While detained in Libya for 44 days, Clare Gillis (A.B. ’98) had to keep secret the death of her colleague in order to ensure her safety. Now back in the states, Gillis is speaking out in criticism of the Libyan government and calling for the release of the slain journalist’s body.
Gillis, a freelance journalist, was reporting outside the eastern Libyan town of Brega when she was captured with American journalist James Foley and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo.
On April 5, Gillis, Foley, and Brabo left Benghazi at around seven in the morning with a fourth journalist, Anton Hammerl, to report on the Libyan civil war. The journalists had originally planned to ride with Libyan rebels for the day and possibly spend the night in the desert.
As they stood talking with rebels, they received information that el-Qaddafi forces were traveling in their direction; suddenly, Gillis said, two rebel cars tore past them in the opposite direction. The journalists took cover under nearby shrubbery, lying facedown in the desert as el-Qaddafi forces fired at them.
“We heard Anton call out, ‘Help,’ and then I thought, ‘Oh shit, it sounds like he’s been hit, something’s happened to him.’ When there was a lull in the shooting, Jim asked him, ‘Anton, are you okay?’ And he said ‘no,’” Gillis said.
Gillis was hit in the face and lost her glasses, giving the next month and a half a “further surreal, absurd fuzzy quality,” she said. As the forces loaded them into the back of a truck, hands bound behind their backs, they looked down and saw Hammerl lying wounded in a pool of blood, the last they would see of him.
Immediately, the three journalists felt that they would not be safe if they mentioned Hammerl’s death, especially as the soldiers appeared to panic at the killing of a Western reporter.
“We all looked at each other and said in the same breath, ‘We can’t talk about this,’” Gillis said. “It was immediate and instinctive, and we were very much agreed that our own safety had to be the first consideration because there was simply nothing we could do for him anymore.”
The three were held in a detention center in Surt for two nights before being moved to a military detention center on April 7. Around 1 a.m. on April 8, Gillis was brought blindfolded into a room and interrogated.
“They asked me why I was there, what I was doing, why, if I had a Ph.D., was I going to come risk my life in Libya to talk to these rebels, these crazy hash-smoking idiot rebels that are probably all Al-Qaeda anyway,” Gillis said.
When Gillis was transferred to a women’s prison on April 19, she began to worry seriously for her safety. She said the move felt more permanent than staying in the military detention center and she was separated from Foley and Brabo for the first time.
Gillis was also worried about the potential for abuse at the hands of the female prisoners. “Women are just very nasty. Nasty, I mean, not that guys aren’t or can’t be, but I saw factions form and leaders rise and fall in the space of the week I was there,” she said.
On April 26, Gillis was moved to the Corinthia hotel, a luxury hotel in Tripoli, where she stayed for three days before rejoining Manu and Foley at a government house.
After a judge gave them a one-year suspended sentence on May 17 for illegally entering the country, the journalists left the next day. Instead of being driven to the Tripoli border as promised, they were taken to the Rixos hotel, where members of the foreign press were staying.
“We were so pissed. Just so incredibly angry,” Gillis said, “that [government spokesman Moussa] Ibrahim would stage this kind of publicity stunt, which was so ridiculous.”
When he brought the journalists to the hotel, Ibrahim made a show of their physical health and well-being. He also invited them to remain in Libya and continue reporting with proper documentation, which Gillis said was ridiculous. All four journalists declined to stay.
The three journalists, along with British freelance journalist Nigel Chandler, were taken to the Libyan-Tunisian border the next day, and Gillis arrived in Boston Logan airport at around 7 p.m. on May 20 after a series of connecting flights.
Since arriving in the U.S., Gillis has been publicizing South African and Austrian dual citizen Hammerl’s story in an attempt to push the Libyan government to release his body and highlight its hypocrisies. When South African president Jacob Zuma visits Qaddafi next week, she hopes that he will demand a search for Hammerl’s body and a full investigation. Zuma visited Libya five days after Hammerl’s death but did not comment on the situation at the time.
“Shame on him. I want to shame him into doing something for Anton and for his family. I want to be one of those voices shaming him,” Gillis said.
While some might not see the logic in her transition from Ph.D. in history to freelance journalist, Gillis credited the University with giving her a broad-picture worldview.
“I think that the spirit of the University of this open mind for intellectual exploration and seeing connections where it’s not a connection that everybody would see right away, it’s not the obvious way to think about it,” Gillis said, “I have a B.A. in Old English and a Ph.D. in medieval history and then I go to Libya and report on a civil war. It seems random, but if you think about it, and if you’re informed by this broad, humanistic way of looking at the universe, I think you see a lot of logic in it.”
Dean of the College John Boyer, who was one of the people calling for Gillis’s release, expressed his happiness at her return.
“She has a very close friend on the faculty and she’s an alumna of the College, so I’m really delighted everything worked out, and I’d like her to come to the College at some point and talk to students about her experience, so it’s a public invitation,” Boyer said.
Gillis said she is open to visiting campus in the fall.