Matt Trevithick (CGS’06, CAS’08) Describes Working in War-Torn Iraq

CGS alumnus Matt Trevithick (CGS ’06, CAS ’08)  works at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani, where he is the assistant to the provost. He writes here about just one of his experiences in the war-torn nation.

Matt Trevithick of Hingham is working at the American University in Sulaymaniyah, deep in the heart of northern Iraq. (Photo courtesy of
Matt Trevithick of Hingham is working at the American University in Sulaymaniyah, deep in the heart of northern Iraq. (Photo courtesy of

By Matt Trevithick
GateHouse News Service

Jack Bauer and I are walking briskly in the dim light through the corridors of a Saddam Hussein torture center, looking desperately for a way out. The smell is overpowering, the sun is setting, and we work to hold the notion that we might ultimately be stuck here at bay. We hear the screams of other prisoners, hurrying our already quickened pace. We’ve doubled back over the same ground several times, and things are starting to look bleak.

Eventually, one of the guards comes and finds us, letting us out into the night, the fresh, cool air a welcome respite from the overpowering stench of a prison filled well beyond its capacity with dying people. Jack Bauer (my local friend whose affinity for the show featuring the main character of the same name gave him the nickname with his friends) and I smile broadly, laugh, and I thank him for giving me a tour of the Red Museum, a former Baath party headquarters that served as the local prison, court, and torture center. Despite the fact that the prison has been closed since the first Gulf War, not a single thing has changed since the day the Baath party lost control of it. The real torture tapes of real prisoners are on a constant loop, their primal screams haunting the dreams of visitors for weeks, and the ominous natural lighting highlighting figurines re-enacting scenes of horrifying violence are never forgotten. Outside, Soviet-era tanks sit, rusting.

As I head towards my favorite local café to finish out the night before heading back to the compound, I take stock of my situation. I’m standing in the middle of Sulaymaniyah, deep in the heart of northern Iraq, in a valley surrounded by mountains, which are all that separate me from Iran on one side. I’m standing in an area that is a total anathema to the broader Middle East we are so used to hearing about at home: the people here love the United States. I have witnessed the unabashed cheering and weeping that accompanies any picture of our last president. I have watched them smile and salute at passing US military vehicles. As one of the current prime ministers said to me over dinner recently, “I am a single issue voter, and he (George W. Bush) saved the Kurds.”

I continue my walk, noting the freshly paved roads, the new street signs in Kurdish, Arabic and English, and, most significantly, the waves of new cars flooding the streets. Later that night, after I’ve had my fill of both the espresso and the Frank Sinatra blasting out of the speakers at the café, my driver picks me up. Complaining in a joking manner, he says “there are too many cars on the road. My friends and I, we cannot tell who the rich people are anymore. Even the poor people like us have cars!” There is a cautious optimism in the air in northern Iraq. By most indications, the future looks bright. But that’s all been heard before: history shows us that the Middle East is a place where despair can be snatched from the jaws of hope all too easily.

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