This campus of faded mauve buildings was built in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein had local Kurds build what was ostensibly a bureaucratic center in the heart of Sulaymaniyah. Amna Suraka literally translates to 'Red Security Building' in English — it got this name from its color and purpose. The name stuck to this day.
This place was in fact meant for three overlapping purposes: internment, interrogation and torture. It became a reviled, terrifying icon of Saddam's al-Anfal against the Kurds.
People were tortured in cells in the basement, hundreds of women were raped in the 'Raping Room' and many people died there. ... "We saw the execution room and we saw the isolation cells and we saw the torture tools and we saw many items of women's underwear, here and there in different parts of the prison, in the yard and in the corridors, everywhere. ... We saw women's clothes in every part of the building. And we saw blood on the walls. Till now sometimes at night I dream of it. I often have bad dreams." Thornhill, p 107; and p 160; interview with the author's friend Sirwa
If not blown out by mortars, the upper floors retain their original claustrophobic, dark, windowless, oppressive layout.
The walls are plastered with barren, smooth concrete. Barred gates and solid doors separate hallway after hallway, each one lined with cell after cell. Narrow windows allow barely enough light to see around a little in some corridors. But then there are completely windowless corridors. Entire swaths of the building are cloaked in a total, utter darkness.
To enter a cell is to find yourself disoriented.
First, you notice the darkness. Then you notice how quiet it is. The outside world ceases to exist, and time becomes very slow. To be a prisoner here was to be completely vulnerable: there was nothing that Saddam's forces couldn't -- nor wouldn't -- do. And upon exiting the cell, there is a crushing realization: there are other cells just like it, level after level of endless rows.
Many people disappeared at the Red Security Building, but their graffiti on the walls still remains.
There is one room where children were incarcerated. Their graffiti has typical childhood motifs of plants and insects. Rooms where adults were held are graffitied with names, slogans and markings denoting the passage of time.
The Red Security Building is worse than horrible.
It was so effective as a hellhole that decades later, its history remains clear, unmistakable: it is chilling, devoid of anything that makes life worth living.
In 1991, the Kurds took the Red Security Building during the Raparin uprising.
Today the Building complex is completely pocked from the bullets, and parts remain blown out. All of Saddam's forces that were still in the Building were killed, though they families who were with them were allowed to leave and were hosted in nearby Kurdish homes. Even the Iraqi government tanks are still where they were left.
Kurdish refugees began to occupy the Amna Surak and it quickly became a squalid, overcrowded refugee camp.
Maureen McLuckie describes how the plumbing had been bombed out, and effluence was left to pour down the exterior walls. Teresa Thornhill describes the dark, humid, crowded rooms that sweltered in summer and froze in winter.
These were not just dislocated families. These were people directly hit by war, emotionally and physically torn apart, with limbs ripped off by explosions and skin blistering and peeling away from chemical attacks.
The basement cells were full of water and unusable, and 230 refugee families from Kirkuk had made their homes on the ground and upper floors. ... The building itself was of pinkish-red concrete and the women and children were dressed in bright dishdashas and headscarves in greens, yellows, blues and dark pinks. The building was crawling with people.Thornhill, p 107
As the situation stabilized, the Red Security Building transitioned to its final role as a museum.
There are now downspouts to preserve the building, and exhibits have been installed. But overall, not much has been done. It is just as it was. There are rooms full of rubble, and tanks sitting on the lawn -- and on every single exterior surface, a mosaic of countless bullet holes.
The exhibits are evocative, provocative.
Outside, there is a sculpture dedicated to Kurdish university students who were tied up and shot to death as an example. Inside, there are some rooms, lit with dim red lights, where incredibly lifelike bronzes recreate torture techniques used by Saddam's forces. Accompanying the bronzes are recordings, playing over and over again, of the tortures that took place in the Building.
Through Her Eyes: Maureen McLuckie
I had the honor of working with Maureen McLuckie in April 2010.
She took some time one day to show me the Red Security Building, and I recorded her as she toured the building. She had been present in the years following the uprising, helping refugees there get relocated into homes.
In 1991 of course they were all shot out by the peshmerga and when I came here in 1996 they had all the refugees from Kirkuk here and they'd actually bricked them all up and just left one or two little brick holes for lights and for air. But sometimes there was four, five families to a room. And it was disgusting. Electricity wires everywhere. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
The bullet holes here, the last of the Iraqis were in decline up here. They must have known they were going to die. But they still fought on. It was really bad. That's where they made their last stand, really. They let the women and the children go because the Iraqis had got families in here. The women and children were housed with some of the women here -- Sukkot [who lived across the street] had a woman with a few children in her house, her mother took the Iraqi families. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
They weren't necessarily used on here, they were just tanks that the Iraqis had left. This here, some students taken from the university, tied together and shot as an example to the rest of the students. Alas, to see their friends, they were told to go into the school yard and shot. [Looking at the ruined Building:] You can see all around that the peshmerga took their revenge, and I don't blame them. And even some of the other civilians were joining in. And the whole, from the road upwards, there was just dead dead bodies of Iraqis. And children were kicking and stomping on them. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
Across the street is where Sukkot's family lives and every day she had to walk past here to actually go to school. She had to walk past the guards. She was always scared in case one of the guards attacked her, because nobody could do anything. You know, the people have been through a lot. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
A typical village in the Gamiyan area. When they left it, when they fled to the mountains, they just left everything, the food on the table, everything. This here is a wedding outfit of a Kurdish girl who was getting ready to get married but her fiancee never came back, a peshmerga. So she donated it to the museum. And I think that's her photograph. So they're trying to say that they left without taking anything, although some of them took as much as they could take like blankets, water. But everything else was just left. Because they fled to the mountains in 1991 for fear of chemicals from the Anfal. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
Throughout the tour, Maureen would energetically show me the exhibits -- but sometimes she would slide into the past, and her voice would grow weary.
Maureen and Shanaz were able to get the funds to rehouse the Kirkuki refugees who were occupying the Building. Thanks to Maureen and others' efforts, the Building is now a museum.
It was a grim place, absolutely. I actually climbed up two flights of stairs, but couldn't go any further. I wanted to cry. It was so bad. It smelled horrible. It was dark. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
Downstairs: Halabja. [We descended to the exhibit.] I don't like these photographs. This is the most famous of the photographs, and you'll see at least two statues in Halabja itself. This became a symbol of Halabja. His name was Omar. This is both his newborn sons. They were twins. The others, the rest of his family died in the house. And he managed to get as far as his step. But this, I don't like this at all. But there's lots of him. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
Families were upstairs, but because half the building had been hit, actually blown away, the toilets themselves, everything [effluence] was just pouring down the sides of the buildings. This is what it was like when I came. Can you see the small holes? [Pointing to a courtyard:] And this is where all the women and children's clothes were put for people to see. And little pieces of clothing. Interview with Maureen McLuckie, April 2010.
We were not alone when we came across the bronze torture reenactments.
There were some locals posing with the bronzes, smiling and and taking photographs. One was a foppish adolescent boy with a white button-down shirt, purple slacks and a shimmery purple vest that displayed his incredibly slender frame. With him were several young women wearing stilettos, skirts and pancake makeup that miraculously did not rub off on their headscarves.
Maureen gasped. She could not believe it, and the rest of the tour she never fully regained her composure. She kept saying The nerve... they have no place doing that...
But truly, it was a fortunate sight. After generations of oppression on a federal level, now there were youth whose closest brush with the ravages memorialized by the building was just what we we had just witnessed: photo-taking in a museum. The alternative seemed too cruel to consider.