Monday, October 26, 2009
Sixth Blog, October 26, 2009
Sixth Blog – Monday, October 26, 2009.
I’m not sure how much longer we can keep up with a weekly blog and still find things that might be of general interest, but at least for this blog, hopefully there will be something of interest to most, even if the topic is less than cheery and light.
This week we went to a Saddam Hussein-era complex of buildings in the center of Suli. They are the only buildings we have seen that bear any marks of war. Now called the Red Museum, when it was first built 30 years ago, the German company who built it was told that it was to be a prison. In fact, Saddam had other intentions. He was frustrated with the emergence of new Kurdish nationalist movements and determined to root them out. So over the period from 1979 to January 1991 this complex became a feared place to which many persons suspected of involvement in Kurdish nationalism were sent, but from which few ever came home. Within the complex are two sets of buildings: a large, multi-story administrative center, and off to the north of it, a fairly common, rather prosaic low concrete building with few windows. It was in through cells and rooms of the latter building that we were taken. It was pointed out that some cells were for groups; others were intended as solitary confinement places for persons who were reluctant to answer questions. All were grim, to say the least. A simple blanket on the floor; a single window about 6” by 6” high on the wall; two plastic pans, one for food, the other for human waste. Intermixed were torture rooms in which prisoners were treated to tortures as old as the type used in the late middle ages in Europe to extract confessions from persons who were accused of witchcraft. This torture was called, in Europe, strappado, in which the victim has his hands tied behind his back, and then is hung by his hands from a hook, so all the weight of the body is carried by the hands and shoulders with hands over the back of the head. Add to this the modern torture of electric shock to the ear lobes even as the person is hanging from a hook. In other situations, Baathists – Saddam’s henchmen – would bring to the prison female relatives of suspects and tell the prisoner that unless they confessed, the women would be raped in their presence, a particularly heinous retribution in a society that so values sexual modesty. Other forms of torture involved striking the soles of suspects’ feet with a rod. Persons found guilty were shipped off to Abu Graib prison in Baghdad for execution. (In several key rooms, they have created sculptures to illustrate what happened.) All of this was explained to us by a guide, with translation being provided by one of the AUIS students. It was a grim hour to be led from one room to another, all meticulously kept in the same condition they were in at the time of the liberation of the prison in January 1991. As you might guess, the Kurds who stood up to Saddam’s abuse even to the point of death are now considered martyrs to the cause of Kurdish nationalism and are revered as heroes. One of the parties he targeted, the Progressive Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is now a respected party in this region.
Saddam’s efforts against the Kurds became even more widespread in the 1980s, when he accused them of helping the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war. He began the Anfal campaign, to cleanse the area of Kurds. 5,000 villages were razed, families were torn apart, and over 180,000 Kurds lost their lives. (If you want to get sense of the period, rent and watch the movie called “Turtles Can Fly” that is built around the lives of children in a refugee camp.) One of the most tragic of situations occurred only 50 miles from here when Saddam ordered the use of nerve gas and mustard gas against the village of Halabja. Over 5,000 people lost their lives in Halabja. To memorialize the loss of lives in the Anfal campaign, the designers of the museum created a long and winding room that is lined with pieces of jagged pieces of mirror, one to stand for each of the 180,000 deaths, and on the ceiling are placed 5,000 white lights to represent the destroyed villages. One has the sense in this museum that it is, like Yad Vashem in Israel, an effort to say, “never again.”
But the Red Museum also has space dedicated to peace: a room full of dove houses – a place where doves, as symbols of peace and reconciliation, can come and go freely. It also has lovely gardens with fountains and rose gardens that stand in stark contrast to the horror of what happened here just a few years ago. What the museum seems to say is that Kurds want to remember, but they want to move on and live peacefully in Iraq. What we realize in talking with our students is that virtually all of their lives were impacted by the struggles of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, including a bloody civil war that took place between two Kurdish factions in the ‘90s, after the effective defeat of Saddam in this area.
The trip to the Red Museum could hardly be called joyful. But it served as a sober reminder of the struggles through which the people of this region have gone, and of the optimism that is the predominating trait of our students. They seem eager to put behind them the animosities of the past and to live as Kurds and Arabs in peace.
I have placed at the top of this blog three photos of the Red Museum: the first is of one of the group cells, the second is of a statue of a prisoner being hung from a hook, the third is of the hall of mirrors. Several more are at the Picasa web site: http://picasaweb.google.com/averagerider3/LivingInIraq#
If as you read this and previous posts you have questions that you would like for us to answer in future posts, feel free to write them as comments, or to write to our email addresses. While we can hardly claim to be experts, we will try to address questions on life here.