The historic building has a troubled past. Built in 1976 by former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein’s nationalistic Baath Party as a military barracks, the castle eventually came to serve as a prison for Kurdish families during the genocidal Anfal campaign, during which close to 200,000 were killed and of which the notorious Halabja gas attacks were a part. That was in the late 80s. Then after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, when Iraqi Kurdistan first achieved some degree of autonomy, the fort became a home for refugee Kurds returning from Turkey and Iran.
And now, years later, the complex, nicknamed “The Castle” or “Nazarki”, which translates to the place where the sun doesn\'t shine, will become a museum on a 15,000 square feet property, that commemorates all of the building’s incarnations. Ambitious planners say the fort, which will open in around three years, will be similar to one of the many Jewish Holocaust museums and memorials around the world.
The government of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan has allocated about US$12 million to the project and the final results will include a halls devoted to different subjects and different phases of the building’s history. There will also be exhibits focused on the general history of the persecution of the Iraqi Kurdish people as well as areas set aside for children’s education.
On a recent tour of the building and renovations, Kohdar Salah, who is supervising the fort’s renovations, was enthusiastic about the planned changes. “We will write down some of the tragic stories and display them around the hall on signs,” he explained. “There will be one area where the stories of the Fayli Kurds will be told and another dedicated to the Barzani family history. The roof of the fort will show the migration of millions of Kurds in 1991 using bronze sculptures,” he added. “We’re trying to renovate the place in a way where we don’t lose too much of the original. This museum,” he boasted, “will become a place that preserves the Kurdish people’s collective memory.”
The western section of the fort has many small windows in its walls; these were used to keep watch over the area. On the interior walls here there are still Baath Party slogans visible, with sayings by the former President Saddam Hussein - things like “we will sacrifice everything for victory”.
Also visible are pieces of graffiti left by the less fortunate who also passed through these halls. These included a broken heart with the name Hilan in it and the apparently sad words “you’re my beloved forever”.
“The final result will be huge,” says Ayoub Nisri, the director of public relations for the Anfal Centre in Dohuk. “In the late 1980s, there were all kinds of torture and murder committed in the main halls. For example one of the detainees here was stoned to death with cement blocks and stones while his wife and young children were forced to watch.”
Nisri, who is 33, actually spent some of his childhood in the fort and saw some of these terrible things happening himself. “I remember that every time they brought a new group of prisoners in, they would make them take off their Kurdish [traditional] clothing. Then they would separate the men from the women and children. The women and children would be locked inside and the men taken away. Even today nobody knows what happened to many of them,” Nisri says.
One of the women living at the Anfal Centre, Hawar, 64, also recalls living inside the fort. “At night we were afraid to sleep because soldiers might come and rape us or kill us. Sometimes soldiers came and called out names. Then they’d take those people away – the people whose names were called never came back,” she remembers. “To this day I still don’t like to go near that building. They killed my son there while I was watching.”
As sad and awful as they are, Kohdar and his fellow museum-builders think it is important that locals remember what went on at this fort. “We want future generations to remember these crimes,” he says. “We want to make sure that they never happen again.”