Inside Gaddafi’s Libya: The Prison


Editor's note: GlobalPost correspondent James Foley was killed on Aug. 19, 2014 by Islamic State militants in Syria, where he had been held for close to two years.

In 2011, Foley spent 44 days in captivity inside Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. This is the fourth chapter of that story. For the full series, click here.

Megdi and I were shoved into a dingy office with steel cabinets, where a prison guard rifled through our clothes looking for contraband. The guard was especially rough with Megdi. In tears, he tried to explain that he was a journalist with MBC.

“Sahafa?” the guard said, “Sahafa this!” he shouted, sticking up two middle fingers.

We were led down a concrete hall past a puddle of filthy water, and down a long hallway lined with cells. An outer door was unlocked. There were two cells on either side of a small courtyard littered with breadcrumbs and cigarette butts. We had arrived at Al Jadida, a general prison.

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The guards opened the door on the right and I caught my first glimpse of my future cellmates. They were all on the floor, huddled around wooden bowls of macaroni. I had no idea what to expect. But they were welcoming. Megdi introduced us and explained that we were “Sahafa.”

“Welcome Jim!” a big Libyan named Abdullah said. Within minutes these guys, all of them Libyan, were treating me like a guest. After all the confusion and show of the courthouse, and bouncing around Tripoli on the rough planks of a paddy wagon, a feeling of calm swept over me. These, I thought, were my people.

They gave me a choice piece of chicken and I was offered a cigarette. They were all political prisoners, arrested under the wide umbrella of treason. Treason meant many things — from being from the rebellious cities of Zawiya or Zawara, to sending text messages, to possessing rifles. Every last one of them — there were eight Libyans in the cell with Megdi and myself — wanted nothing more than to see Gaddafi go down. It might be the only way they’d ever see their families again.

Rdwan, a 24-year old from Zawara, had the build of a soccer player and scars on his nose from continuous beatings. He showed me where the electro-shocks had been attached to his index finger. The rebellion in his fishing village near the Tunisian border had been stomped out in less than two days by a line of Gaddafi tanks. “I just want freedom,” Rdwan said. “We experienced 20 days of it before the tanks came. It was beautiful.”

From the cell across the courtyard, I talked to Mamoud, 31, who had been busted for texting, “Fuck Gaddafi,” to a friend. “They pulled me over and found three text messages,” Mamoud said in surprisingly good English. He said he had been an engineer for an American oil company. Others had been swept up by roving vans that were monitoring phone conversations around Tripoli.

On that first night, Walid from Zawiya offered me his bunk and took the floor. The others stayed up half the night talking and smoking. Sleeping with a blanket over my head would become routine. Women were being kept in a separate wing, but I wanted to see if Manu was in the same wing as me. I asked Mamoud’s friend, Tarik, if he’d heard of a Spanish guy being held in Al Jadida.

“Manu, Manu!” Tarik yelled, pushing his voice out the bars through the courtyard door. Amazingly, Manu shouted back from what sounded like the depths. “How are you bro?” I yelled. “Ok, and you?” he replied. I could tell just by his voice he was coping with the situation the same way I was — keeping friendly, and staying hopeful.

In that 12-by-15 foot cell, together with nine others, all you could do was go to the bars and look at birds clinging to the steel grating above the courtyard, or gaze up at the stars over Tripoli, or lie on a sofa made of woven rugs, waiting to smoke part of a shared cigarette. It dawned on me that this prison might be more removed, more insulated, than the first.

The cell wasn’t awful, just overcrowded. We had a functioning sink, a separate stall for a toilet and a shower. Al Jadida had been a criminal prison and outfitted like one. The regime let most of the criminal prisoners go in order to fill the cells with political ones, according to my cellmates.

There were six bunks for 10 people and light-colored roaches crawled around and over most of them. The guys who didn’t have bunks slept on mattresses woven from blankets and laid them crosswise on the floor to sleep. I was still wearing my jeans and blood stained shirt. Rdwan urged me to wash my clothes again, and I did. The next day I was happy that my jeans were stiff from laundry soap and a good drip dry. I used a yellow cloth ripped from a blanket for a belt.

“Five, maybe, seven days, Gaddafi finished,” Gheri, another cellmate from Zubrata, would say, looking at his beard in a triangle of shattered glass. It sounded good, but I wondered how these guys were so sure. Soon I realized they did it to stay sane.

