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Iraq: Amna Suraka prison

Mission accomplished image

Amna Suraka prison > Iraq > Asia

[Visited: December 2013]

As soon as I found out about the former prison of Amna Suraka that is now open to visitors, I was on my way. It turned out to be conveniently close to my hotel, and I walked under a pleasant winter sun to the complex that had served as an Iraqi secret service, or Mukhabarat, prison until the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, conquered the building in 1991. It had been operating since 1978, and inside its walls, thousands of Kurds had been tortured and killed over the years. It was easy to recognize the buildings: the pock-marked walls are just as they were when the peshmerga liberated the complex by force. Barbed wire on top of the walls, and watchtowers on each corner: very little has changed of either the outside or interior of the buildings since its days of operation. It struck me how Saddam Hussein would have used a building in the middle of the city to suppress the Kurds.

Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): View of Amna Suraka prison from one of its corners

The door was closed, and a friendly soldier with an AK47 loosely hanging over his shoulders, told me it would open again in 5 minutes. When four girls arrived, the door swung open, and I followed. No entrance paid, no questions asked: the guy inside just pointed us to another building inside the compound. The first building we visited was a Tunnel of Mirrors. Looking like a lovely piece of art, this actually is a dizzying display of light from the ceiling reflected in the shards of mirrors on the walls. Every light (5,400) represents a Kurdish village destroyed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and each piece of mirror, (184,000), a person killed. It takes walking up and down the dead-end tunnel twice for these numbers to sink in.

Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): One of the many torture chambers of Saddam Hussein

We crossed a courtyard, where several armoured vehicles and tanks are slowly rusting away, to reach another building where the Kurds have set up a display of Kurdish culture, in the form of tapestries, clothes, and jewelry. It seemed out of place, but at the same time, perhaps the best revenge on the former totalitarian regime that sought to suppress local culture. The next building was the most confrontational: the prison cells, isolation cells, and cages where prisoners were kept and tortured, kept exactly like they were when Amna Suraka was liberated. Some statues depict ways in which people were tortured. The light suddenly switched off; reality is, that electricity is still unreliable here. We had just enough light on our phones to see the rest of the exhibition: gruesome pictures of killed Kurdish fighters, writings found on prison walls, part of the archives the Mukhabarat had kept of its prisoners. When I was outside again, I was happy to get some fresh air, and went for a walk in the adjacent Azadi (Freedom) Park to let all the sobering impressions sink in.

Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Building of Amna Suraka with weapons in the foreground
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): The beautiful and at the same time depressing Tunnel of Mirrors and Lights
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Cell with a statue of a prisoner
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Display of gallows formerly used in the infamous prison of Abu Ghraib in Baghdad
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Victims depicted in a sculpture on a wall in the former prison of Amna Suraka
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Kurdish traditional window on display in the former museum
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Part of the former prison is now used to display Kurdish culture
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Courtyard of Amna Suraka with shelled buildings and rusting tanks
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): A female prisoner left these words on the wall of her cell, later found by her father
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Some of the lavatories in Amna Suraka that were also used as isolation cells
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Display of some of the cruelties inflicted upon prisoners at Amna Suraka
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Exhibition of horrific pictures of killed Kurdish fighters
Picture of Amna Suraka prison (Iraq): Weapons in the former prison of Amna Suraka

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