Tahseen Qader has never forgotten what happened to him inside the Red Security Prison, the former headquarters of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Sulaymaniyah. “Those bitter days can never be forgotten,” he says, standing outside the building in northern Iraq.
Qader is just one of thousands who were detained and tortured inside the walls of this pinkish-red coloured compound in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan; many others were murdered there.
In 2008, the building was re-opened as a museum, a kind of memorial of the horrors that took place here, and parts of the building that were destroyed during the Kurdish uprising against Hussein in 1991 are still being repaired.
“The purpose of this place is to remind current and future generations of the crimes committed against the Kurdish people by the former regime of Saddam Hussein, and the pain and suffering inflicted on the Kurds during his era,” Akko Ghareeb, the museum’s director told NIQASH.
The compound was originally designed by a team of engineers from East Germany in 1977, built in three phases and completed in 1985. The complex stands on 16,000 square meters and there are six buildings inside the complex; some are three storeys, others are only two. Inside there’s also a petrol station, a garage for car maintenance, a medical clinic and a restaurant – everything so that Hussein’s security personnel didn’t have to leave the complex. And the whole lot is surrounded by a two metre high fence.
The numbers imprisoned inside the complex are unknown. But most of them were almost certainly there because of their political inclinations –often aligned with one of the two major Kurdish political parties that now run Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but which, at the time, were seen as Kurdish nationalists opposed to the rule of the Arabist Baath party led by Saddam Hussein.
Those inside the prison later told horrific tales of what went on there: all kinds of torture, including electric shocks, beatings and sexual attacks. One room inside the complex was known as the “red room” where the security men would rape female prisoners.
And the “red room” is the only chamber that has not been renovated – perhaps because it holds such bad memories that they should never be forgotten, lest they be repeated.
One of the saddest stories is that of a young Kurdish woman, who, when released brought three sons out of the prison with her – nobody knew who any of the boys’ fathers were. But when she was released, her brother killed her and her sons before committing suicide.
Researcher Amira Mohammed has been collecting stories about the victims of the prison for years. She currently has about 170 stories and she also has a collection of letters, mostly hand written by detainees here. Some of the letter writers are still alive, others have passed away. And Mohammed says she’s planning to print the letters soon.
“We will use them to remind people of the difficult years,” Mohammed told NIQASH.
Local man, Qader, was here in the security complex in 1988 because he was a member of the PUK. He was kept in prison here for nine months, then released as part of a general amnesty, then imprisoned again in 1990. In March 1991, while he was in solitary confinement he was freed when Kurdish fighters freed the prison.
At the time, Qader says, “we didn’t know what was happening outside the prison. We didn’t hear anything about the uprising, we only heard gunfire.
After the prisoners were freed, when locals who defeated Hussein’s troops began the formation of the what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish refugees fleeing from inside of Iraq were housed here for a time.
But in 2008, the complex became a museum. And today it houses a variety of exhibits, documents, weapons, artefacts and memorials. There are also commemorations of other campaigns against the Kurdish people, such as the genocidal Anfal campaign, during which close to 200,000 were killed and of which the Halabja gas attacks were a part.
And basically anyone who visit the place will testify to its oppressive and depressing nature, a reminder of the evil that humankind can inflict on their own.
“Nothing can make me forget my time here,” Qader concludes. “The memories are like bullet holes in this prison’s walls; nothing can remove them. The only thing that makes me feel better is that there is a museum here now – so that future generations will make sure that Iraq is a country free of such crimes.”