Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Iraq, Part V: Sulaymaniyah, Halabja, & Home

Before I forget, the city of Sulaymaniyah is similar to Erbil in that it has multiple spellings.  In Kurdish, the city known as Sulaymaniyah in Arabic is referred to as "Slemani."
The black outline represents a rough idea of Iraqi Kurdistan.   Just 
remember that Microsoft Paint isn't the best guide for delineating regions.
Lastly, we stayed in Sulay for Wednesday, October 24, and Thursday, October 25, but the chronology is best understood if I present our travels by destination, rather than by day.

As I mentioned last post, we arrived in Sulay on Tuesday, but had little time for sightseeing.  It is much younger compared to its Mesopotamian sister cities as it was only founded in 1784, just eight years after the States declared independence (I'm going out on a limb and guessing the two events were not related).  It seems that most "ancient cities," such as Erbil, were built in circles around a central plaza (e.g. the Citadel).  Sulay, on the other hand, has more of that "suburban sprawl" look.

It is second-largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan with a population hovering around one million and easily the most modern.  While the central bazaar and small stores resembling garages (not to be confused with a garage or garage-y offering taxi services) still bordered the inner city streets, hotels, shops, and rather large houses occupied the city's edge.

First stop: Slemani Museum
At first sight, the museum is rather small and bare.  Supposedly, the... a... some government required most of the country's heirlooms to be transported to the museum in Baghdad.  Regardless, the Slemani Museum holds artifacts dating back to the Palaeothic period, approx. 15,000 BC, and traces history in the Mesopotamia region from that period through to present-day.  Similar to most places in Iraqi Kurdistan, the rules at the museum were fairly lax.  Rather than enforcing the rule banning photography, the workers instructed us to turn off our camera flash.

The museum's highlight is a 1st millennium BC pottery coffin found near Dohuk containing the skeletal remains of a woman:
The second highlight of the museum, in my opinion, were the collection of women figurines dating from the Babylonian period.  Apparently, men in those days like the stylized look.
After viewing the exhibition, we planned to grab lunch and head to another museum [of sorts].  Just as we stepped foot out of the door, a rather large, white, old, American man briskly walked after us.  We turned, and he stuck out his hand to introduce himself as [insert name I can't remember], some big-shot at UNESCO.  His massive, gold pinkie-ring was also prominently displayed.  "Mr. Smith," as we'll call him, explained that he wanted to renovate the museum in order to transform it into a major tourist attraction.  

He then clarified his preoccupation with us, "Well, we don't have tourists around here very often.  I wanted to get your opinion on the museum."

While Bobby and Steve provided some much-needed feedback, I remained fixated on the gold pinkie ring. Something about it just rubbed me the wrong way.

Second stop: Amna Suraka  (Red Security)
Our visit to Amna Suraka spanned over two days, and it was the best visit during the trip.  Also known as the "Red Security" museum because of its red-colored walls, Amna Suraka served as the northern headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, or Mukhabarat.  Doesn't sound too bad yet?  This prison operated as a facility for the imprisonment, torture, and death of thousands of Kurds under Saddam Hussein's regime.

The facts pertaining to Amna Suraka and to the third stop at Halabja overlap, but further details are necessary other than that provided condensed history contained in the earlier post.  Excerpt from Part I into which I will now delve:
When the Iran-Iraq war was on the verge of concluding, Saddam spearheaded a genocidal campaign against the ethnic Kurds of northern Iraq who had opposed his regime. Entitled “Operation: Al-Anfar,” Arabic for “the spoils of war,” this campaign led to the massacre of over 100,000 Kurds and the destroying over 4,000 Kurdish villages. 
On March 16, 1988, Saddam ordered the largest chemical weapons attack aimed at a civilian-populated region: he directed chemical bombs to be dropped on residential regions in the Kurdish village of Halabja as retaliation for Kurdish support of Iranian forces. Over 5,000 men, women, and children were dead in less than 60 minutes. 
Ali Hassan Al-Majid was the lesser known but equally as brutal cousin of Saddam Hussein.  Ali rode on the coattails of Saddam: after Saddam took power in ’79, Ali’s subsequent official positions included Ba’athist Iraqi Defense Minister, commander of the Iraqi Intelligence Service/Mukhabarat, and Governor of Kuwait during the Gulf War. Based purely on logic, I'm almost positive it was Ali who ran operations an Amna Suraka; however, information is ridiculously difficult to find.

As evidenced by his post at Amna Suraka, Ali was appointed by Saddam to carry out Operation Al-Anfar (Kurdish genocide).  He was also a key component of the chemical weapons attack in Halabja, a completely separate event from that of Operation Al-Anfar. His brutality and partiality toward chemical weapons earned him the nickname of “Chemical Ali.”

If you have 3 minutes, National Geographic has an excellent You-Tube video on this history:
With that said, the following description and pictures are hovering around a PG-13 rating.
It can be assumed that the red-colored walls have faded over the years.
Amna Suraka operated from 1979 until 1991, at which point the Kurdish Peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters) attacked and won control of the prison from the Ba'ath party (Saddam's party).  The prison has been preserved in its original condition - the only changes being those related to maintenance - and therefore contains no fancy displays or high-tech devices.  In fact, the only additions consisted of several pictures and figurines used for explanatory purposes.  Bullet holes coat the outer walls and the blankets and pillows present at the '91 uprising are still lying on the floor of the inner cells.

