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Kurdistan's Amna Suraka Prison

Kurdistan's Amna Suraka Prison

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Set in an upscale neighborhood in Kurdistan's eastern city of Sulamaniya, the Amna Suraka Prison, or "Red Building," still radiates the terror inflicted by Saddam Hussein's regime on Kurdish people just a few decades earlier.

In 1986 the Iraqi state conducted the al-Anfal Campaign, a genocidal movement against the Iraqi Kurds. Amna Suraka functioned as the headquarters for the Mukbaharat, Iraq's secret intelligence agency. Here, torture, rape and other unspeakable violations were committed to students, dissidents, Kurdish nationalists and anyone else who spoke out against the Ba'ath Regime. Finally, in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, the Kurdish Peshmerga liberated the prison, and the buildings have been left as-is, war torn and pock marked by bullets.

It's a striking reminder of Kurdistan's traumatic past, and a symbol of their longtime struggle for self-determination. Musicians not excluded, traditional music was seen as political and artists were castigated during Saddam Hussein's regime.

It's also a symbol of the pride and perseverance of the Kurdish people.

What I find most interesting is that the prison, now an official War Crimes museum due to Lady Hero Talabani, wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, features incredibly powerful art installations throughout the prison. Commissioned by local artist Kameron Omar, the statues are set as actual likenesses of prisoners and various scenarios of torture and desperation.

My favorite was a statue of a Kurdish school-teacher named Atta Ahmed Qadir, admired for his courage. He smuggled in pencils and wrote his story on the walls. He was taken to Abu Ghraib and executed in 1991. Here he is looking out the window, not helpless but rather empowered, and it gives a sense of hope in the otherwise hopeless space.

The last building on site we visited was called the "Hall of Mirrors," dedicated to the estimated  182,000 Kurds (1 shard for each person) who were killed by Saddam during his campaign. Conceived of by Lady Hero, it's warm labyrinth resonates with the basic human notion of catharsis, the sheer number of lives lost and the families left behind sends a message of hope, peace and renewal from such a cruel past.

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