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Iraq’s Walking Dead

Christopher Watt journeys to Amna Suraka Prison—Ground Zero for Kurdish Iraqis—and finds both victory and defeat standing still.

ON DECEMBER 6, 1989, Nawzad Rahman Hsin was tossed into a small room in Amna Suraka, a Baathist security prison in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. He was 18, an intellectual, and the leader of a three-person political cell. He and his two compatriots had been saying that Saddam Hussein was wild, a totalitarian. “We were talking to anyone we could trust.”

Nawzad was made to stand on a chair. His hands were lashed behind his back, and forced over a hook hanging from a ceiling pipe about eight feet off the floor. A guard fixed electrified clamps to his ears and groin. Then as he moved the chair Nawzad stood on just out of reach of his toes, another guard dialed up the juice. Nawzad’s shoulders popped out of their sockets. Who had he talked to? They wanted names. “Sometimes when they switched on the electricity, I would kick myself in the head,” says Nawzad.

Although an Iraqi citizen, Nawzad was accused by the Baathists of being a foreign agent. From the Baathist perspective, the accusation had some merit. Nawzad is a Kurd, a group of over 20 million who occupy a mountainous area known as Kurdistan that spans portions of Iran and Syria and more significantly western Turkey and northern Iraq. As old as the ancient Greeks, and boasting a unified and distinct culture for almost that long, the Kurds entered the twentieth century with an emphatic yearning for an independent state. Violently rebuffed by Turkey, which continues to oppose independence for its Kurd population, Kurdistan’s separatist conflicts with Iraq escalated after the rise of Saddam Hussein and the ethnically Sunni Baath party in 1968. Over the ensuing twenty years, the Iraqi army bombed Kurdish villages and poisoned the Kurds with chemical weapons.

Like many Iraqi-Kurdish opposition groups during the 1980s, Nawzad’s small band of revolutionaries kept close contact with Kurdish family and friends in Iran, a country against which Iraq was still fighting an eight-year war (1980-1988). Iranian-Kurdish cooperation allowed Saddam to open a second front against Iraqi Kurds. Known as Anfal, a word from the Quran that means “the spoils of war,” the Baathist campaign was a three-year genocidal ordeal that culminated in 1988 in a six-month spasm of violence that left 4,000 villages destroyed and as many as 100,000 Kurds dead.

After he was pulled down from the hooks, Nawzad says, a guard walked up to him and “kicked me in my dick.” The kick and subsequent surgery left him bedridden for eight months and, ultimately, sterile. Nawzad spent those months curled up on a blanket upstairs, in the prison’s crowded fifth hall. The room was so crowded that he marked out his personal space in floor tiles, 1.5 tiles for him, about 45 centimetres across. He lived with as many as 200 other Kurdish prisoners of the Baathist regime, each in their own states of distress. They could move around and talk politics, though at any moment a guard could show up and whip someone with an electrical cord. After being released from Amna Suraka in what he described as a prisoner swap—Kurdish rebels for Baathist soldiers—Nawzad tried to start a new life. Two women rejected his proposals because of his condition. He’s married today only because his wife was not made aware that his sterility was permanent.

Today a man-sized sculpture hangs in Amna Suraka where he once hung. It looks a lot like him. Nawzad pulls some pictures from his pocket, urging me to see the resemblance. One set of photographs shows him blindfolded, kneeling against the wall. Another shows him suspended like the man in the statue, grimacing in pain. He found the first set in a Sulaimaniyah photo shop, he says. They had been looted from the Amna Suraka prison archives following a 1991 uprising in which the Kurds, sensing weakness on the part of Saddam following his loss in the first Gulf War, decided to bring things to a head. The second set, he confessed to me months later, had been staged in the mid-1990s. He had re-enacted his torture and taken pictures to prove to an American reporter that it had happened the first time around.

Nawzad looks down. The floor of the torture room is dark in places. “Blood,” he says, “burned into the floor by the fire from the uprising.” Like most Kurds, Nawzad never really thought of himself as an Iraqi. That may have been his biggest crime.