After a week sitting in the same cell, nothing had changed. I waited for meal times, and waited to fall asleep after the late macaroni lunch. I woke up to my cellmates chanting prayers and to a reality that seemed increasingly bleak. I was still in prison, in the same cramped cell. Getting out somehow seemed more and more remote. This was a purgatory that no one outside Tripoli knew about. There was no telling how long I'd be there.

Mamoud told me about another freelance reporter named “Angel.”

“You mean Nigel?”

Mamoud nodded. My heart sank. I had heard this name while at the military detention center. I called out to him. His voice was weak but unmistakably English. He said he’d been there for more than 40 days, and he didn’t have much hope. “They don’t like me very much,” he said. I tried to imagine how dark his weeks had been in this prison, and wondered if we were being too optimistic about our chances of getting out.

It was difficult to focus my own prayers when the Libyan prisoners prayed five times a day. One of them was constantly reciting from the single pocket Koran they passed around.

When one evening the Haj mournfully called the evening prayer through the bars across the courtyard, I happened to be by the sink. Rdwan taught me how to purify my hands and arms with water. I decided I might as well go along with it. By the time I finished washing my feet and lining up on the prayer rugs, kneeling at “Allah Akbar,” I had unknowingly proclaimed my conversion to Islam. It must have been a sight for them — an American Christian trying to pray to Allah inside a Tripoli prison.

That very night, around 10 p.m., several guards called for me, and brought me out of the cell. In the hall I saw Manu and a man named Lutvig, a Tunisian Canadian, for the first time in a week. We were haggard but overjoyed to see each other. Manu told me he’d also been praying with his “mates.” Upstairs in the warden’s office, a distinguished man in a suit stood and said, “We felt you might want to call your families.” Strokes of disbelief shot through me. He gestured to a cell phone on the warden’s desk.

I said a final prayer and dialed the number. My mom answered the phone. “Mom, mom, it’s me Jim.”

“Jimmy, where are you?”

“I’m still in Libya mom. I’m sorry about this. So sorry.” I wanted to infer many things but the official was listening.

“Don’t be sorry Jim,” she pleaded. “Oh, Dad just left. Oh… He so wants to talk to you. How are you Jim?” I told her I was being fed, that I was getting the best bed and being treated like a guest.

“Are they making you say these things Jim?”

“No, the Libyans are beautiful people,” I said.

“I’ve been praying for you to know that I’m okay,” I said. “Haven’t you felt my prayers?”

“Oh Jimmy, so many people are praying for you! All your friends have been calling. Your brother Michael loves you so much!” She started to cry. “The Turkish embassy is trying to see you and also Human Rights Watch. Did you see them?” I said I hadn’t.

“They’re having a prayer vigil for you at Marquette. Don’t you feel our prayers?” she asked.

“I do mom, I feel them.” I thought about this for a second. Maybe it was their prayers strengthening me. I hadn’t thought about it because I had had no idea what was happening outside. But maybe their prayers were keeping me afloat.

The official made a motion. I started to say goodbye. Mom started to cry. “Mom, I’m strong, I’m okay. I should be home by Katie’s graduation,” I said, referring to my sister’s graduation in Boston, which was a month away.

“We love you Jim!” she said. I hung up and handed the phone to the official. I would replay that call hundreds of times in my head — my mother’s voice, the names of my friends, her knowledge of our situation, her absolute belief in the power of prayers. She sounded okay, even with the crying. She sounded strong. I returned to the cell feeling somehow lighter. “Called mama?” Abdullah asked. “Takalem Mama!” I shouted.

I pointed up at the ceiling. Their faces beamed — I called my mother hours after my first prayers to Allah. Mamoud nodded when I told him from the door. He smiled. “I am happy for you this day, as I’ve felt it every day I was raised Muslim.” I sat back on a bunk. They were up late talking as usual, but I felt a warm energy emanating from around the room. Maybe it was hope. The one thing Clare and I had been for weeks praying for had finally been gifted to us.

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A few days later Manu and I were called up to the manager’s office again. Inside, a well-dressed man with polished English introduced himself as Mr. Shabbani, an assistant to Saadi Gaddafi. Saadi is Muammar Gaddafi's third son, a former professional soccer player with a reputation for drugs and luxury. “Engineer Saadi just heard about your case three days ago. He wants to help you,” he said. Shabbani said he had also just visited Clare.

