out of this place, first of all. And don't worry about the 15 days. We want to have you out in two or three.
And then a couple days later, Saadi himself showed up to pick me up out of the jail in his armored SUV. And I was driven to a five-star hotel in downtown Tripoli, where I stayed for a few days.
CONAN: Quite a change in venue. James Foley...
Mr. FOLEY: Indeed.
CONAN: ...in the meantime, what was happening with you?
Mr. FOLEY: Well, I had a scary moment. One day one of the guards said I was freed. And so I immediately called through the jail, called through the hallway to Nigel, who was an English journalist who wasn't appearing to be getting any assistance, saying, Nigel, I'm about to be freed, I'll get your information out to your family.
Well, in the next five minutes, Manu, our colleague, and Nigel were both freed and I was left behind. I ended up being left behind for about a week. And I realized quickly I was the only Westerner left in the jail. And I was - I started to have some dark thoughts. I started to think, you know, maybe they're keeping the American guy as the ace in the hole. So I just...
CONAN: Did the phrase human shield pass through your mind?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FOLEY: Close to that. I didn't let myself go that far, but I thought maybe I was going to be a bargaining chip. And I just got by, by talking to the fellow Libyans. And they were so encouraging. And there was a kind of network of news inside the prison that was ultimately totally inaccurate, but it kept us all full of hope, you know? We thought NATO might be rappelling in at any moment. But it just kept us thinking, OK, OK, we got a chance. Maybe next five days, maybe seven days.
CONAN: Let me just summarize what happened next. It turns out that extra week was a case of mistaken identity. Another reporter thought to be you was in fact then moved up in the chain to be released eventually. You guys, with the help of the Hungarian diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Tripoli, were finally driven across the border into Tunisia, and then turned over.
Obviously, you called your families. Obviously, you connected with people. But what was the first thing that you wanted to do once you knew you were out?
Mr. FOLEY: We - Claire and I, you know, we knew right away the first thing -our moral obligation was to talk to the South African and Austrian embassies. Anton was a dual citizen. So we were able to arrange a meeting right away in Tunisia. And Anton's widow wanted to talk to us right away. She was - that's how strong she is. And that's how much she had also suffered. So much information passed forth by the regime on, you know, that they had Anton but they were - appears to be stalling and sending out different ways to confuse the family. And she suffered so much. We wanted to talk to her first.
CONAN: Well, our condolences to her and other members of Anton Hammerl's family. And our thanks to you both. We appreciate your taking the time to speak with us today.
Ms. GILLIS: Oh, thank you so much.
Mr. FOLEY: Oh, we'd just like to say that we're trying to get some money together for Anton's children on freeanton.org. or freefoley.org, where people can send donations.
CONAN: James Foley of GlobalPost and Clare Gillis, who reports for USA Today and The Atlantic. They joined us from our bureau in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.