To enter Amna Suraka, we were guided through a memorial resembling a tunnel of mirrors.  Over 5,400 small light bulbs patterned the ceiling and over 182,000 jagged glass pieces were cemented to the walls of the narrow hallway.  Each individual piece of glass represents one victim killed under Saddam, and each light represents each Kurdish village destroyed under his reign: over 182,000 Kurds dead and over 5,400 villages destroyed at the hands of Saddam.
From the Tunnel of Mirrors, we walked outside.  To our left, Iraqi artillery and tanks lined the borders of a medium-sized courtyard.
After a brief look at the weapons, we entered the first of two prison chambers.

You may notice a large, rectangular indentation in the floor.  It was formerly a mass grave.
We walked downstairs to a basement, or a holding cell of sorts, where on the walls hung over-sized photographs of the killings that occurred in Halabja.

Because two documentaries were being filmed at Amna Suraka, we waited until Thursday to explore the remaining parts of the prison.  We arrived the following day to learn that the documentaries were still being filmed, and we could not venture into those parts.  Instead of leaving, we walked into the courtyard while deciding what to do. Needless to say, my frustration level was a little high.

A man dressed in a Ba'ath party uniform and surrounded by a group of people yelled across the courtyard, "If you have a question, you can just ask!"

Steve, Bobby, and I looked at each other, then proceeded toward the group.  It turns out that the man who yelled to us was the director and lead actor in one of the documentaries being filmed.  While introducing himself, the Kurdish director explained that he had been in liberal arts & theatre school during Saddam's reign.  When he was recruited to join the Ba'ath party, he fled to the mountains.  He then offered to give us a tour of the second half of Amna Suraka.
The two directors filming documentaries.  The man on the left is a Kurdish actor/filmmaker, and the man on the right is a German filmmaker.
During the tour, the Kurdish director clarified that he was playing the part of Chemical Ali.  He also depicted how Ali would terrorize the area.  Supposedly, "black" was the color of the Kurds, and if Ali saw someone wearing that color on the streets, he shot him or her immediately.

At this point, a photographic account is best:
The place where the "good" prisoners were confined.
They were given a cell with a window.
Where the "innocent" prisoners were confined
The "bad" prisoners were confined in the closet-sized rooms secured by large
metal doors.  While the prison was in operation, these small rooms did not
contain lights.  The lights were only added for tourist purposes.
Male and female prisoners were always separated.  This is the room
where women were confined.
The director was explaining how members of the Ba'ath party would torture
the Kurds.  They were whipped with rubber tubes (like in his right hand)
filled with iron.
Statutes depicting how the Kurds were tortured.
Ba'ath officers would hang the Kurds in this position and attach electrical
wires to their ears and genitalia during interrogation.
The German director filmed the actor's explanation to us.  When the actor could not think of a certain word pertaining to where the wires would be attached the the body, Steve immediately clarified, "Nipple."  Hopefully, Steve will make the documentary.

Another view
After being tortured in the traditional sense, prisoners could be chained to
the wall for days.  They were chained at a point just high enough so they
could not sit down.
We parted ways with the Kurdish director.  Shortly thereafter, the German filmmaker (Thomas Kasper) interviewed Steve.

While composing this post, I stumbled across a quote that I felt accurately encompassed the sentiment at Amna Suraka: "...loathing at what humans can do to each other and pride at how humans can persevere and fight back."

Third stop: Halabja
As mentioned earlier, Halabja is city in which Saddam ordered Chemical Ali to drop chemical weapons on the Kurdish residential area, killing up to 5,000 and injuring up to 10,000.  I think the facts of the Halabja attack have been covered enough already (previously in this post and in Part I).
Halabja Memorial
Display of the effects of the act of genocide
The walls display names of all those killed in the attack. 
Halabja and the country of Iran are separated by a mountain range.  In 2009, three Americans were arrested while hiking along this border when they entered Iranian territory without permission.  Uh... we didn't go hiking.  
Return trip to Sulay from Halabja
On the return trip from Halabja, we were required to exit the vehicle at a checkpoint for the first time.  We had probably crossed 30 checkpoints by now, so it wasn't nerve-wracking.  Two separate houses were arranged in order for the military to check our passports, one for the men and one for the women.  Bobby and Steve disappeared into the their house, and I made my way to my house.  I walked in and waited until the person in front of me concluded her interview.

When it was my turn to have my passport checked, there was only one other person in the room: a beautiful young woman in the Kurdish military, her hair pulled back in a loose bun.  The woman, between age 24 and 28, sat behind a desk.  When she saw me, a smile appeared on her face, and she - almost in disbelief - asked, "You're American?!"

I smiled, but only answered with a nod and a "Yup."

The young woman reached out with both her hands to shake my hand and kissed me twice, once on each cheek.  "What are you doing here?" She then asked, still smiling.