He asked if we needed anything. We asked for a Koran in English, figuring it would help to know we were serious about our conversion to Islam. Word had gotten out all around the prison that we had converted. Manu asked for money for cigarettes. We felt like beggars, but Shabbani gave us each 50 dinars and promised to help find us a nicer place to stay. We didn’t believe his story, but thought it was a sign that outside forces, maybe the Turks, were advocating on our behalf.

I gave the 50 dinars to Mamoud. The group in his cell was almost out of cigarettes. I managed to move there that afternoon when the guards let us out briefly to clean the cells. There were two inmates who spoke English well, including Haj Abdel Ghani, a toothless imam, who’d denounced Gaddafi in front of 1,500 worshippers.

Here, the hierarchy of the cell was clear. The Haj was the symbolic leader. He kept the money and doled out cigarettes. He also led us all in prayer. Mamoud and Tarik were the “generals.” That is, they made all the deals for food and cigarettes with the guards and were always looking for angles, even to smuggle in a cell phone. From there the pecking order was based on age, with the youngest guys, like the Egyptian Hamedino, ordered to serve us chai, and regularly clean the cell.

As a foreigner and an American, I was the guest and treated well. I was also the freak show. I embraced the role. I would sing raps to them in English, or mimic them when I was in the mood, to howls of laughter.

Haj Abdel Ghani asked if my conversion was true. I wanted to please him, but also to learn more about Islam. I worked on memorizing the first prayer of the Koran, the Fatiha, which he wrote out phonetically on the back of a cigarette carton for me. Between my attempts to memorize the prayers, I would stare up at the calendar, written in ballpoint pen, on the bottom of the top bunk. I began to keep a journal.

Journal Entry No. 1, written on back of cigarette carton:

“Prison is a world of small miracles. To call your mother after disappearing for 17 days. To see your passport in a guard’s hand. A judge who gives you two more weeks without telling you. To get 50 dinars from a representative from Saadi Gaddafi’s office. To receive fresh packs of cigarettes, boxes of juice. To wash your jeans after 20 days, your shirt still spotted with blood after three sink washings. To learn the Fatiha and hope inner peace will carry you outside the bars. To be released for one hour to the sunshine and see the faces closed to the sun.”

Journal Entry No. 2, written on the back of a 10 x 15 photo of three children found in our cell:

“Tripoli is a series of bars and cells, separated by locks and keys, guards with the same haircuts, a court room with a green scale of justice surrounded by a Medusa like wreath. We travel to court in blindfolds, in boxes of steel, or in a bus with manacles on our wrists and ankles. The judge sits behind a desk in a dark suit jacket reading the same notes from the previous two questionings, while a young man transcribes new notes of the same answers.”

On the way to my third court appearance, we drove through the streets in a big prison bus. The head guard yelled insults at people in the traffic-clogged streets. When we disembarked at the courthouse, two guys in tracksuits yelled, “Fuck you,” at me as they passed. I looked over at big Mohammed and he winked.

Megdi and I shared leg irons, one two-ing it up the courthouse stairs. Mohammed shuffled behind in his own shackles. A girl walked by in nice heels, trailing a scent of perfume. The judge said he was reviewing my case. That was all.

“How much time you got brother?” I yelled down the hall to Manu when we returned to Al Jadida. “Two weeks,” he said. “Me too,” I think. “No problem man, just pray,” he said. I would have told him the same thing. I had spoken to my mother and was praying five times a day.

On the afternoon of April 29, almost a month after I was first captured, a guard came into our cell and said, “James, free.” Mamoud saw my eyes light up. I hugged all of them and made sure my notes and their phone numbers were stuffed under the insole of my shoe. I shouted to Nigel that I was getting out. I was waiting by the door when I saw Manu being escorted down the hall, a bandana over his loose hair. The guards passed by my cell, stopping at Nigel’s instead. I could hear the clanging of the doors. Then silence. I looked at Mamoud. “Just wait,” he said. I smoked two cigarettes as I paced up and down our little carpet in front of the cell door.

The guard was confused, Mamoud said. I felt sick. They had freed all the western journalists but me. I had just yelled to Nigel that I was getting out and to give me any messages for his family. Now he was getting out instead. Separation from the others was my worst fear all along.

