Growing up, I read in the papers how horrific the regime of Saddam truly was. The graphic imagery posted across the internet and broadcast on television sets all over Ireland. Still, I feel that we never really understand the brevity of how serious the situation truly was. I for one definitely felt like the whole thing was shrouded in a misty haze! I’m a firm believer that to truly understand something you need to understand it on the experiential level.
I guess in part this is why we decided to travel to the Middle East. To fully understand what happened here, what is happening now while getting a true and accurate reflection of how this has affected the people here.
This lead us to Amna Suraka prison, a compound that is not for the light of heart and to be honest, has affected me deeply. All cities pay tribute to the past, so given the bloody history of Iraqi Kurdistan, it seems fitting that Sulaymaniyah’s most notorious location for visitors is a former torture prison. Spread out over 17,000 feet and capable of holdings hundreds of detainees at a time, the prison became a symbol of Kurdish oppression.
Amna Suraka is the former headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat. Between the years of 1986-1991 until liberation by the Kurdish Peshmerga army, it was used as the location for the torture and imprisonment of Iraq’s Kurdish population. From 1986, Iraq conducted the genocidal Al-Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds. Over 100,000 Kurds were killed as a result, due to methods such as bombings, firing squads, mass deportation, settlement destruction, chemical warfare, torture and imprisonment. Thousands of Kurds were tortured and executed within Amna Suraka itself.
We entered the compound, composed of various building pierced with bullet holes. Our first stop was the Al-Anfal memorial – a hall of mirrors. This chamber contained 4,500 light bulbs symbolising villages destroyed during al-Anfal, as well as 182,000 shards of broken glass – one for every Kurd person killed during the campaign.
Afterwards, we moved onto the next building which houses the regime’s torture chambers. Spread out amongst dimly lit isolation chambers and torture rooms were life-size sculptures enacting the horrors faced by prisoners. One was strung from the ceiling, suspended by his arms held behind his back. Another was on his back, his legs fastened together and his feet being attacked with metal ensuring he couldn’t walk for days. Apart from the sculptures and filthy blankets, the rooms were empty – scrawls on the wall being the only proof they once contained human beings. One of the rooms we entered was soundproofed – our host informed us that this is where confessions were forcefully pulled, and female prisoners were raped. The sounds were recorded and broadcast throughout the prison – creating an atmosphere of fear and trepidation amongst detainees.
Our host next brought us to the former administration building, the walls inside covered with the faces of the victims of the regime. He paused at the entrance and informed that he wouldn’t be able to join us inside, reflecting on his earliest memory from childhood. He was only four years old living in Baghdad when the An-Anfal campaign began. Forced to leave his family home, his family fled for the mountains of North Iraq in fear of their lives leaving behind all their possessions. Once inside the administration building, there was a solitary TV screen showcasing harrowing news reports of the mass migration that he had described only moments ago.
When the Peshmerga finally did come to liberate those inside, the staff had a chopper hovering above the facility looking to escape but alas the fighters, wiped them out. A revenge for the pain and suffering they caused the Kurdish who were held here. The Red Prison stands as a memorial to all those who’s lives were taken in vein under Saddam’s Reign of Terror!