Inside Gaddafi’s Libya: The Villa

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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 fifth and final chapter of that story. For the full series, click here.

I was taken out of the paddy wagon and led into some kind of compound. They sat me down in a soft chair. I could feel that it was a luxurious place. I thought I might see an ambassador or some other sort of official. It was the only thing that made sense.

A man in a suit came in and said, “upstairs,” with a flourish of his hands. A servant took me up, past a living room with gold-cushioned furniture. I saw people sitting at a table out of the corner of my eye, and figured them to be prominent members of the regime, or guardians of it. I was led to a posh hotel-style room with twin beds.

I looked down the hallway and there, a sight I had cast aside as impossible, was Manu and Clare. “Hey bro!” I blinked at them. It was actually Manu and Clare. They had been sitting at the table and saw me come in. After a week apart, I’d decided it was foolish to even pray for a reunion.

I marveled at their stories of cigarettes, TV and fruit baskets, all plentiful at this three-floor villa, which was owned by a former Gaddafi general. His son, Saadi, had set up the accommodations, Clare said. And it was true, the guards had mistakenly taken Nigel instead of me.

“There were days when I had to decide whether I asked for you or more cigarettes,” Clare said, with her Cheshire smile.

That evening I took a long shower and slept in a soft bed. I woke up in the night, expecting the Arabic and cigarette smoke of the cell. Instead it was just the clipped voices of the BBC Nigel watched from the living room.

In the villa, TV satellite proved all the hopeful news we clung to in jail was wrong — there was no sign of a NATO invasion of Tripoli and there was no open rebellion there either. No one knew that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan a week earlier.

More from GlobalPost: Gaddafi dead, eyewitness recounts final moments (VIDEO)

Manu and I continued to pray, laying rugs in the room with the plants. We didn’t pray as much as in prison, but it helped to keep to some of the spiritual routines, as it was apparent we were only experiencing the illusion of freedom, and it was unclear how long they’d keep us there.

Two days later, the retired general appeared and politely told us we had visitors. The Hungarian ambassador, Ambassador Marton, was a joyful, balding man who liked to rub his hands together. We spoke for a few minutes before he asked, “And do you have any information where this man Anton is?” It was the first time anyone had asked about him. Our minds darkened. We said we didn’t.

“I think he’s already been released, right?” the general interrupted. It was an awkward interjection and I began to sense that we were getting the first glimpse of the kind of lies the regime had been spreading.

Despite the lie, we were all buoyed by an actual fact — an embassy was now involved. It was the first sign that diplomatic machinery had engaged. The Hungarians said they were appealing to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ambassador Marton said the regime was afraid of making a mistake by freeing us, that we might still have some value to them, especially if their backs were ever against the wall.

We might be there all summer, the general inferred. At least, he said, it was a nice place to stay. It was a strange phase of our imprisonment. It felt more like house arrest. The villa came with three course meals, hundreds of channels on cable and huge beds.

As the days dragged on and the Hungarians didn’t return, our frustrations grew. We felt we were close to being released, but had no definite way out. We weren’t allowed into the courtyard. We began to behave like a somewhat dysfunctional family on a holiday that’s lasted too long. Nigel spun out rather long conspiracies based on how the guards treated him on latest his trip to the court.

On May 12, Nigel was told he’d return in 10 days for a court date with a lawyer. He believed this meant getting an actual sentence. Clare and I argued there were three tracts for our release — our connections to Saadi, our new relationship with the Hungarians and lastly the courts. But Nigel had been stuck in the system a month longer than us, and couldn’t get the worst out of his head.

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We were in some of the best accommodations in Tripoli, and I felt guilty while the Libyans who had taken care of me were still crowded in a single cell. Tarik would be commandeering the TV remote right now. Mamoud would have already talked his way out the door of the villa. Watching hours of bad movies, I found myself paying attention when Hollywood showed a prison or torture scene. A part of that world was real now.

Clare began to tell me a lot of things I didn’t know. Saadi Gaddafi had come in an armored SUV to get her out of prison and deliver her to a four-star hotel. When she was at the Corinthian Hotel in Tripoli, she was able to place a conference call with a former and current Congressman, who had previously met with the Gaddafis. They discussed a trip he planned to make on May 3 for International Press Freedom Day. Several days later, however, Gaddafi's youngest son and several of his grandchildren were killed in an air strike. The trip fell through.

Clare thought we might be there until the end, whenever that was. Nightly we heard the NATO planes overhead and felt the longer they bombed, the more likely they were to keep us as bargaining chips. Sometimes the bombs dropped at the same time as the call to prayer and we wondered if that was a coincidence.

We could hear the bombs falling and exploding into targets as we watched the movie Iron Man on May 13. We went to the windows and saw men outside trying to talk on phones. After the second hit, the men disappeared, as did all the cars on the street. I felt a kind of sick joy. Some of them had to be our guards. And they were probably more scared than us.