"Just looking around. I am a tourist." I replied

"Where you come from?"

Grinning from ear to ear, but trying not to butcher the name, I responded, "Sleman...Sulay...Slumanya..."

The woman put her hand to her mouth and lowered her head for several seconds.  She lifted her head, still smiling and... seemingly moved.  It appeared as though that she was trying not to tear up, "You come from Sulay?  And you're American tourist?"  

"Yes, we just came from Sulay.  We enjoyed the visit a lot."

The woman grasped my hand once more, this time kissing me three times.  We waived goodbye to each other, and I walked out of the house.  

Bobby and Steve stood beside the taxi, looked at the huge grin spread across my face, and asked what the hell I was doing in there.  I provided them with a play-by-play.  By far, the best experience of the Iraqi Kurdistan visit.  Not only was it a "touching" experience, but it was somewhat surreal.  When I looked across the table, I couldn't help but think that that woman and I could have easily been in opposite positions.

Friday, October 26
The following day we spent traveling from Sulay to Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan, the town directly before the Turkish border.  A nice, travel pic:
We had no hotel information, so we opened the ever-useless [for this trip] Lonely Planet.  It pointed us to this hotel:
As you can see, the hotel was demolished.

Friday evening, I ventured into the bazaar in an attempt to find some Iraqi Kurdistan postcards.  It would have been a great gift...  Unfortunately, postcards were nowhere to be found.  While returning to our accommodation, the cab driver, in broken English, asked where I was from.  I responded with the typical, "St. Louis, Missouri. It's 4 hours south of Chicago," answer.  The driver replied by saying that his "girlfriend" was living in Kansas City!  Crazy!

Saturday, October 27
Back to Turkey we go.  En route to the Iraqi-Turkish border, our cab driver essentially asked us to put cigarettes in our backpacks as we crossed  Turkey.  Maybe this is common practice, but I'm in [insert expletive] law school.  The last thing I need on my record is, "attempted to smuggle cigarettes from Iraq."

I mentioned that, when we entered Iraq, our cab driver cut to the front of the line.  This time it was pay-back.  Other drivers were bypassing us while we waited in line for over four hours.  We even bumped into the man from Mosul that worked with the U.S. Army (Part III).

Sunday, October 28
Sunday, I flew into Istanbul where I had a 20 hour layover before returning to Hamburg.  Ironically, I arrived one hour after PKK terrorists attacked Istanbul.

Closing thoughts
Whew.  That completes the Iraq chronicles.  I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading the posts, and I apologize  for being long-winded.  An account of the Iraqi Kurdistan trip could have either been a surface level summary or, at the extreme end, what I provided.  One of the motivating factors behind making these posts so long was the unbelievable lack of information.  Even Wikipedia, the love of my life, could not provide a comprehensive or unbiased presentation of the facts.

For further reading, two other travelers recently visited Iraqi Kurdistan:

Thank you to Steve and Bobby, who are terrific.  We shared some fantastically inappropriate cab conversations, knowing the drivers couldn't understand us. And...


EOBA: ...Well... no deeply profound insight on the world is coming to mind... nor is anything funny.  Therefore, this post's EOBA is left to my relentlessly concerned mother (who, I'm assuming, was joking): "..btw - don't accept any packages from Yemen."


  1. Very moving post. We have times in our lives that are "moments." It is evident that you experienced several of these moments in your journey that you will stay with you forever.

  2. Fantastic set of blogs. I learned a lot! Thanks for sharing.

  3. great, to know that you have visited Kurdistan and enjoyed it without any trouble, people here, are thirsty of showing their hospitality to the world, strange love,but,i love your visit as much as i love Kurdistan.btw, i shared your article from gadling on my fb.

  4. Very interesting , nice pics , brave girl Jen

  5. Iraqi Kurdistan was a wonderful visit, and the people were incredibly friendly!

    Well I definitely appreciate the compliment in being called brave. I'm more inclined to say that I just don't believe anything until I see it... Which is fitting considering I'm from Missouri, the "Show-Me" state.

    Thanks all! And thank you for sharing the article on fb.

  6. Salut. Je suis contente d’être tombée sur ton forum je compte aller en Sulaymanie pour l'été 2011 pendant 6 semaine et demie et j'aimerais savoir la vie est chère la bas ? Niveau nourriture, Habits, Chaussure etc.. Ça me pationne tellement que je veux revenir avec plein de chose de la ba mais j'aimerai savoir un peu près combien prendre..

  7. Ah! I appreciate your comment, but I don't know French! And Google-translate wasn't very helpful...

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  25. Informative yet full bigoted understanding of the culture and for ur note n the 28th oct, well most probably people who u thought were nice friendly...made u feel special (which u def not! ) were ex PKK terrorist...this is blog is for people who wants to travel to places so they feel better about their lowly lives...I would have bared u form entering Kurdistan if I had such power.
    Jen my advise don't travel again or u understand the true meaning of it first!

  26. Please don´t call PKK terrorists, they are certainly not. Turkey is terrorist. PKK only defend themselves. Look what Turkey is doing to kurdish people then call us terrorists...


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