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Sand And Starvation:
Visiting Iraq’s ‘City Of Prisons’ In The Southern Desert

Qassim al-Kaabi
During the 1980s, Saddam Hussein turned a former British colonial-era castle into one of the country’s most feared prisons. It, and several other jails, are still standing in the desert.
15.02.2018  |  Samawa
Salman castle in Muthanna, once a notorious prison.
Salman castle in Muthanna, once a notorious prison.

The castle in the Salman district in Iraq’s southern desert was originally built by the British to defend against attacks by locals. But the castle, in the province of Muthanna, had a chequered future ahead of it: In 1948, it was used as a prison, then later as a post for border guards and then again, under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, it became a prison once more.

As – somewhat strangely - did many of the other buildings in this area. When he first took power in Iraq in the 1960s, after the Iraqi royal family was deposed, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr wanted to bring Bedouin people to this area in the desert. In order to settle them there, he had around 120 homes built, in three small villages. The Bedouins were nomadic and were not all that keen to settle in a house; they stayed in their tents and preferred to roam the area freely. So when al-Bakr was replaced by Hussein, the houses were also all turned into prisons.

I did not see bullets holes on them. We used to hear that the prison guards would starve the prisoners who did not obey them so I assume they died from hunger.

With the castle, which became one of the most notorious jails in Iraq, presiding over the other smaller ones, the area was nicknamed “city of prisons” by locals.

Today the prisons are silent, inhabited by nothing more than sand. But in the unnerving silence, it is clear that terror lived here.

The Salman district is in the middle of a large valley and the majority of the estimated 10,000 locals live off agriculture and survive on water from artesian wells. And Habib Malih, the head of the local council in Salman, says that there were five different prisons here. The castle, Liyah, Shihat and Abu al-Majid prisons, plus another for politicians. The regime headed by Saddam Hussein basically sent its opponents out here, far from the centre of the province or anything much else, to die. 

The Liyah, Shihat and Abu al-Majid prisons sit in a triangular shape with about a kilometre distance between them. The castle itself has a great view but it was not one its unfortunate inmates ever got to see. There is one lonely tree in a large courtyard and inside there are still slogans painted on corridors and on doors praising Hussein’s political party, the Baath party. They say things like: Iraq is a great country with its people, its army and because of Saddam. Or: The Baath party is a school for the generations.



The true story of the castle can be seen in the messages the prisoners left scrawled on the walls. The castle has six halls and six annexes. Each hall held between 100 and 120 prisoners and each annex held about 30 inmates. Some of them wrote about their hopes for freedom and their desire not to succumb to death on cell walls. “We will die for freedom,” says one piece of graffiti. Others drew pictures of their loved ones on the walls and of their hometowns. Some even drew slogans celebrating the Iraqi football team.

Local man, Atheeb Atashan, recalls how he found a mass grave near the castle years ago. “I found wild dogs fighting over the remains,” said the shepherd, who had been out with his stock. “I drove the dogs away and dug some more graves, in order to bury the dead. I was afraid that the prison guards might see me and arrest me so I had to move fast.”

Atashan says the men he buried were wearing Kurdish military uniforms. “And I did not see bullets holes on them,” the old shepherd says. “We used to hear that the prison guards would starve the prisoners who did not obey them so I assume they died from hunger.”

Many of the prisoners of the Hussein regime who were taken to the castle were never heard from again. Iraqi Kurdish activist, Fairouz Hatem, lost her brother in the castle. He had been in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, she says, when the orders came that the prisoners were to be deported to Iran. “But they never were,” she says. “Between 700 and 750 were taken to Salman Castle and my brother was in this group.”

At the beginning of 1986, the first prisoners started to be released from Salman castle, after Hussein ordered an amnesty. Between 1986 and 1989, around 650 prisoners were released. As for all the other detainees, they were allegedly taken elsewhere but nobody knows where.

Council head, Habib Malih, wants to preserve the memories here, no matter how sad or grisly they are. He believes Salman Castle should remain, a memorial for all the prisoners who were forced to spend time here.

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