DURING THE END GAME of the first Gulf War in March 1991, the Kurds in Sulaimaniyah armed themselves with rifles, axes and knives. Heeding president George H. W. Bush’s call to resist Saddam Hussein and his regime, they rose up against what just weeks earlier had been one of the largest armies in the world. Fighting came to a head on March 6 in a two-day battle at Amna Suraka. The retreating Baathists lost as many as 700 soldiers, guards, agents and spies in the uprising, according to Kurdish accounts. Hundreds of Kurdish prisoners were freed—some, so the story goes, rescued just seconds before it was too late.

“They found people who had just been executed or were about to be tortured, and they [found] the raping room, and they just massacred the Baath party people,” says Peter Galbraith, an author and former diplomat who crossed the Tigris River under mortar fire, on business for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Galbraith found himself at Amna Suraka just days after the uprising. Wandering the site, he saw a woman biting a dead Baathist guard. “Someone asked her, what are you doing

‘He killed my son. Can’t I do this?’” Galbraith recalls.

The uprising spread from Sulaim-aniyah to the surrounding towns. In each town, Saddam’s security prisons were made a special target.

In Shaqlawa, Galbraith found a book, a record of deeds. “It was a lined book with flowers on the cover. Pink and green, and definitely schoolgirlish. In the book, entered in very neat hand, page by page, line by line, were the names of people who had been executed, where they were picked up—men, women and children—the dates they were detained, the dates they were executed. It was chilling.”

In late March, the Iraqi Army began to reverse the tide, overpowering the ragtag rebels with helicopter gunships that, ironically, had been authorized for humanitarian use in the peace treaty with the Americans that ended the war.

Galbraith was well aware of Saddam’s undeclared ethnic war. Three years earlier, he had been to Iraqi Kurdistan to investigate the results of Baghdad’s Anfal campaign. This time, he wasn’t going to let it go unnoticed. With the help of a group of Kurdish soldiers called the Peshmerga (which means “those who face death”), he rescued some 14 tons of documents and used them to expose the newest chapter in Saddam’s brutal war against the Kurds. As a result, the United States implemented a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan in April 1991, a safe haven that allowed the Kurds to hold their first free elections in Iraq on May 19, 1992.

TODAY, IRAQI KURDISTAN is booming. Foreigners carrying Western passports can expect to move with ease providing they convince the authorities they have not come on jihad.The road to Sulaimaniyah is controlled by the Peshmerga, recognized in the new Iraqi constitution as the Kurdish region’s official army. For the first time in nearly a century, the five-and-a-half-million-strong IraqiKurds hold near-total sway in their ancestral lands. Ethnic violence that continues to plague the rest of Iraq is rare. Also rare are American troops. Since 2003, the Kurds have doubled the number of schools, opened an English-language university, signed oil contracts, and patrol the two-lane highways that run from city to city—all under the red, green, white and sunburst yellow of the
Iraqi Kurdistan flag. The regional government even runs a boosterish website, theotheriraq.com.To read it is to learn that Iraqi Kurdistan is safe for tourists and a great place to invest—like a Gulf emirate or Switzerland.

The Kurds have been waiting for this moment since 1919, when they were promised their own country by the British and French in the aftermath of the First World War. After decades of conflict with Baghdad—and, it should also be said, partly due to America’s invasions—people may need to stop calling them the world’s largest ethnic group without a state.

“The cities are larger. They’re booming with economic activity,” says Galbraith. “The shops are full of things, including most modern goods. Car dealerships. The Internet. Shopping malls. The latest fashions. None of that existed in 1991. The cities have traffic jams and skyscrapers. It’s a whole different ball game.”

A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, is even running the whole of Iraq. Known locally as Mam (Uncle) Jalal, he founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which today garners the lion’s share of party loyalty in Sulaimaniyah. The Kurds have a word for such reversals of fortune: tolhildan. It means both transformation and revenge. But tolhildan can have more sombre manifestations as well. As the future-oriented Kurds continue to seal themselves off from the rest of Iraq, they now wrestle with the question of how to remember their past.

