Matthew VanDyke didn't go into Libya to be in the middle of a war.
The 31-year-old freelance journalist from Baltimore thought Moammar Gadhafi would be ousted from power by the time he arrived in early March. He would report on the changes sweeping the country and help friends he had met on previous visits build a new country.
But VanDyke hasn't been heard from since mid-March, when he called his mother and girlfriend on a cellphone with a scratchy connection while on a truck headed from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to the town of Brega.
"He just said he would be back in Benghazi the next night and that I should call him," said his girlfriend of five years, Lauren Fischer.
VanDyke, who worked briefly for the Baltimore Examiner, has long been interested in the Middle East and has frequently travelled to some of the most dangerous regions. He returned in December from a six-month motorcycle tour through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
The journalist decided not to travel to Cairo during the unrest there, mostly because his ties to that country were not as strong as in other places. But he had been to Libya in 2008 and had fallen in love with the people, friendsand family say..
"When his friends started emailing him and telling him what was going on, he felt he had to go to support them morally," said his mother, Sharon VanDyke, who lives in South Baltimore's Riverside neighborhood and recently retired after 42 years as a city schoolteacher. "He didn't go off with the intent of being in a war. He thought Gadhafi would be overthrown. He thought he could help his friends start a new government."
Fischer, a city schoolteacher, said she only mildly objected to the trip, not because it was dangerous but because he had just gotten home from the Middle East in December and he had promised to stay in Baltimore for a year to work on a book about his travels.
"When he called and said he was going, I wasn't surprised," Fischer said. "I didn't say no, and I didn't try to stop him. But I wasn't thrilled."
VanDyke said officials at the U.S. State Department told her they would pass her son's name on to the authorities in Turkey, which is in contact with Libyan rulers. Noel Clay, a spokesman for the state department, confirmed that VanDyke's name is on a list of Americans reported missing in Libya. WJZ-TV first reported that the journalist is missing.
"Although our ability to locate and ascertain the welfare of U.S. citizens is limited, we are using all possible means to contact these individuals," Clay said. Several journalists have been reported missing in the volatile country; four New York Times reporters were recently captured by soldiers in Libya and later released.
VanDyke grew up in a rowhouse on Randall Street overlooking Riverside Park and now lives with his girlfriend on East Pratt Street. VanDyke graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in political science. His mother said he had a 4.0 grade-point average.
He received a master's degree in security studies in 2004 from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service with a concentration on the Middle East. Between 2006 and 2010, his mother said, he traveled to 13 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq and in Afghanistan. His mother also said he had been held by police and military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
VanDyke and Fischer said he befriended many Libyans, from shepherds to professors, and kept up with them through the years. He flew to Cairo Feb. 27 and crossed into Libya on March 6. He was staying with a friend in Benghazi.
He last talked to his mother and girlfriend on March 12. On March 13, he sent GPS tracking coordinates that roughly correspond to the location of Brega, but his mother said his phone was not working at that time. VanDyke said she spoke to her son's friend, Nouri Fonas, that day. She told her that he had gone to Ajdabiya with five other men.
VanDyke said she has been on the Internet poring over photographs posted online to see if she can find her son in any of them. "He always loved to travel," she said. "He's always been interested in the Middle East. It's his passion. When he has a quest, he's going to stay with it until it is finished."