'Red Museum' tells of Iraq's tortured past
October 15, 2008
SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — On a recent fall day, Shirwan Mahmoud walked the dingy hallways and windowless cells of the prison he once thought would be his tomb. The brilliant sunshine outside seemed a world away from the dark recesses of a building that served as a headquarters for some of the Saddam Hussein regime’s most brutal abuses.
Mahmoud returned to this once hellish prison in Sulaymaniyah to see it in its current state, a museum solemnizing Saddam’s abuse of Kurds, and to film a documentary about his ordeal.
He was imprisoned here in 1987 for belonging to a Kurdish political party. He was regularly beaten with a cable, given electric shocks, and hung from a pipe for hours with his hands behind his back.
"Any time, I expected to die," he said.
The bullet-pocked complex of buildings, overrun by Kurds during the first Gulf War, is now the National Red Museum, named for the color of the buildings. Members of the U.S. Army’s 418th Civil Affairs Battalion and their civilian counterparts on the Kirkuk Provincial Reconstruction Team recently toured the museum, located in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government zone.
Here the children of rape took their first breaths in fetid bathroom stalls in which women were imprisoned. Prisoners were packed like cattle into tiny cells and they often died at the hands of their torturers, refusing to confess to invented crimes.
The liberation of the compound, then known as the Red Security complex, was no less bloody. When Kurdish fighters took back the building in 1991, they killed every member of Saddam’s Baath Party they found.
In the bare rooms and cells, plaster figures in various states of torture illustrate what prisoners went through. On the floor are small plastic bowls, the only bathroom prisoners were allowed. Many prisoners were eventually executed.
Grainy photos of grisly killings and Kurdish resistance hang on the walls to document years of fighting between Kurds and Saddam’s forces, and a few rusting tanks and artillery pieces are laid out on the grounds.
It’s a low-budget affair, but the sinister interiors of the buildings are chilling — some rooms playing audio of actual torture sessions.
"It really kind of touches your heart to see that. It’s emotional," said Maj. Daniel Joyce, who serves with the 418th Civil Affairs Battalion. "The Kurds, they’re really appreciative of us giving them their independence in 2003, so they’re really one of our biggest allies in the Mideast."
For Kurds, the museum is an important reminder of their suffering under Saddam, said Jamal Saleh, an Iraqi who works with the Kirkuk PRT as an interpreter.
"The people, when they visit here, can remember," he said. "Some young people don’t know the past."