A fight for freedom

American Matthew VanDyke spoke at Queen’s about his experiences in the Syrian and Libyan revolutions

After escaping from Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison, American freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke didn’t head home: he went straight back to the frontlines.

VanDyke was at Queen’s on Tuesday to talk about his experiences fighting in the Libyan Revolution and to screen his film, “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” about the revolution in Syria. Over 70 people showed up to the event, which was hosted by Queen’s International Affairs Association.

Both part of the Arab Spring, the Libyan Civil War resulted in the ousting of leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, while the fight to depose Syria’s Bashar Assad continues.

VanDyke joined freedom fighters in Libya after spending time in the region filming a motorcycle adventure documentary and making friends in the Middle East. After being captured by Gaddafi’s men, he spent nearly six months in Abu Salim, enduring psychological torture and solitary confinement.

As the rebels expanded their territory in Tripoli, guards at the prison fled and freed some of the prisoners, who in turn helped VanDyke and others escape. He continued to fight in Libya, and has since taken to documenting the current situation in Syria. VanDyke was an inexperienced fighter before joining combat in the Middle East, but so were the men he was fighting with.

“A friend of mine in America showed me how to shoot and then when I was filming the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan I would ask them to take me to a range and show me how all the guns were used,” he told the crowd.

“I wasn’t that out of place,” he added, noting that his fellow fighters typically also came from non-military backgrounds. “We all would’ve gotten our asses kicked by Canadian or American military.”

In the documentary, Syrian photojournalist and co-producer Nour Kelze talks about friends she’s lost, including a friend who was “like a brother” and died while saving a wounded man on the street.

The friend was wearing a mask when he was shot, and his identity wasn’t known until he was pulled off of the street.

“The film’s specifically designed to get people to cry, and then open their wallets,” VanDyke told the Journal.

Money is the best way people can help those in Syria, said VanDyke, who has a Master’s degree in Middle East security studies.

He added that he doesn’t recommend those without extensive knowledge of and experience in the area to join the fight on the ground.

Raising awareness, conversely, is only valuable if it leads to action, VanDyke said; in this case, raising funds for the rebels’ cause.

“The problem with activism is that it’s largely been reduced to sort of online activism where liking a post or re-tweeting, people think that that’s enough but it’s really not, you know? People need to be doing things that are tangible,” he said.

“Sending things to refugees in Syria, sending money to Syria, sending money to groups, doing fundraisers, things that translate into action on the ground.”

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