IN 2003, TWELVE YEARS after Nawzad was released, Amna Suraka reopened as the fi rst (and so far only) museum that commemorates war crimes of the late Baathist regime. The region has erected other monuments to Saddam’s misdeeds. There is a 100-foot tall structure in the town of Halabja, for example, along the Iranian border, where 5,000 Kurds were gassed to death in perhaps the largest chemical weapons attack in history. But the torture museum at Amna Suraka has no equal. One man, who now works in Sulaimaniyah for a private Kurdish television station, calls it “our Bastille.” New villas and offi ce towers, even a restaurant called “MaDonal” with bogus Golden Arches, have cropped up in the surrounding neighbourhood. Except for the removal of the all-seeing eye—the logo of Saddam’s security service—from its front gate, Amna Suraka remains as it was. The ochre-coloured walls that give the prison its name (Amna Suraka means Red Security) are bullet-ridden from the fierce battle by which the Kurds took it over in 1991. Tanks and artillery pieces captured from the Iraqi Army rust in an open courtyard.

The main attraction is inside, where we find plaster-and-mud statues that replicate prisoners in lifelike postures. It’s a shocking mix of Soviet realism, martyrdom and public relations. Kamaran Omer, the Sulaimaniyah artist responsible for the statues, interviewed dozens of former political prisoners and modeled his fi gures on the specific experiences of real individuals. The statue of Mamosta Ahmed sits in the same cell he occupied, a calendar he drew in pencil still visible on a wall. Deeper inside the prison we find a handcuffed fi gure in rags slumping in a hallway. Throughout the facility, towels and bowls are placed where prisoners left them the day they were freed.

Such virtual tours are common practice for prison museums. Sing Sing Prison Museum in Ossining, New York, brandishes the weapons confiscated from prisoners. At Bangkok Corrections Museum you can see life-sized statues of prisoners being tortured in odd ways, including a man inside a rattan ball, driven through with nails, which prison authorities had a local elephant kick around.

But these prison museums housed convicted criminals. Very few, like Amna Suraka, commemorate political prisoners or genocide victims. Among this elite group is Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A schoolhouse before being taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Tuol Sleng exhibits bed frames with photographs of the mutilated prisoners who lay there. Visitors can inspect torture instruments like leg irons, and, until it was dismantled in 2002, there was a “skull map” of the country made from 300 skulls. Needless to say, the gold standard of prison museums, with its perfectly preserved barracks and crematorium and its piles of shoes and suitcases, is Auschwitz.

But Amna Suraka faces a unique challenge about the history it is trying to package. Unlike Tuol Sleng, the Iraqi museum isn’t intended to just mourn a genocide, and unlike Auschwitz, the prison isn’t just remembered as a torture camp. As the site of a successful uprising, Amna Suraka’s commemorative mandate is also celebratory. The inescapable complexity of this two-part message—loathing at what humans can do to each other and pride at how humans can persevere and fight back—is given bittersweet expression in the darkest room of the building: a statue
depicting Atta Qadir stands alone, arms crossed, chin jutting upward, like a victory pose.

SAY YOU WENT to prison in the prime of your life. Would you be bitter? Absolutely. But let’s say you lived in a society where there was no higher calling than fighting the dictator, and paying for it in a torture room was proof you’d done your duty. The thousands who passed through Amna Suraka can wear their time here like a badge.

But then imagine that you have to keep going back, returning to the source of your bitterness and your pride, talking to journalists and aid workers and emissaries of various kinds. And then, you take a look around when the foreigners are gone and you think about your life, and how the prime of it is long over. How content would you be with your role now? How would you feel about the marching narrative of a free Iraqi Kurdistan? Surely you’d want to forget parts of the past. But what if your defining activity is to remember, even as those all around you are moving on? Maybe you’d feel like a museum piece, too, stuck in time like one of Amna Suraka’s statues, handcuffed to a wall, unable to leave.

