The struggle for Kurdish self-determination is a century old story of conspiracies, revolts, and repressions. With a population of twenty-four to twenty-seven million in the Middle East alone (and a diaspora population in the millions), the Kurds represent one of the largest stateless ethnic groups. Possessing an abiding sense of identity and belonging as well as a tight tribal social organization, the Kurds have always been difficult to control and subjugate, whether by the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, or other nation states.
Nevertheless, obtaining a homeland of their own has so far eluded the Kurdish people. The strategic location of what Kurds call Great Kurdistan – the extended mountainous area at the intersection of the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey – has been one reason working against their cause. Beneath this territory lies one of the largest, unexploited oil beds on the planet, representing a massive potential source of wealth and political influence.
Hopes for a Kurdish homeland have, however, significantly improved since the First Gulf War in 1991 and the subsequent recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan as an Autonomous Federal Region within the borders of Iraq. Since then, the region has attracted interests, hopes, and investments both from Kurds in the region and abroad. It has also become home to the first Museum of War Crimes, a monument that reconstructs the history of violations committed against the Kurdish people by the Ba’ath Regime.
The History of the Museum of War Crimes at Amna Suraka
As we all know, the First Gulf War was triggered by Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Because of the new necessities of war, the Iraqi regime was forced to move its army to the frontline in the south. As such, troops responsible for managing the rebellious minorities in the northern and central regions of the country were relocated to the border with Kuwait. Because of this power vacuum, Kurdish and Shia’a minorities in Iraq found themselves with the opportunity to renew their struggles for autonomy and self-determination.
While initially successful, the 1991 Kurdish uprising was relatively short-lived and was followed by a wave of harsh repression from the Ba’ath regime. The disputed city of Kirkuk became the target of a radical wave of Arabization and large parts of the Kurdish population were forced to flee and find protection in the cities of the north. Many refugees were sheltered in the liberated buildings of the Amna Suraka where they stayed until 1996.
Amna Suraka – also known by its English translation as the Red Security Building – is one of the high security jails where Saddam’s secret police detained Kurdish political prisoners.
The complex is composed of a set of red, bullet-ridden buildings in the centre of Sulemaniya, the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Its construction began on the 30th of September 1979 and lasted for sixteen years, ending in 1985. Amna Suraka is a large compound of about 17,000 square feet with a number of different buildings that were conceived by Saddam to act as a highly sophisticated structure of punishment and repression. Capable of accommodating several hundred detainees at a time, the first political prisoners started arriving at Amna Suraka in 1986.
Whoever entered Amna Suraka had no guarantee that he (or she) would survive detention, their bodies and lives mere objects in the hands of an absolute machine of power and control.
Amna Suraka was in use until the 9th of March 1991, when the peshmerga – the Kurdish guerrillas – conquered the stronghold.
The Amna Suraka complex is still standing almost untouched, a striking reminder of a traumatic past that remains alive in the Kurdish present. In 2000, it was transformed into the national Museum of War Crimes, an idea first conceived in 1997 by Lady Hero Talabani, wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. Without her efforts, patronage and funding, the project would not have been possible.
Visiting Amna Suraka
When entering the complex, the first structure greeting the visitor is the old administration building. It is a bare concrete skeleton, looking unfinished and on the verge of collapse. Like the Iraqi soldiers that once surrounded this facility, the guards (Kurdish peshmerga) stand on the roof holding AK-47s. Flying in and out of the gaping windows, a colony of pigeons has nested in the building; their cooing and flapping wings occasionally breaking the still silence.
The museum begins with exhibitions housed in the basement. Through corridors of cold concrete, a deep red light leads the way to a series of photographs (poorly printed on plastic banners) that document the horrors the Iraqi army perpetrated in Halabja, a city that has become emblematic of the Kurdish genocide.
The city was repeatedly hit with weapons of mass destruction during the infamous Operation Al-Anfal conducted by Ali Hassan Al-Majid (known as Chemical Ali) in 1988 on the orders of Saddam. The military operation took its name from the eighth Sura of the Quran, Al-Anfal, literally meaning ‘the spoil of war’ and refers to the successful 642 CE Battle of Badr against the infidels. The Ba’ath regime used the religious reference to justify (and reinforce) its large-scale genocide campaign against the Kurds.
As a result of these events, Halabja became infamous as a site of concentrated violence. In the course of seven months, the southeastern areas of Iraqi Kurdistan were repeatedly hit with chemical weapons followed by heavy air bombardments against those who tried to escape. On March 16, 1988, Iraqi planes attacked the city with gas, attempting to annihilate members of the Kurdish irregular resistance who had reportedly taken shelter there. Within a few hours, about 5,000 people had been killed, the majority of them civilians.
Combining evidence with representation, the photos in the basement of Amna Suraka take the visitor on a journey of symbolic horror. Dead bodies, ash-covered wastelands, pain stricken faces and mass graves can barely enunciate the incommensurable tragedy. The photos dramatically confront the viewer capturing a transient moment that forms a building block of Kurdish collective memory and identity.
Ramazan Öztürk’s iconic shot Silent Witness initiates the journey – it is an out-of-focus and over-exposed image of a father holding his baby, laying on the ground by the doorstep of their house in a desperate and useless attempt to escape from the gas. As with many other iconic images of tragedy and disaster, Silent Witness is a visual representation of the collective unconscious and has, in this way, become a symbol of the Kurdish genocide.
The fine line between evidence and representation is further embodied in a visit to an actual jail, a windowless edifice at the further end of the compound, behind office and administration buildings. The space has been left untouched. Its silence makes the emptiness more strident and triggers imagined whispers, screams, and gasps of pain.