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April 22, 2011

Alum journalist captured in Libya calls home

More than two weeks after Clare Morgana Gillis (AB ’98) was captured in Libya while reporting for The Atlantic and USA Today, she was able to call her parents yesterday and tell them she’s alive and well.

Gillis, a freelance reporter who had been reporting on the situation in Libya, was detained April 5 with two other journalists outside of Brega, in eastern Libya, according to eyewitness reports.

For 16 days, there was no official word on Gillis’s condition. According to news reports, Gillis, American citizen James Foley of GlobalPost, and Spanish citizen Manuel Bravo of the European Pressphoto Agency, were last seen on April 7 at a government detention center in Tripoli. Libyan officials continually declined to confirm their detention.

Tanya Powell, a spokesperson for the State Department, would not comment on Gillis’s case due to privacy and diplomacy concerns. Powell acknowledged that multiple U.S. citizens, including two journalists, are believed to be detained in Libya.

“Senior State Department officials have reached out to Libyan officials about the citizens who are believed to be detained, including two journalists,” Powell said. “Although we do not currently have a diplomatic presence in Libya…Turkey has agreed to be our protecting power to obtain information and provide assistance.”

Gillis’s phone call to her parents, which lasted approximately 15 minutes, was the first direct contact Gillis made since her capture. According to a spokesperson for The Atlantic, the call was a promising development, but more action is needed from the Libyan government.

“Today's phone call is a positive step; however, we continue to urge the Libyan government to let the journalists go as soon as possible and, in the meantime, to let foreign diplomats or humanitarian workers visit them,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

A fourth journalist, photographer Anton Lazarus Hammerl, was reportedly traveling with the group, according to the April 21 TheAtlantic.com article “Detained Reporter Clare Gillis Says She is Alive and Well.” However, according to the article, Gillis told her parents that Hammerl, a dual South African and Austrian citizen, had not been with them when they were detained. Hammerl’s current status and location are unknown.

After graduating from the U of C with a degree in English Language and Literature, Gillis spent three years in Iceland, one year of which was on a Fulbright scholarship. She earned her master’s degree from Harvard in Germanic Languages and Literatures in 2003, and her Ph.D. in Medieval History this spring, according to the Harvard Crimson.

“I’ve had lots of conversations with young academics who don’t know what to do with their Ph. D in the current job market. [Gillis] is the only one who thought it made perfect sense to go report from a war zone,” David Etlin (AB ’98), who became friends with Gillis in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail. “After writing so much on what had happened centuries ago, she wanted a big change, to write in a way that made the most difference to people’s lives now.”

Friends of Gillis describe her as adventurous and charismatic.

“The amazing thing about Clare is she’s always ready for an adventure,” said Carolyn Rasmussen (AB ’98), who met Gillis at the U of C. “She’s a very inquisitive, adventurous person.”

Raissa Trend (AB ’98) met Gillis on a year-long study abroad program in Germany their third year at the U of C.

“She has an incredible curiosity; she’s very adventurous and fearless, I would say. It didn’t surprise me at all that she undertook this trip to try to be a journalist,” Trend said, adding that she believed Gillis was “well aware of the risks.”

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