Reed Community

Foreign Correspondent Looks Beyond Plato’s Shadows

By Bill Donahue | September 26, 2016

It seems safe to assume that few Reedies are familiar with Dinko Valev, a hulking, bearded semi-professional wrestler-slash-amateur vigilante who now styles himself a folk hero in his native Bulgaria.

Have you seen Dinko’s proud emblem of his allegiance to the Bulgarian Orthodox church, a pectoral tattoo that’s as big as a T-bone steak?

Didn’t think so.

Have you beheld the jacked four-wheeler that Dinko rode out to the Bulgaria-Turkey border in February, to subdue 16 Syrian migrants (12 men, three women, and a child), forcing them to lay prone on the dirt as he likened them all to “dogs”?

Well, journalist Matthew Brunwasser ’94 has watched the video of Dinko’s assault numerous times, along with the clip of the Bulgarian TV news anchor calling Dinko a “superhero.” He’s also interviewed the thuggish grappler—in Bulgarian. And in his recent profile for the BBC, he unraveled the nuanced import of Dinko, tracing Bulgaria’s nationalism back to the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, when the Bulgarians were ruled by Muslims and Christian Balkan states were clamoring for independence. He talked to an anthropologist who said they were “programmed,” he writes, “to view every representative of the Islamic world as a potential rapist and terrorist.”

The Dinko story is just one of several insightful pieces that Matthew, a freelance writer, videographer, and radio producer based in the Balkans, has done on the world’s exploding refugee crisis. Last year, in a front page story for the New York Times, he wrote about how smart phones have become essential to today’s refugees. In another story, for Public Radio International, he considered how Turkey silences Syrian refugees, crimping their access to journalists and human rights workers.  “I give a small recorder to a refugee to smuggle inside and gather stories,” he wrote. “Yusuf Esmail, from Khirbet al-Joz, says he was just talking with some relatives back home, and they said they found two corpses with their tongues cut out, so badly beaten they couldn't be identified.”

Matthew’s reportorial voice never drips with saccharine sympathy for the refugees. Rather, it carries a cool objectivity—and also a hint of his higher purpose. He is a man in love with the ideal of investigative journalism. In an era in which newspapers are dying and websites and magazines list toward infotainment designed to gratify advertisers, he is almost a throwback—a purist who lives to dispense unsparing facts and lay bare the mechanisms of power. His stories are at times ruthlessly indicting. In a lengthy 2015 piece for foreignpolicy.com, he outs one Christopher Dell who, as US ambassador to Kosovo between 2009 and 2012, enriched the international construction giant, Bechtel, by getting his cronies inside Kosovo’s corrupt government to award Bechtel a contract to build a 48-mile, $1.3 billion superhighway through their struggling republic. Ensuring that he won’t be invited to Dell’s birthday party anytime soon, he notes that after leaving the State Department, the ambassador rode the revolving door to a fat-cat job at Bechtel. Finally, Matthew apprehends that the problem isn’t just a single diplomat. It’s Bechtel, which has also built astronomically expensive roads in three other struggling European countries—Croatia, Romania, and Albania. “Balkan road projects,” he writes, “have blurred the line between U.S. foreign policy and the corporation’s interests.”

Matthew first honed his taste for questioning power as a teenager growing up in San Francisco, listening to punk bands such as the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat. Later, at Reed, taking Hum 110, he tuned into Plato’s search for truth. “If men are chained to the wall of a cave,” he says, synopsizing his reading of the ancient Greek philosopher, “all they see are the shadows cast by the flames and they think those shadows represent the truth. The role of the investigative journalist is to free the men from the chains and reveal the truth.”

Matthew edited the Quest and majored in history, writing his thesis with Prof. John Tomsich [history 1962-99] on COINTELPRO, the FBI’s covert program to disrupt the Black Panthers. After graduating, he was considering a reporting job at a midsize American daily. He applied to the Petaluma Argus-Courier, but then decided that he should learn his craft “someplace more interesting.” He traveled to Turkey, took the train west out of Istanbul and got off at the first stop—in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, just as the former communist state was beginning its belated transition to a market economy. He ended up staying in Sofia for most of the next 13 years—and then returning in early 2016. Along the way, he became one of just a handful of American correspondents fluent in the Bulgarian language. He also reveled (as only a journalist would) in the chaos that envelops developing Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest nation. “The corruption is easier to see here,” he says. “You don’t have to dig as deeply in a place where the head of the state heating company makes $500 a month and drives a $70,000 car.”

In his myriad journeys away from Sofia, he has lived for a stint in Istanbul and in Belgrade. He earned a master's degree in journalism at UC Berkeley, and did a yearlong investigative reporting fellowship at Berkeley's school of journalism. He has filed stories from 30 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and when Reed Magazine caught up with him in March he was without fixed address, surfing from one Sofia airbnb to the next. “You don’t have to buy sheets or dishes or frying pans,” he exalted. “It’s true freedom.”

Currently, Matthew is gearing up to write his first book—a narrative journey through the world of Balkan pop music, regarding its evolution as a window into the region’s tortured transition toward democracy. He’ll devote one chapter to most of the dozen Balkan nations, among them Serbia, Albania, Greece, and Romania. The project stems from a 2015 Harper’s magazine piece that he wrote on chalga, a weirdly hybrid Bulgarian music that sees curvaceous, surgically enhanced chanteuses invoking the rhythms of Balkan folk as they writhe through gangsta anthems lionizing badass “bros” and shiny Ferraris.

And after that? Hard to tell. You never really know where the flames will next flicker on the wall, but Matthew’s ready to pack up and go on a moment’s notice.

Tags: Alumni, Life Beyond Reed