The World's Most Depressing Museum Is in Iraq, of Course

Most cities have monuments to the past, so it seems appropriate, given the bloody history of Iraqi Kurdistan, that Sulaymaniyah's main tourist attraction is a museum devoted to documenting torture and injustice.

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Oct 31 2013, 4:00pm

A mannequin of a torture victim hangs from the ceiling above Chemical Ali's desk.

"They used the wood so that nobody could hear the screams," explained Bawer, a smartly dressed Iraqi Kurd. He stood over a desk that once belonged to Ali Hassan Al Majid—Saddam Hussein's right-hand man, better known as Chemical Ali—and ran his hand over the room's wood-panelled walls.

On the other side of the room, a plaster mannequin hung on a hook from the ceiling, its hands bound behind its back and electrodes running from its head to a metal box on the desk. "And here," Bawer said, as he walked towards the model, pointing directly at its groin, "is where they would attach the weights, usually 20 to 30 kilograms [about 45 to 65 pounds]. Sometimes more."

Most cities have monuments to the past, so it seems appropriate, given the bloody history of Iraqi Kurdistan, that Sulaymaniyah's main tourist attraction is a torture museum. Tucked away in a now relatively quiet and leafy suburb, Amna Suraka is the former headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agency, and a building known to all Iraqi Kurds. Until the armed Kurdish fighters (known as the Peshmerga) liberated it in the early 1990s, the prison held students, dissidents, and Kurdish nationalists, as well as anyone else who happened to attract the attention of Baathist authorities in northern Iraq.

The bullet-hole-ridden exterior of the torture museum.

When the Kurdish army piled into Sulaymaniyah at the start of the 90s—Saddam was a bit preoccupied with the Gulf War at this point—the last 800 Iraqi soldiers in the city holed up in the prison. After a week of shelling, the Kurds broke in and killed them all. The tanks and artillery left by the Iraqi army still litter the courtyard, and the bullet-ridden building now serves as a monument to those who lost their lives inside its pockmarked concrete walls.

Open six days a week and free of charge, the prison has been left almost exactly as it was two decades ago. The complex is made up of three main buildings, the first used for administration (now a museum of Kurdish culture), the second a bombed-out former prison, and the third is dedicated to remembering the torture that once took place here.

A tank left behind by Iraqi forces on the& museum grounds.

"This guy was here in this cell for a year," explained Bawer, pointing to a mannequin with a moustache standing in a tiny concrete room. "He wrote his story on the walls."

On the whitewashed surface was line after line of Kurdish script, as well as pictures of butterflies, sketched in blue and green ink. "Pencils were smuggled in from outside and became a traded item in the prison," said Bawer.

It didn't end well for the prisoner, he explained—he was later taken to Baghdad and executed.

Mannequins depicting how soldiers would beat the soles of the prisoners' feet.

It is impossible to become desensitized during Bawer's tour, with each story more horrifying than the last. The floors of the cells are littered with dirty blankets, the toilet block still reeks of sewage, hooks and spikes protrude from the roof and walls and, around one corner, a man stands handcuffed to a drainpipe, unable to sit down. We saw the room where prisoners were beaten with sticks on the soles of their feet and the room where women were taken to be raped.

"The soldiers used to drive around Sulaymaniyah and when they saw a girl they liked, they’d bring her here," Bawer said.

Leaving the torture rooms and walking across the courtyard, we came across several twisted, white statues standing on a patch of dirt. This, Bawer said, is a monument to the students who were brought to the wall and executed between 1979, when Amna Suraka opened, and 1991, when it was liberated.

The hall of mirrors.

The last stop on the tour is the Al-Anfal Memorial, an exhibit dedicated to the thousands who died during Saddam's war against the Kurds and named after a chapter in the Qur'an that commemorates a sixth-century battle of Muslims against the Kurds. An L-shaped corridor is lined with shards of mirror, each one representing the estimated 180,000 Kurds killed by Saddam during his campaign.

The architect of that campaign, Chemical Ali, whose desk we were shown earlier, was later tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide before being executed in 2010.

Inside the hall of mirrors, the light is a welcome change from the darkness of the cells and torture rooms; the mirrors a striking contrast to the bleak white mannequins, their faces contorted in pain. While the rest of Amna Suraka has been left in the past, the hall of mirrors at least seems to be looking forward.

Follow Orlando on Twitter: @ocrowcroft

More stories about Iraqi Kurds:

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