Inside Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors

Have you ever heard of “Chemical Ali?” You know, Saddam Hussein’s cousin who was responsible for “Gassing the Kurds?” His biggest claim to fame happened on March 16, 1988 on an otherwise quiet day, at least as quiet as it gets in an active war zone! It was late in the Iran-Iraq War when Saddam Hussein’s war planes flew over the bustling northern Iraqi city of Halabja, dispersing a bomb that smelled strangely of sweet apples. Within the next 30 minutes, upwards of 5,000 people in this Kurdish city were dead as the most stunning example of genocide against the Kurdish people.

24 years later, Halabja never really has recovered and, along with Amna Suraka (“Red Security”) in nearby Sulaymaniyah, it is one of the lasting throwbacks to Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. City no more, Halabja is now a small town, struggling to maintain its footing, something that was immediately apparent when I visited with a few friends who were living in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region (Kurdistan) in Northern Iraq.

It was a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and the town was nearly deserted. We did, however, succeed in finding a taxi driver to take us to the towering memorial on the outskirts of town that resembles a pair of opposing cupped hands going into the air, a ride that he insisted on not accepting money for, something that stunned us for a town that faced such financial hardship.

Halabja Massacre Memorial

Halabja Massacre Memorial

The memorial itself is a somber place. Immediately after walking in, you are directed to a room full of eerily lit dioramas of what the scene looked like immediately after the bombing.

Diorama of the Aftermath

Next come an assortment of photos of the aftermath, which show that life just stopped suddenly. There is a man caught mid-prayer. People with bags of things that just fell on the ground as they themselves collapsed. The father who is shielding his child, yet they are both dead (which is also featured as a sculpture outside the complex, as pictured below). These are the horrifying images of what come from chemical weapon use.

Man Killed While Praying

Sculpture at Halabja Massacre Memorial

The centerpiece of the memorial is a symbol of Kurdish national pride, swathed in green, red and white fabric, the colors of the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Interior of Halabja Massacre Memorial

Halabja Massacre Memorial

The Cemetery

From the memorial, the other site of interest in town is the cemetery, full of mass graves. When we finally found a taxi driver (it’s not so easy to communicate cemetery through hand signals, what with miming bombs, dead bodies and pointing to the ground…), he insisted on showing us around, stopping at one of the individual tomb stones. His whole family was buried there, translated my friend. Stoically posing with the names of his family members, the driver insisted we simply had to take his photograph.

Family Grave

Mass Grave

As you wander down the path with mass grave after mass grave, each listing how many bodies were buried there, you arrive back at the front gate with its bone chilling sign: “Baath’s Members are not Allowed to Enter,” a stark reminder of the hollowed ground that this is and the disdain that the Kurds feel for the Arab Iraqis, a feeling that is not unjustified.

Baath's Members are not Allowed to Enter

Nearby Sulaymaniyah (also spelled Slemani and often called simply Sulay) holds another lasting relic of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign, which the Halabja Massacre was part of. There you can wander the halls of an eerie former prison that was once used to torture political prisoners. This complex has no fancy displays like the Hoa Lo Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”) in Vietnam does. No, instead you walk into a room and suddenly come face to face with this…

Figures of Torture

 “Red Security”

Tank

It was behind these walls that Saddam Hussein’s forces brutalized the Kurdish citizens residing in the northern part of Iraq. And a walk through these decaying hallways leads to more dramatic encounters, though not nearly as hair raising as that first set of figrues.

Figure of Torture

Figure of Torture

The Kurds call this place Amna Suraka, literally “Red Security,” named for the now-bullet riddled pigment on the exterior of the buildings. It’s a striking site at first glance for the sheer level of violence that’s immediately apparent to you. Those bullet holes are from the 1991 Kurdish Revolt, when the Kurdish Peshmerga Soldiers “liberated” the prison. It was that revolt that led to the autonomy that the Kurds now enjoy (and also led to a little something you may have heard of called the “No-Fly Zone”).

Building at Amna Suraka (Red Security)

“March 31, 1991, is considered as a turning point in our struggle for freedom. In that day, we all decided to confront the Baa’thists occupiers, turning the “Mass Exodus” [of Kurds] into our struggle’s identity.”

Libertation Photo

So begins a sign explaining the huge significance of this revolt in recent Kurdish history. Though the Kurds do not currently have an independent state, this revolt ultimately led to the greatest degree of freedom and self-government that the Kurds have experienced in modern history. When the cease-fire was finally signed in October 1991, Kurdish forces were in control of what we now know as Iraqi Kurdistan.

 Memorial

Hall of Mirrors

The last stop in the complex (after another array of old-fashioned tanks) is the Hall of Mirrors, a poignant memorial whose curvy walls are covered in 182,000 shards of mirror, representing each of the Kurdish people killed during Saddam Hussein’s murderous crusade. Above shine 5,000 lights, each representing a Kurdish village that he destroyed.

