A journalist from Connecticut detained in Libya for six weeks said Tuesday she was fired upon and then beaten when she was captured but later treated better as she was moved from prison to a luxurious hotel.
Clare Morgana Gillis was one of four foreign journalists released May 18. She said she's happy to be home in New Haven and grateful to her supporters for campaigning for her release, but upset that a photographer she was with when she was captured was killed.
"I'm just so happy to be alive, given the circumstances of our capture," Gillis said.
The 34-year-old Gillis, a freelance reporter for The Atlantic and USA Today, said she went to Egypt and later Libya to cover the fighting that began in February with only a few hundred dollars she borrowed from her sister and friend. She was excited to pick up work even as she dodged bullets and bombs on the front lines.
On April 5, Gillis and the other journalists were taken by a civilian driver and then by anti-government forces fighting to end four decades of dictatorship. She was skeptical about reports that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces were nearby _ until rebels started retreating down a hill.
Suddenly two trucks with Gadhafi's forces came over the hill toward them.
"They were firing directly at us," Gillis said.
Gillis and reporters James Foley and Manuel Varela took cover in a small sand dune as bullets whizzed by.
"Help," photographer Anton Hammerl called out.
"Are you OK?" Foley asked.
"No," Hammerl responded.
Gillis said one of the soldiers hit her in the face, knocking her glasses off. "I got a wicked black eye," she said.
The men were hit with the butts of AK-47s, she said, recalling a bloodied Foley. The journalists were tied up, loaded into a pickup truck and taken to a military camp.
Young soldiers kept their AK-47s trained on them, Gillis said. She grew uncomfortable with her hands tied behind her back but tried not to make any sudden movements.
The journalists decided not to talk about Hammerl's death in front of their captors. After they were freed, they said the 41-year-old Hammerl, who had South African and Austrian citizenships, had been shot and left to die in the desert as Gadhafi's forces took them away.
South Africa charged Friday that Gadhafi provided misinformation about Hammerl's death. Gillis said she wants an investigation into what happened.
Gillis said they were given food, water and even an occasional cigarette by guards. She said her prison cell had a dirty mattress and a blanket.
After a few days at the military camp, the journalists were taken to a detention center in Tripoli. Gillis and Foley, who writes for the Boston-based news agency GlobalPost, shared a cell and were close enough to Varela, a Spanish journalist who works under the name Manu Brabo, that they could talk to him through electrical sockets.
Gillis said she feared she would be raped, but she wasn't. She said she was blindfolded and interrogated into the wee hours of the morning, accused of being a spy, yelled at and forced to sign papers in Arabic.
Gillis said she's not very religious but found herself praying a lot. She could hear bombs drop, shaking the ground, and wondered if they belonged to U.S. forces.
"It would be ironic if I got taken out by an American bomb in Libya while I was in captivity," she said.
More than two weeks after she was captured, Gillis was allowed to call her parents. She knew her mother was worried because she hadn't called on her mother's birthday, a day after her capture.
The journalists were later taken to a luxurious hotel and a guesthouse owned by a retired general that had silk drapes and oriental rugs. During that time, she said she and Foley would pass the time recalling movies in detail.
Gadhafi's 38-year-old son, Saadi, showed up one day in an armored SUV to transport them from prison to the hotel. He was dressed in a white robe.
"Are the rebels crazy?" he asked Gillis.
Gillis said they were not, that they wanted democracy.
"Oh," Saadi said.
`It was bizarre," she said.
Gillis said she would report on a conflict again. But, she said: "Whatever I do next, I do not want to be captured."