Nawzad is one of the people that museum offi cials call on to speak to foreigners. When I first met him, he was waiting in the parking lot with two middle-aged ladies, Kurdistan Celal Sayyid and Galawezeh Hama Bahkol. Both were arrested in a mountain town in 1988, trying to get to a refugee camp in Iran. They wound up sharing the same cell at Amna Suraka.

Former prisoners sometimes visit the site and with children and friends to curate their own experiences. Not Kurdistan. “We don’t like to be here,” she says.

Galawazeh described herself as a simple wife and mother who sometimes cooked for Peshmerga guerrillas after battle. “We were like the Peshmerga’s eyes in the cities, healing them, cleaning their clothes. When we had information about a battle somewhere, we’d cook and bring food to the field.” Her food at Amna Suraka consisted of yoghurt laced with feces. Today, her prison room is strewn with blankets and a statue of a woman clutching a child.

Galawazeh’s former cellmate, Kurdistan, was an organizer for the political party Komala. She was tortured in hopes of getting real names to match the noms de guerre of people in her 25-person cell. Today she’s a bookkeeper with the Agriculture Ministry. Her two children are university graduates, and one is pursuing graduate studies in Germany.

Was it all worth it? Kurdistan has misgivings. “I’m proud of myself and what I did,” she said, “but when you don’t see any change, I can also say that I am sorry for what I did.”

An incident in Halabja helps to explain what she means. During the March 2006 anniversary of Saddam’s 1988 gas attack against the town, thousands of protesters gathered at the massive Halabja Monument and torched it. This dramatic act, which drew the support and participation of relatives of the victims, expressed the growing local anger at the perceived corruption of Kurdish authorities who are seen as exploiting Saddam’s atrocities for their own gain. The coalition of western powers established a $1 million fund for the town in 2004, but townspeople—many of them still suffering after-effects of chemical poisoning—claimed none of it had gone to improvements in basic services like electricity, water or health care. Residents here, along with many other Kurds, feel like pawns in a larger game in which their tragedy has become political currency.

THE SULAIMANIYAH BRANCH of the Kurdistan Political Prisoners Association (KPPA) has fi les on nearly 1000 former prisoners of the Baathist regime. Established in 1993 under the patronage of Hero Talabani—former freedom fighter, now Iraq’s first lady—the KPPA helps administer Amna Suraka. The organization also has fi les on 100 prisoners who died in Amna Suraka, though there could be more. “The missing people,” Imad Sayyid Muhammed says, “we don’t have any idea.”

Like any poor NGO, its office is decorated with its own iconography and various iterations of its members’ dreams. A poster of Kurdistan—not Iraqi Kurdistan but the Kurdistan that Kurds really wish for, a country which includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq— hangs prominently. Such posters are ubiquitous in Sulaimaniyah. Many private business, offices and kebab restaurants have one.

Muhammed, who runs the local branch, takes down my contact information in a leather book. He is a lanky fellow with a bullet scar below his Adam’s apple. He was a Peshmerga fi ghter who came down from the mountains to Sulaimaniyah for “an operation,” when he was shot through the back of the neck and captured. “They tried to kill me when they arrested me but they found a name in my pocket so [they decided], we’ll figure out what he knows.” He spent some time in Amna Suraka before being moved to Baghdad and tried by Thuraya Court, a military court for rebel Kurds. Given a life sentence in 1983, to be served in Abu Ghraib prison, he was instead released a year later in a prisoner swap.

Money is tight for the KPPA. Well- connected members of Muhammed’s generation receive pensions from the political parties in recognition of their contribution to the Kurdish struggle, but often it is not enough. Three days ago, Muhammed says, he was lobbying the Kurdis- tan Regional Government to consider, for pension purposes, one year in a Baathist jail as two years on the job. “The first thing is to find jobs with the government for political prisoners. So many people, because of their political activities, lost education.” In the teahouses and Internet cafes of Sulaimaniyah, unemployment among former fight- ers seems like a permanent condition of life.