Hall of Mirrors--Self Portrait

The whole experience of both of these places makes you do a bit of reflecting about the unthinkable horrors that the Kurdish people faced under Saddam Hussein. Living in the West, it’s easy to lump acts such as these into the simple notion that there are bad dictators abroad and that they do bad things to their people. But when you come face to face with the sites of such atrocities, everything suddenly becomes very real. It’s not just something written in a history book in some far off land, but something that affects real peoples lives…real people who you meet and it’s just heartbreaking.

Needless to say, I left Halabja and Sulaymaniyah with a far deeper understanding for Kurdish identity and why it’s so important that the Kurds, at least in Iraq, maintain control over their own lands.

 What About You?

Have you visited troubled places like these? What sorts of reactions did you have?

Read More About My Adventure in Iraq

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15 Responses to Inside Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors

  1. Tom @ Waegook Tom November 10, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    Places like this always make you reflect…I had a strange feeling when I went to Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic. I knew that Saddam Hussein committed brutalities against the Kurds, but didn’t know any details before reading this. The Hall of Mirrors looks pretty sobering. Hopefully one day the Kurdish people can peacefully obtain an independent state of their own that’s recognised throughout the world.

    • Aaron November 10, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

      I’ve never visited a Concentration Camp before, nor did I make it to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, so this was my first time in a “tragic place.” And you’re right, it definitely provided an opportunity for reflection. And the subject of Kurdish independence is a mighty controversial one, as for there to be an inclusive Kurdish state, it would need to include large swaths of Iran, Syria and Turkey. They’ve already got the Iraqi part and they have defacto autonomy, but not true independence.

  2. Steph | A Nerd At Large November 10, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    Excellent post. It’s always sobering but worthwhile to visit such places. The Hall of Mirrors is a beautiful way to remember those slain and put it into context. Not so sure about the mildly bizarre dioramas, though. Thanks for posting this.

    • Aaron November 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

      Haha yes the Hall of Mirrors is a great representation, at least once you hear what its intention is (like many sites in Iraqi Kurdistan, they lack descriptions). As for the dioramas, well you can’t argue that it’s not a bit jarring! Maybe that’s what they were going for?

      • Steph November 12, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

        Yes, they are definitely jarring, as they should be. It’s always tough because it seems like any attempt to depict or dramatize atrocities comes off as trivializing them, but by the same token the exhibit wouldn’t have much impact without a visual element.

        • Aaron November 13, 2012 at 2:13 am #

          So true. And with something as specific as a chemical weapon attack which instantly killed people, there isn’t much to show except the aftermath…what the photographers saw when they walked into town. I’m sure it was just as eerie in real life. I think in the event of the memorial, the symoblism is in the structure itself, with the tower appearing like two clapsed hands jutting into the air, almost in prayer.

  3. Lisa @chickybus January 12, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    Wow–this is an intense post. The photos are haunting. Sad.

    I’ve visited some concentration camps. At the end of the day, I was emotionally drained. Still, I’m glad I went. I felt it was important to.

    • Aaron January 12, 2013 at 1:24 am #

      I agree that it’s important to vist these sorts of places. Isn’t there an old saying that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it? Sadly, genocide has been a lasting scar for too many groups of people in this world. The more we can spread their stories, the better off we all are in the long run.

  4. Ryan May 14, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    Great blog, Aaron!

    In your experience, would it be possible to see the sights of Halabja and Sulaymaniyah that you’ve mentioned in this blog in two days (including transport to/from Erbil)? If not, how long would you recommend?

    • Aaron May 16, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

      Yeah I think it would be possible. We did Halabja as a day trip and only spent about 2.5-3 hours there. Part of that time was spent just trying to find the cemetery as we kept getting bad direcitons (and hand signals for “explosion,” “dead people” and “ground” weren’t really going anywhere. We left Erbil on Thursday early evening, visited Halabja on Friday and were back by mid-afternoon. I visited Red Security on Saturday and then returned to Erbil on Sunday but you could easily truncate this. I spent a lot of time walking around and socializing with locals.

  5. Erik November 4, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    I visited Auschwitz in 1998 and it was one of the most powerful places I have ever been.

    This looks equally moving.

    • Aaron November 7, 2013 at 12:08 am #

      Wow. I don’t doubt that. I’ve not really been to Europe so I haven’t had the opportunity to visit a concentration camp. Somehow that feels so much more visceral, having grown up learning about it in school and in movies. And having been to Israel. But I’d only ever heard oblique references to the Al-Anfal campaign (mainly regarding “Chemical Ali” and how Saddam Hussein was “gassing the Kurds.” Yes, this was a moving experience, but I have no basis for comparison.

  6. Jonny Blair December 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Great site here Aaron – love the detail on Iraq. We’re in Iran right now and heading to Iraq next. We’ve met a few other backpackers who raved about Sulimaniyeh so really looking forward to it. Also – the number of bus companies in Iran now offering direct buses to places like Erbil and Sulimaniyeh is incredible. Safe travels. Jonny

    • Aaron December 11, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

      Thanks Jonny! Yes, Sulay is wonderful. And I’m not surprised that there are many buses between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan as there are many buses from Turkey as well (I caught one of them and got off in Dohuk). Enjoy your time in Iraq!

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