Omar Altabakha is the MENA initiative Lead Trainer with CVT’s New Tactics in Human Rights.
Sulaimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan is a place like no other. While on my recent visit to Sulaimaniya, residents raised Kurdish flags on top of their houses in support of an independence referendum. Residents speak their own Kurdish language and wear traditional Kurdish attire out in the streets.
In the center of Sulaimaniya, there was once a Government Security Building, nicknamed Amna Suraka, or “The Red Security,” which was used as a makeshift prison. It’s where the former President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, used to send Kurds to be tortured. From 1979 to 1991, he deprived mothers of their newly born babies; imprisoned 30 to 40 Kurds in rooms meant for ten with a single bathroom; and even forged the birth certificate of teens and pre-teens to make them 18-years-old and therefore lawfully old enough for execution.
In 2003, the Kurdish government turned this site of imprisonment and torture into a museum. Now, when visitors enter Amna Suraka they see a sudden burst of bright, beautiful light. The room, lit by 4,500 globes, represents the number of Kurdish villages in Iraq destroyed by the Ba’ath regime. On the walls, 182,000 shattered pieces of mirrored glass represent the number of Kurds who were tortured and killed in the Anfal genocide.
Adapting a historical site of violence into a place of healing and reflection is how this particular minority population chose to address the horrific violence that was widely perpetrated by the Iraqi regime. It’s a way to restore the memory and lives of lost Kurds among their family and friends and the entire Kurdish community. The community, however, is not alone in this tactical action.
Beginning in 1999, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, based in New York City, began to build the capacity of historic sites around the world to foster dialogue on pressing social issues and promote democratic and humanitarian values. The coalition sought to change the role of historic sites in civic life from places of passive learning to centers for active citizen engagement. Sites of Conscience uses the power of place to help communities have ongoing dialogues about the meaning of their past and the shape of their future.
Today, Amna Suraka is the most well-known tourist destination in Sulaimaniya, where locals, travelers and school children visit and depart feeling shocked for having walked through a place where humans suffered so much, yet gained so much insight on the strength of the Kurdish people and the human spirit.