If Iraqi Kurdistan has a well-known site, besides Erbil Citadel, it is Sulaymaniyah’s Amna Suraka Prison, aka the Red Prison. It’s so named because of the colour of the bricks that the buildings were constructed of. From 1986 until 1991, when the prison was overtaken, it was a place of torture and death for hundreds of Kurds. The prison was in fact the headquarters of Iraq’s secret intelligence agency (Mukhabarat) and played a central role in Saddam Hussein’s government’s planned genocide of the Kurdish people known as the al-Anfal Campaign. This campaign lasted from 1986 to 1989 and includes the horrific chemical gas attack in the nearby town of Halabja (conceived of and executed by Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemcial Ali”). Thousands of Kurds died during these years, and they are memorialized at the entrance of the museum, where a hallway of mirrors greets visitors. There is a shard of a mirror for the 182,000 victims of the genocide. On the ceiling are 4500 lights, each representing a village that was destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s army.
Walking from the entrance to the prison part of the museum was very sobering. From a lovely reconstruction of a Kurdish home before the invasion, we walked outside into the glaring sunlight of walls riddled with bullet holes and the entire area covered in barbed wire. With a trip earlier this year to Auschwitz, it was not hard to see the connection between the two, and the difficult feelings that both these places brought up.
We first visited a number of cells. Some were large, housing three times as many prisoners as they were designed to hold. Some were very small, meant for isolation and/or torture.
A few of these rooms had dioramas showing various forms of torture used by the administrators. In one of the rooms, a prisoners would be hung by his hands strung up behind his back. A wire would be attached to his foot so that he could be electrocuted. The walls were thin so that prisoners could hear what was going on in these rooms.
Some women were imprisoned here as well. Their numbers were not as large as the men’s, but they were subjected to the same brutal treatment. Many women ended up here with their babies and small children, all of whom faced the same fate in the end.
The walls of the prison are covered in graffiti. Some of that graffiti is newer, as after the prison was overtaken by the Kurds, it became a place for many displaced people to live in. However, the prisoner graffiti is protected by glass, with translations provided. A few of those are in the photo sequence below:
After the prison we visited the gallery part of the museum, which had a broader scope, covering not only the Kurdish genocide, but the impact ISIS has had in Iraqi Kurdistan. In a scene also reminiscent of Auschwitz, there were displays of shoes and clothing found from just a few of the many Kurdish victims and the Peshmerga who fought against them.
Also in the displays were a collection of ISIS stamps. If you wanted to cross any part of ISIS controlled territory, you certainly needed papers with the rights stamps on them.
A particularly gruesome memorial was that of a hand of a Peshmerga soldier at the moment of his death. He died with his gun in his hand, and this is how he was found. Other displays included thousands of photos of Kurdish victims, the impact of land mines in the regions, and the countries that both provided those mines and are now helping to de-mine the region.
After spending some time in both a literal and figurative darkness, we re-emerged to the bright sunlight outside. The outer grounds of the museum hold a number of old army vehicles and weapons used against the Kurds.
Like Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Sulaymaniya’s Red Prison was mostly left as it was after it was captured by the Peshmerga, gutted and bullet-ridden. It is now the Museum of War Crimes and provides an important testament to the evil that still permeates humanity. Like so many other places of dark history, this is place that every visitor to the region needs to visit.
Site: Amna Suraka (Red Prison/Museum of War Crimes)
Location: 21st St., Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, 46001
Hours: unsure. Probably 9-17, but I believe it closes for lunch