There are four large collective detention halls, a women’s hall where children were also kept, and thirteen solitary confinement chambers. Dirty blankets scattered on the floor and graffiti on the walls are the only sign of any human presence. In one solitary confinement chamber, a prisoner has drawn a tree and the profile of some mountains in an apparent attempt to retain a vestige of the outside world and shrug off fear.
The guide leads visitors through the grim rooms and meticulously explains their use and function. There is the torture room, the room where women were taken to be raped, and the soundproof studio where the screams of those being tortured were recorded and broadcasted throughout the jail to intimidate other prisoners.
The Kurdish sculptor Kamaran Omer was commissioned to make five statues for this section of the museum. Two of the statues represent real prisoners, while the others reconstruct moments of ordinary cruelty in an average day at the high security prison. In one corridor, the statue of an anonymous prisoner is handcuffed to the wall. He stands on a mezzanine, his back bent in pain. There are collective detention halls on his left. Just behind his back is the door that opens to the torture chambers. The embodiment of bare, disposable life, his placement would have been a terrifying taste of the future to come for his fellow prisoners.
Further inside the building, the statue of Atta Ahmed Qadir, known to his inmates as Mamosta Ahmed, is placed inside a solitary cell. Qadir was a schoolteacher whose courage, integrity, and commitment to the struggle was recognized and admired by all. His statue has been placed in the actual room he was detained in before being transferred to Abu Ghraib where he was executed in 1990. He stands upright and looks into the distance. Omer has transformed this man into a symbolic representative of the Kurdish martyrs, who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and independence.
The last section of the Museum of War Crimes is the Hall of Mirrors. Lady Hero designed and conceived this space, which was finally constructed between 2002 and 2003. Composed of a long passageway, this area was originally used by high-ranking members of the Ba’ath army as an internal connection between the offices and the canteen. It is now a labyrinthine corridor covered in pieces of broken mirror and illuminated with a warm orange light created by thousands of minute light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Each mirror represents a victim of Operation Al-Anfal, each light bulb one of the villages that was destroyed during the years of Saddam’s rule. There are 4,050 light bulbs and 150,000 pieces of broken mirror.
The Museum of War Crimes confronts the visitor with the disturbing closeness of horrors from the past. The cathartic journey through the halls of the museum places the present in perspective and turns Amna Suraka into a monument to the redeeming power of history.
The Museum of War Crimes’ mission is resonant: the existence and sorrows of those who were tortured and killed in Amna Suraka will be remembered and passed on from generation to generation.
The Museum of War Crimes is a monument that interrupts the chain of ruins by highlighting the redemptive power of the past. As a place of memory, it warns us of the cruelties of the past and, through this reminder, creates hope for a better future.
*Francesca Recchia is a staff writer at Muftah.
* A longer version of this article was published in Third Text Asia, 4-2010.
A special thank to Ali Adam for his kind help and Sebastian Meyer for his never-ending support.
For several reason, there is no exact data on the actual size of the Kurdish population. On the one hand, in Turkey – which supposedly hosts the largest percentage of Kurds – data is difficult to gather because of limitations on the Kurdish minorities’ political rights. On the other hand, because of regime change and years of war in Iraq, the last census dates back to 1987. The estimate provided here are from David McDowall’s A Modern History of the Kurds, I B Tauris, London, New York, 2005, p 3
The oil rich city of Kirkuk and its surrounding areas are at the core of the ongoing territorial dispute between the Iraqi Central Government and the Kurdish Regional Government. Control over Kirkuk has always been one of the main items on the Kurdish agenda of self-determination and has become key in preventing bilateral accords between the Kurds and the Iraqi government (including the failure of the 11 March 1970 Peace Agreement). In 1963, in response to this thorny impasse, the Iraqi Central Government began implementing a series of Arabization campaigns to influence the demographic balance between the ethnically Arab and Kurdish populations in the disputed area. According to unverified Kurdish sources, during the ensuring forty-year period, more than a million Kurds were replaced with Egyptian and Iraqi Arabs.
Besides being a media tycoon and a great supporter of Kurdish NGOs, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed is among the main promoters of culture and arts in Iraqi Kurdistan. Lady Hero is the wife of Jalal Talabani, current president of Iraq and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). She spent many years with Talabani in the mountains as an active member of the peshmerga forces.
Mamosta in Kurdish means teacher and is often used as a title of respect.
Amna Suraka has about 300 visitors per day, mostly students on school trips. The image of teenage girls in headscarves and chequered skirts climbing on military tanks to take souvenir pictures, for me, embodies the amazing resilience of humanity and the endless possibility for hope.