Editors’ note: This is the third in a series of dispatches from Kurdistan, where the author is spending four months consulting for the American University in Iraq–Sulaimani. The first and second installments are here and here.
The “Red Museum” in the city of Sulaimani, or Suli, isn’t red or much of a museum. It’s three hideous concrete buildings, erected in 1979 to house Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus as part of his campaign to subdue the Kurds after their quixotic 1975 uprising—quixotic because they trusted Iranian and American promises of support. Two of the buildings had windows, but they were shot out by Suli’s enraged citizens in a spontaneous uprising after the Gulf War in 1991. The third had no windows, because it was a place where no one should be able to see in or out. Sunlight wasn’t welcome in a chamber of torture and death.
Saddam’s campaign began as a giant feat of social engineering and ethnic gerrymandering. By 1979, the regime razed over 1,000 villages along the borders with Turkey and Iran and moved their inhabitants to grim resettlement camps. Arabs were moved into, and Kurds expelled from, strategic and disputed towns in the region, especially Kirkuk. But Saddam also spent lots of money on economic development to dampen Kurdish nationalist zeal.
Things changed dramatically with the revival of the Kurdish rebel forces, the advent of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, and the formation of the Kurdistan National Front in Tehran in 1987. With Saddam now viewing the Kurds as an Iranian-backed fifth column, ethnic gerrymandering gave way to lethal repression, culminating in the genocidal chemical murder of the Anfal campaigns, which began with attacks around Suli in February 1988. When Iranian and Kurdish forces took the city of Halabja in March and threatened to take the nearby Darbandikan dam as well, Saddam’s regime shelled and gassed that city and its surrounding villages. By the end of the Anfal campaigns in August 1988, according to historian David McDowall, Saddam’s vast apparatus of murder had killed perhaps as many as 200,000 men, women, and children, produced hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees in Turkey and Iran, and left Kurdistan bereft of rural village life.
All of this is cold historical fact. There is nothing cold about the faces one sees on the walls of the Red Museum, where from 1979 until the uprising in 1991, Saddam tortured and killed in pursuit of the Kurdish rebels. Though Saddam usually buried his victims in mass graves as far as possible from where they lived, he had no scruples about compiling a photographic record of the killing. The first photo one sees freezes the blood. It looks like a picture in a college yearbook: a class of 13 young men, perhaps a debating or a Latin club, except for the anxiety evident in their eyes. The legend informs that it was taken in the prison in 1986 and that all but one of these young men were tortured and executed. Then photo after photo shows a bloody body crumpled at the foot of the stake to which the victim was tied to be shot. In one photo, two Baathist security men, grinning widely beneath their mustaches, hold up a headless corpse, their free hands raised in the victory salute. Next comes a picture of three women—child, mother, and grandmother—with faces frozen in fear just before their execution for suspected connection with rebels in the mountains. Numerous images record the last minutes in the lives of such women and children.
Then we see photos of the villages: buses being loaded with dispirited inhabitants headed toward industrial-style execution; smoldering ruins; piles of the dead killed by artillery and bombs. And throughout, Saddam’s soldiers filled with jubilant pride at their murder of the innocent and unarmed. The walls of the last room are covered with photos taken by Suli citizens during the Kurds’ short-lived 1991 uprising against Saddam. We see Baathist tanks on fire, a person shot out of a wheelchair lying dead in the street, wounded Baathists getting first aid from the Kurds, and a heartbreaking picture of a young boy holding a sign asking, WHERE IS MY SISTER?
From the photo rooms, the museum’s guide, Khalil Ali Mustafa, takes visitors to the rooms where the real business of the prison went on. They’re surprisingly small: two 20-by-12-foot cells, on either side of a short hall leading to two toilets, together housed up to 120 prisoners on an average day. From the cells, the prisoners could see, down another short hall, the “relaxation post,” where prisoners fresh from torture were tied to a wall and kicked, pummeled, and insulted by the guards who walked by.