The next morning we were sitting around the breakfast table smoking when we the voice of an American woman enter the villa. She was a well-dressed blonde, with Mr. Shabbani, Saadi's assistant, in tow. She seemed about as out of place as one could get. She had a casual, almost valley girl-type air about her. She said she worked with Engineer Saadi for a year as a public relations and business consultant. At the time the conflict started, she casually mentioned that she started helping other imprisoned journalists. She said she had arrived in Tripoli the night before to help us. In the paranoid world of Tripoli, her story sounded fishy to me; but with the way she called Mr. Shabbani, “Dear,” and her total butchering of “Mush-kla,” she seemed like our best hope yet. Even Nigel seemed to brighten, before he went upstairs and began to puzzle if her main business was really us.

Two mornings later Nigel woke me up. He said that he and Clare were being taken back to court. At 2 p.m., the servant said the paddy wagon had come for Manu and I. Something was definitely up. We jumped in. Lutvig, the Tunisian Canadian we had met earlier, sat there blindfolded, almost feral. We were shuffled up the stairs of the court and stood in the hallway. I spotted some of my Libyan cellmates from Al Jadida at the end of the hall and waved. We were called before the judge one-by-one, told our charges and asked how we pled. We went out and I surreptitiously threw one of my old friends some cigarettes.

We were called in again one-by-one to receive our one year suspended sentences. And like that — Clare, Manu, Nigel, Lutvig and I — were freed with a 250 dinar penalty. Lutvig began praying and fell trembling to the floor.

After three more hours, the guard put us in the paddy wagon. A protest outside had turned into a sad little rally on the steps of the court. They laid out NATO member flags, apparently to be burned. Nervously I looked out the hole in the truck. I felt we were close. Finally, the other guard came with the official paperwork for our release.

The next day we said goodbye to the villa. We were again blindfolded and driven in two sedans, to what we thought was going to be the Tunisian border. We were anxious about being blindfolded and separated again. Yet again, something didn’t seem right.

We pulled up to the front of the Rixos Hotel, where all the foreign journalists with invitations from the regime stayed. I couldn’t believe it even as it unfolded, us walking toward the glass doors to an ambush of dozens of cameras. We were shocked and angry. Manu and Clare gave their names to the scrum. A cameraman trying to get a clean shot on Clare pushed me back, so I slipped away toward the manager’s office. Musa Ibrahim, the Gaddafi spokesman, publicly — and laughably — offered to allow us to stay in Tripoli as reporters.

In the office, we were met by the South African ambassador who very cordially wanted information about Anton. I wanted to give it. Manu argued it wasn’t safe, and with his eyes alone he wore me down. We decided to wait until we were out of Libya. I asked the ambassador to give us 24 hours.

Shortly after, representatives from Hungary and Spain arrived, told us to say nothing to the press, and to go with them. We spent the night in the Hungarian embassy. At four in the morning the Libyan foreign embassy called and told us not to move without their permission. We grew tense.

The next afternoon were taken to the border in a Mercedes van with diplomatic plates. We passed huge gas lines, where young men had been employed to move an owner’s car in a line that could last three to four days. We saw the battered, pockmarked cities of Zawiya and Zawara, almost empty, at least of the young men and flying green flags. At the border we waited for four hours as a final entanglement was smoothed over, and then we crossed into Tunisia.

Several contractors who specialized in capture situations were there to meet us. And I saw a GlobalPost colleague I’d met in Egypt. He said he’d been waiting six weeks for me there. I looked at the horizon.

That evening we arrived at a luxury resort in Jerba, Tunisia. My brother, Michael, was there waiting for me. It took me several minutes to believe it was really him as we smoked cigarettes on the balcony and he told me how friends had worked tirelessly to try to free us. The sea outside rolled in under darkness.

Later that night, it was finally time for the truth. Clare and I called Penny, Anton’s wife. I feared this moment perhaps more than anything else. We dialed her number. I listened to Clare and then I got on the phone with her. Her voice was weak from crying. I told her exactly what happened, how Anton had called for help and then said nothing, I told her the best I could, as fresh tears poured over the line from London. But the facts didn’t seem enough. I couldn’t give her enough information. I kept repeating how sorry I was. We didn’t know what happened to his body. We didn’t know who in the regime knew what had happened, and we didn’t know who was lying.

Anton was dead. The young Libyan soldiers had shot and killed him without a shot fired from the rebel side. At the distance he was shot, they must have seen he wasn’t Libyan, that he was carrying cameras and not weapons. We told her we thought it was a war crime. That maybe his body was hidden in the desert. The coldest truth was that none of us ever asked the soldiers to help Anton. I said no words when there might have been a chance, the slimmest of chances, to save him. We didn’t get the quick catch and release we had earlier hoped for, and maybe that was our price.

My friends’ and family’s stories always end in attaining their goal — my freedom. Anton’s does not. His body has never been found. I realized that our lives would remain like smashed windows for some time. Clare, Manu and I were in the middle of that smashed bit of glass and the cracked spider web led to all our friends and family on the other end.

Weeks later, a Libyan man called my house in New Hampshire. I wasn’t home but my mother answered. He spoke in broken English and said, “Jim is in prison. He is alive.” The line went dead and when he called back, my mother said, “Jim is home. He is free.” My mother said he sounded joyous at this. I think it was Tarik. He’d written my phone number inside his jeans. 

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