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The World's Most Depressing Museum

Sulaymaniyah's torture museum is the main tourist attraction in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

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," explains Bawer, a smartly dressed Iraqi Kurd. He stands over a desk that once belonged to Ali Hassan Al Majid – Saddam Hussein's right-hand man, better known as Chemical Ali – and runs his hand over the room's wood-panelled walls.

On the other side of the room, a plaster mannequin hangs 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 says, as he walks towards the model, pointing directly at its groin, "is where they would attach the weights – usually 20 to 30 kilograms. Sometimes more."

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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 leafy suburb in the Kurdish region of Iraq, 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 captive, as well as those who happened to fall foul of Ba'athist authorities in northern Iraq.

Halabja's bullet ridden torture museum

When the Kurdish army piled into Sulaymaniyah at the start of the 90s – Saddam was a bit pre-occupied 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 found 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, where we now stand, the torture rooms.

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A tank left behind by Iraqi forces in the grounds of the museum

"This guy was here in this cell for a year," explains 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 is 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," says Bawer.

It didn't end well for the prisoner, he explains – 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 desensitised during Bewar's tour, with each story out-horrifying the last.

The floors of the cells are littered with dirty blankets and 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 see 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 says.

Leaving the torture rooms and walking across the courtyard, a tiled wall with a statue of several twisted, white figures stands alone on a patch of dirt. This, Bawer says, 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.

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The hall of mirrors in Halabja's torture museum

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

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