There are also two torture rooms, each about 10 by 15 feet, and each with a beam, suspended from the ceiling, to which are attached several meat hooks. From these hooks, prisoners were hung by their wrists tied behind the back: the effect was to dislocate the shoulders and cause slow and agonizing suffocation while the rest of the body was beaten with wire whips and shocked by a generator attached to the nipples and genitals. The shock machine and the whips are on display. Between the two torture rooms is a smaller “listening room,” where the next victim would be held for hours to listen to the screams and contemplate what he would soon endure. Many cracked and talked just from that pressure. And children were among the tortured, to extort information from their horrified mothers. Down another hall is a long line of isolation cells, roughly four by five feet, where particularly important prisoners were kept for up to six months of repeated torture sessions. Wires once attached to small microphones run outside the cells.
The cells’ walls are scratched with the names of prisoners who tried to leave some vestige of their existence. In one is a small statue of a teacher, Ma Masta Ahmad, who after six months of confinement and torture was subjected to 24 hours of hanging by his wrists. To end this torment he told everything he knew—and then was shot. On the wall is etched his pathetic little calendar, which he kept to keep some contact with an outside world that he never saw again. Of the thousands of men, women, and children who came through the doors of the Red Museum, almost none came out alive. Those who did not perish were sent to Abu Ghraib in Baghdad to be hanged.
In the basement of the Red Museum, a dark and dank and stinking place, is a small room with pictures of the 1988 chemical attack on Halabja. Many in the West are familiar with the photo of a man lying prone on the threshold of a house, on top of a small child whom he tried to shield from the gas. It’s heartbreaking, to be sure, but it’s almost abstract and thus suitable for newspaper display. I doubt that many of the photos in the Red Museum have been seen in the West, because they’re so gruesome as to turn the stomach of anyone who sees them. The one I found most disturbing was a close-up of a little girl, maybe six or seven years old. Her ashen white face is surrounded by brownish hair and her mouth is frozen in a ghoulish grin. Her eyes are open, but are so crossed as to make her look like a little fiend from hell. The gas not only killed her; it turned her corpse into what looked like a monster.
A few weeks later, I went to Halabja with a young woman and her husband. Both were seven when the city was gassed. We first stopped at the memorial building on the edge of the city. The memorial was ransacked in 2006 and is still a mess. Angry Halabja citizens attacked it in protest against government indifference. They had a point: Halabja is drab and sad and has few paved streets. It’s a monument to government neglect as well as to the misery of the Anfal campaign.
In the city center is an old graveyard surrounded by a fence, on which a sign reads: BAATH NOT PERMITTED TO ENTER. Amid the old single graves are three new mass graves in which about 3,000 victims of the attack are interred. Beyond them is an expanse of small headstones, each representing an entire family. The young woman accompanying me said that she was lucky that her father, a peshmerga—a rebel fighter, one of “those who confront death”—had told her and her mother to leave the city because an attack was sure to come. They fled to one of the vast, squalid refugee camps in Iran and after six months made their way back to Suli. Her father was gassed and eventually died of the effects. Her husband, too, remembers clinging to his mother’s dress as they fled into the mountains to escape the gas. At one point they had to choose between paths to two separate villages. Both villages were bombed by gas, but the bomb hitting the village they chose turned out to be a dud. It’s sheer luck that he’s alive. The young woman’s brother did not live to see this horror. In 1981, she told me, at the age of 14, he was murdered by his best friend, also 14 but even at that age a Baathist agent.
The mountains above Halabja are dotted with empty villages, monuments, and mass graves, some barely large enough for a few families, one the size of a football field. Many small mass graves lie near two natural springs whose water was poisoned by the gas, instantly killing those who drank it. On the day I visited, throngs of picnickers were enjoying their Friday in the country, barbecuing, playing music, and dancing. It was hard to believe that in these now serene mountains, old men, women, and children were once mowed down by helicopter gunships and chemical bombs.
In politics, the legacy of suffering has made the Kurds hard. They trust no one, look out for themselves, and engage in double-dealing, often to the chagrin of their friends in America and elsewhere. But apart from politics, Kurdish civil society is healing, and the Kurds are getting over the experience of being victims. In fact, one problem in Suli, notes Judith Bass, a Johns Hopkins professor of public health working here with the Heartland Alliance’s Victims of Torture Project (which provides mental health services), is that the victims, especially disabled and shell-shocked peshmerga, feel that they’re being forgotten as the Kurds get on with making the most of their freedom. Few citizens of Suli visit the Red Museum. When they go to the silent graves of their murdered beloved, they go to picnic and dance—to celebrate life and freedom.