When Sharon VanDyke’s son Matthew called to say he was booking a flight to Libya, she was out buying batteries. Though the decision to head to a country mired in civil war may have prompted most mothers to give it a second thought, Sharon knew her son.
But now with Matthew (GRD ’04) missing for over 60 days, his single mother and his girlfriend of five years, Lauren Fischer (SFS ’07), are facing a hard reality.
“I think the biggest frustration is not knowing where he is and what condition he’s in. Is he OK? Have they tortured him? Is he getting food?” said Sharon, who has conducted a weeks-long search with Lauren to no avail.
Matthew, a jack of all trades who dabbled in freelance journalism, left for Benghazi, Libya on February 26 shortly after the civil war there had begun. Although the U.S. State Department had issued a travel advisory for Libya the day before, Matthew was unconcerned about the dangers, according to Sharon. He thought that Gaddafi would be ousted in a week so that by the time he arrived, the fighting would have ended. Secondly, he believed that government forces would never reach far enough east of Tripoli to hit Benghazi.
He was wrong on both counts.
After about a month of steady contact, on March 12 Matthew let his family know he was headed to Brega. That was the last they heard from him. On March 15, Gaddafi’s forces took the city with force and captured some 1000 to 1200 Libyan rebels, bringing the prisoners back to Surt. While Matthew is assumed to be among the prisoners, this has yet to be confirmed.
“We would just like to know if he’s OK. We’d like to have him home, but I’m not even pushing that right now,” Sharon explained.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
The Georgetown grad never sought to end up in the middle of a fight. According to his mother and girlfriend, he sincerely doubted the violence would last for more than a week or two. He wanted to witness the reconstruction, not the revolt.
After weeks of turmoil, his friends in Libya kept asking him why the Americans were not aiding the rebels.
“He felt he was one American who could possibly help,” his mother Sharon said. According to her, he was looking to help establish a new democracy and possibly found a think tank.
“He wanted to be able to help them create something in the government. He wanted to help in any way that he could. And he wanted to write about it,” his girlfriend Lauren said.
Matthew promised he would leave if the fighting reached the East. He and Lauren talked contingency plans, but never with any pressing concern.
“It was always ‘if something happens … but it won’t,'” Lauren said, her voice quivering.
Sharon and Lauren rarely worried about him overseas because he promised to carry a GPS tracking device and check in frequently. But after the last check-in message was sent on March 13, they started to wonder. Still, a few days incommunicado were normal in the war-torn country.
“The first ten days we didn’t hear from him, we weren’t worried because we knew Internet was down and cell phone service was down. We figured he was alright,” Sharon said.
But his family’s fears were confirmed when on March 22 a man with an Arabic accent called Sharon at home from Matthew’s cell phone. She tried to ask him where Matthew was and if he was safe, but to no avail.
Sharon continued to call her son’s phone 20 or 30 times a day without answer. The one connection she was able to make was hardly comforting. According to her, this man also had a Middle Eastern accent and may have been the same man as before. He insisted that she had the wrong number as she tried to explain the situation. The call ended, but not before she received one good wish.
“I hope you find your son,” the man said, and then the phone went dead.
Matthew had never shied from extreme situations. A lifetime resident of Baltimore, he graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2002 with a 4.0 grade-point average. In 2004, he earned a master’s degree in security studies from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. During his time on the Hilltop, he wrote a column for The Hoya and disc jockeyed a radio show on WGTB. After he finished his academic career, he set off to see the world first-hand.
He first went to Spain, where he met Lauren while she was teaching English there. Despite their overlapping time on the Hilltop, they had never met. Shortly after, he began a four-year motorcycle journey across the Middle East and North Africa, with periodic returns home.
“I knew what I was signing up for,” Lauren said of their relationship, although she would rather he not use a motorcycle.
He slept everywhere from rooftops to luxury mansions as he made friends in every country he passed through. More than once he was detained by border patrols, but he was always set free soon after.
“Camping for him was a Holiday Inn,” quipped Sharon.
He spent years writing and filming his experiences during his travels, sometimes acting as a freelance journalist. He was working on a book when he decided to travel to Libya. Though he had wanted to stay home for a year and sort through his notes and footage, Matthew felt drawn to the mounting tension in the North African country.
“We talked pretty seriously about him going to Cairo when that situation started there. But in the end he decided he didn’t have the same close friends there,” Lauren said. “He loved Libya … He always talked about how much he enjoyed his time there.”
Sharon said she has always been supportive of her son’s unconventional lifestyle.
“You have to give them the tools to move on,” she said.
On his public Facebook profile reads the statement: “I live my life for what they’ll write on my tombstone.”
Keeping the Faith
With no confirmed details, no leads and no connections, Sharon and Lauren have not given up. They have contacted over 50 networks, from Amnesty International to the Red Cross. Sharon just returned this week from a trip to the U.S. embassy in Turkey, which is the designated hub for all American affairs in Libya now that the United States has no official presence in the country currently.
She has also had pictures posted in the media center in Benghazi to reach other journalists as Matthew had press credentials with him in Libya from a previous stint as a journalist in Afghanistan.
Associate Vice President for Federal Relations Scott Fleming at Georgetown has helped get the word to the State Department and the university is lending its weight, but Matthew remains missing without a trace.
Sharon said that she has not let the worst even cross her mind.
“I’ve never believed that he was dead. I’ve never thought that,” she said.
She continues to inundate every available information channel in the hopes that someone down the line will be able to find her only son. Still the clock is ticking.
“The longer it goes, the less people’s focus in on Libya, the less people’s focus is on him. But it hasn’t gone away for us,” she said.
Correction: This article originally stated Matthew VanDyke received a MSFS degree from the SFS. He, in fact, received a master’s degree in security studies.