On Baghdad's last flight, Welshman recalls prison

January 15, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan -- The tall, gaunt man sat nervously fingering a rosary in the Baghdad airport, waiting for what he feared would be the last flight out before war.

Beside him was a small, worn canvas bag with all that he owned. And two scuffed squash rackets.

He had not chosen this last moment to leave Baghdad, he said hesitantly. His British accent barely audible, he explained he could not go earlier. He was in jail.

He was the last Western hostage to leave Iraq.

Patrick Trigg was held for 120 days of solitary confinement and interrogation after he was caught trying to escape across the border.

Until 10 days ago, no one knew he was being held. His wife assumed he was dead.

He thought he would go crazy. The anguish of being so utterly cut off -- no one knew his fate, and he didn't know his future -- nearly drove him mad, he said.

He survived by prayer and by killing cockroaches -- it became a sport, with the score several hundred a day.

He was freed barely in time to make yesterday's flight to Amman, thanks to an extraordinary effort by an Iraqi lawyer and a small act of courage by a British diplomat.

As the flight streaked from encircled Iraq, some in the back of the packed jumbo jet broke into a verse of the Beatles' "Give Peace a Chance." Mr. Trigg's wary reserve slowly melted into animation.

"I was terrified before we got on this plane," he exclaimed. "I was convinced we would not get away."

He is 54. Dark hair merges with a red beard, fading into gray. At 6-foot-4 and 178 pounds, he looks skinny and brittle. Six months ago, he weighed 226 pounds and was captain of a British squash team in Baghdad.

Baghdad had been a long port for the self-described wanderer. He came nine years ago to train Iraqis how to run an oil pumping station, and he stayed to help manage the laying of a pipeline across the Tigris River.

He has a wife of 38 years and three grown children in Cardiff, Wales. But he went to sea in the merchant marine at age 19. "I was trained for the life of roaming around. I'm not a very disciplined husband."

He was getting ready to go home to Britain when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Soon after, President Saddam Hussein said no foreigners could leave.

"I was worried I was going to be here ad infinitum, with nothing to do and eventually no money," he said. So he plotted to leave.

An Iraqi patrol caught him trying to cross the Tigris into Iran. He was under arrest.

L "On Sept. 24, I dropped off the face of the Earth," he said.

His cell was four paces long and two paces wide. Whenever he was taken out, he was blindfolded. Eventually, he concluded he was in a specially built jail for interrogation somewhere in Baghdad. Every 10 days or so, he was brought to another room for questioning.

"They wanted to know everything. They wanted to know my whole life story. They wanted to know what an oil company

manager does: Was there any corruption? Bribery? Illegal transactions? I told them the truth: Everything I have done here is ethical."

Mr. Trigg said they may have thought he was a spy. He was never physically tortured, he said.

"They were very skilled interrogators, very good at their jobs," he said. "They gave you hope and then took it away to give you misery. They gave you happiness, then took it away for despair."

By the end, "they knew what kind of pants I was wearing in 1983. They knew everything about me."

Between interrogations, there was little to remind him of his humanity. Guards were forbidden to speak with him. There was no light in his cell; only a 9-inch slot high on one wall told him if it was day or night.

His cell was bare cement and tile. He had three blankets on which to sleep, a plastic bowl for eating and washing, and a plastic cup from which to drink.

There were three meals a day, usually of bean soup, and a cup of tea at night. He got one bowl of rice a week. No meat.

He pulled some long threads from the blanket and tied a succession of knots in them to make a rosary. When they confiscated that, he made another.

"My main concern was losing my mind," he said. "I don't mind dying; that wasn't a problem. I didn't want to be in a state of not knowing what was happening to me. If I had just been able to get a message to someone that I was alive, it would have helped."

Gradually, his restrictions eased. Mr. Trigg thinks the interrogators may have started to believe that he was what he said. The guards started to speak a few words, a "breakthrough" for a man starved for communication. They let him exercise three times a week. He was let into a small enclosure alone, where he would "run and jog and sing hymns and jump up and down."

They gave him a book from his luggage. It was "Alcoholics' Anonymous" by Bill W., the "bible" for AA members like Mr. Trigg. "I read it and reread it and dissected it," he said.

On Dec. 25, his jailers took him to another room for what he expected to be more questioning. When they removed his blindfold, he found that the interrogator's wife had made him a Christmas cake.

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