But that night, something much more terrifying would rain down from the sky. The fear of death, like I had felt all those weeks ago on the side of a road outside Brega, again took over. The war was coming near. We could hear NATO's jets soaring overhead, and the rumbling of bombs at night. We’d hear the explosions and rush to the cell door, listening intently, quietly, telling everyone to hush. “Allah Akbar!” the other inmates would yell every time a new bomb would strike.

A bomb whirled down from the sky. I could hear it come closer and closer, listening to the whistle as it cut through the sky above Tripoli. It seemed to take minutes to reach us. It struck so close to our prison home that it shook the foundation and all of us with it. Then another — whistle, explosion — as Mamoud ducked for cover in the bathroom and Motsen, a new cellmate from Zawara, tried to dive underneath one of the bunks.

The young Egyptian, Hamdeino, Abdu Baset, a volunteer ambulance driver who’d been shot in Zawiya, and two others, fearing for their lives, lifted the heavy steel door off the bathroom hinges and began to ram it into the outer cell door, joining the 14 other cells that were simultaneously trying to do the same thing. I feared we’d all be shot if they broke free. After a few minutes of slamming, the guards ran down the hall threatening violence. Mamoud shot back that he didn’t want to die there.

Hours later an obviously drunk officer came by to calm us down. He carried a .45 under his belt. Mamoud and Tarik charmed him, laughing at our earlier panic. The next day my feeling of isolation grew. A feeling I’d been left because I was American. That to hold me was probably a good insurance policy as NATO planes lit up the sky around Tripoli. After the fifth prayer of the day, I prayed in my bunk to Jesus, and tried to sleep with the blanket over my face to keep out the cigarette smoke.

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A few more days passed. They seemed to just pass and pass, day in and day out, again and again. Mamoud asked around the prison when he made his rounds to serve lunch. He confirmed that Manu and the others were probably at a refugee camp in Tripoli or, maybe, they had already crossed into Tunisia.

“What if they keep me in here as a bargaining chip, Mamoud?”

“Impossible,” he said. “Don’t think.” His friendship helped me preserve my dignity, to help me contain my worry, and to not break down. I surrendered even more to prayer. By the following Sunday I had accepted the fact that it was not a mistake — that I was the last westerner on the political wing, maybe one of the last in Tripoli.

My cellmates thought Nigel had gone insane during his 40 days in prison and I worried the same would happen to me. “Nigel crazy,” Hamdeino said. Mamoud said he saw Nigel hitting his head against the cell bars. I later learned that the sores on his head were more likely from malnutrition, or lack of sunlight.

Journal Entry No. 3, written on the back of a cigarette carton:

“In four days I will have been in captivity over a month. It’s passed with slow conversations, cigarettes, praying, eating, sleeping and hoping the next day it will happen.”

The bombing increased in frequency. As I waited one night to go to sleep, the power went out. One of the Libyans made a lamp out of a sardine tin filled with cooking oil. It made our all-night conversations feel oddly romantic. The next day's rumors were that the rebellious Tajoura neighborhood had cut the lights because they were going to come in and free us. I almost believed it.

By May 4, conditions began to improve for all of us. It was as if the guards knew which way the wind was blowing politically — we were allowed to go outside in the courtyard to see the sun. Tarik got deliveries of cookies, Pepsi, Marlboro reds, tomatoes and coffee. A few days later his brother brought in bags of new clothes for dozens of prisoners. I was given an Adidas shirt and warm up pants. Prisoners began wearing tri-colored bracelets they’d woven from re-braided blankets.

On May 7, the guards called my name and Mamoud said that I should bring my stuff. I made the round of hugs again, this time half-heartedly, knowing it was likely yet another false alarm. I was taken up to the prison manager’s office and said goodbye to Mamoud on the stairs. He looked at me from behind his bushy beard and meaningful eyes. I wanted to say something more to him, but didn’t want to jinx my chances.

In the warden’s office I signed some papers and they photographed me. I was guided back into the familiar old paddy wagon. It felt like a ride that would lead to my freedom, but I had learned over and over again that you could never be sure. I wondered to myself what would happen to the prisoners who didn’t have the assistance that I apparently did. One day I was pledging to leave with them in a mass release; the next day I was being whisked away by unseen forces.

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