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Kurds transforming site of Iraqi torture into war crimes museum

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—Each night as he lay in his cell, kept awake, he said, by muffled cries from the interrogation rooms, Baktiyar Awle wondered how much worse his torment would get.

"I was expecting them to shoot me or bring my relatives and torture them in front of me," Awle recalled of the eight months he spent in 1990 in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's main interrogation center in Kurd-controlled northern Iraq.

As it happened, Awle, a member of the Kurdish underground, was among the lucky few.

The beatings, the electric shocks, the sadism of the guard who allowed him, he said, only five seconds for the toilet ended with a 10-year sentence in a regular prison. That was commuted after seven months by a prisoner exchange between Saddam's army and rebel Kurds.

Now, Awle, 39, a father of three, is working to restore the three-story cement detention and interrogation center, which is about the size of a suburban county jail, into a war crimes museum.

"Everyone will know the price we have paid," Awle said recently as he revisited the cell that he shared with three other inmates.

The project, which started in mid-2002, testifies to the virtual independence northern Iraq has enjoyed since Saddam withdrew his forces in 1991.

The work is slow, and donations are intermittent. If completed, the museum will provide more than a glimpse of Saddam's machinery of repression. It also will depict a series of 1988 offensives in which Saddam's army gassed thousands of Kurds, as well as other incidents.

Organizers also want to build a repository of documents, photos, recordings and testimonies recounting the repression the Kurds suffered in their decades-long struggle for autonomy.

"People are still alive and they know the story," said the project's main patron, Hero Khan, the wife of Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. It is one of the two parties that control the Kurds' safe haven.

Hero Kahn said the PUK eventually would seek the return of masses of records that the Kurds had been turning over to the United States for years in hopes that they would be used one day to bring war crimes charges against Saddam and his top aides.

"The material ... belongs to the people who suffered," she said.

The compound was the northern Iraq headquarters of the Mudiriyat al Amn al Ameh, or General Security Directorate. Its job was to root out the underground networks that smuggled supplies to Kurdish rebels, recruited new fighters and distributed propaganda.

Beginning in the early 1980s, unknown numbers of suspected Kurdish partisans, including women and children, were confined for months in the compound's detention center until a "judge" pronounced death or jail sentences. Judges often would falsify children's birth dates to circumvent a law barring death for those younger than 18.

"I was 10 years old. They arrested me and turned me into18 so they could execute me," reads an inscription on a wall of one cell.

Allegations of Iraqi atrocities against specific individuals can be difficult to confirm. However, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other respected groups have reported that Saddam's forces killed thousands of Kurds in the Iran-Iraq border region during and after interrogations, including women and children.

A Human Rights Watch book, titled "Iraq's Crime of Genocide," quotes Ali Hassan al Majid, a cousin of Saddam's, who ruled Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1980s, as having ordered that "all persons captured (from the Kurdish opposition) shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them."

At what was the interrogation center, the restoration work is nearly complete. The first phase of the restoration project is nearly complete. The dank, chilly corridors have been freshly plastered and whitewashed. The steel doors are oiled and painted gray.

In the two main interrogation rooms, ceiling pipes hold rusty iron hooks from which detainees were hung, arms bound behind their backs, as they were beaten with sticks or burned with irons.

Life-size statues of prisoners stand in two cells. Others depict prisoners manacled to walls and railings, some of them blindfolded.

Kamaran Omer Saeed, the 27-year-old sculptor who is a creative force behind the project, said his statues were of actual prisoners. One is Awle's former cellmate and underground colleague, Mamosta Ahmed.

Prisoners called a small chamber between the two rooms "The Sheraton." On its walls, workmen are installing wood and styrofoam paneling reminiscent of that used to mute prisoners' cries.

Calendars and other wall scrawls, such as "I was arrested for no reason on 20th Feb., 1986," will be preserved on cell walls behind glass frames.

Perhaps the most chilling material is a tape recording of the interrogation of an unknown prisoner. The tape was recovered after the compound's capture.

The 15-minute cassette will play in a tunnel, its walls covered with black paint and shards of mirrored glass, which will lead visitors toward the center's entrance. On the tape, the interrogator relentlessly hurls questions as the prisoner groans in pain, barely able to speak.

"What is Farhad's position? The one who was arrested with you," demands the interrogator toward the end of the tape.

"I don't know anything, by God," mutters the prisoner.

"How could it be that you have been in the network since 1979 and not be responsible for anyone?"

"I am dying. By God, I can't say anything. I am dying, by God. By the Koran, I am dying."

There is silence and then a new voice: "Where are his clothes?"


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ-TORTURECENTER