The most pressing issue for the KPPA, however, may be the legal grey zone in which it operates. In Iraqi Kurdistan, NGOs are new, and despite the vast patronage network that the parties operate, lobbying in government is hard. “Everything is illegal. There’s no constitution. We can’t make demands legally.”

“Until now, the government doesn’t care about us. The parties don’t care about us,” Muhammed says. “But we still remember the torture. We cannot forget it.”

"LEST WE FORGET" may be Amna Suraka’s implicit motto. But the museum holds a darker lesson too: the perceived need to stay on a war-footing.

A Peshmerga general named Uncle Rostom said to me that it was once easy to identify the enemy—he wore a uniform, flew helicopters and drove tanks. But now, according to Uncle Rostom, the enemy is harder to spot. He thinks the Kurds are still fighting for their homeland. This is an argument that comes up often in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in conversation with Kurds in the diaspora. If Iraq achieves calm, that means someone has achieved a monopoly on force, and eventually they’ll start moving north, like Saddam did. It is in the nature of things, Kurds believe, that a stable Baghdad would eventually try to subdue them—especially now, they fear, when they are successfully breaking away.

In recent months, there have been reminders that Iraqi Kurdistan is not immune to the violence common elsewhere in Iraq. Last November, the chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party wing of the political prisoners association was injured by a car bomb. In March, just blocks from Amna Suraka, another car bomb went off outside the international Sulaimaniyah Palas Hotel, injuring 26 and killing at least one person. It was the first major terrorist attack in Sulaimaniyah in two years.

As a result, security checkpoints are everywhere on the roads. Racial profiling is also being practiced, according to human rights groups. For locals, these are signs of what may lie ahead. Building a country may be an even messier enterprise than fighting Saddam. Despite the significant gains in recent years, Amna Suraka remains a warning of the dangers of being ruled by another people.

GALAWALZEH and Kurdistan have gone home, but Nawzad has stayed on. We must hurry, he says, because along with power in the rest of Sulaimaniyah, the lights are about to go off for the day.

My time touring Amna Suraka with Nawzad was too short to know if he is a budding activist, a local historian or simply a broken man. It seemed the museum, for him, was still prison. I ask him what he does for a living. He shrugs. “What can I do?”

Then a field trip of students arrives, crowding the narrow hallways of the first floor. Backing into a cell to make room, I find another statue, based on Ahmed, who taught at a local industrial school. He belonged to the PUK underground. He was tortured. “It was supposed to be two hours, three hours on the handles,” Nawzad says, referring to what is today known as strappado technique. “But they forgot him overnight. We said to him, you broke the record.” Ahmed was executed in 1990, his body found hundreds of kilometres away, near another charnel house: Abu Ghraib.

The idea of Amna Suraka as a Kurdish creation myth takes on a certain resonance when faced with the energy and indifference of Kurdistan youth. About twenty of them file by, the product of their parents’ struggle and of Iraqi Kurdistan’s rapid demographic growth. The boys wear jeans and cheap logo T-shirts. Some of the girls wear headscarves, but not all. Most skip Ahmed’s cell, trying to get through the bottleneck of the hallway, more concerned with staying together than seeing the sights.

These kids were probably born after the Sulaimaniyah uprising, and have little firsthand knowl- edge of Saddam’s brutality. They have Internet, satellite TV, text messaging, international airports. They don’t live under the daily threat of insurgent attack, won’t get arrested for speaking Kurdish in the street, or be forced to serve in the Iraqi Army. With no single oppres- sor, all they know of their history is what Amna Suraka is supposed to instil in them: reverence and vigilance. They are Kurdistan’s future—a future where Amna Suraka’s torture chambers will be something that hap- pened in a faraway time.

But here is Nawzad and his pictures. A big kid in a black overcoat has a look, appears to listen, and then rejoins his class. They round a corner and disappear, moving up the stairs to the halls on the second floor, into the past.

[Note: Chris Watt won "Best Student Writer" and received an Honourable Mention in the "Investigative Reporting" category for this piece at the National Magazine Awards.]