Iraq part...4? Still Sulay

I'm finding it hard again to even start explaining more about our trip because I feel like we saw so much, so this will all come tumbling out, stream-of-conscience style per usual or else I'll never get done with these posts. 

Things I remember from Sulymaniyah...(or "Sulay" for short):

Being within an hour away from Halabja on the 25th Anniversary of the horrific gas bomb attacks that killed thousands there. You can read a little of that day HERE. Saddam sent shells in to break windows so that later that day, the gas he ordered to be dropped there would fill the houses even more.

It smelled like apples so kids breathed it in deeply. 

It covered the city and the escape routes so there was little way of salvation. 

It melted people’s eyes....

We saw photographs of the aftermath in the basement of the Red House, the former headquarters of Saddam's Ba'athist party. (I couldn't find a good wiki page for the Red House but did find this blog which included a lot of the details we were told while we toured there, so I'm including it if you want to learn more) The Red House was a torture center/ prison that was preserved fairly untouched and is now a museum. 

The buildings were riddled with bullet holes and soviet era tanks filled the grounds

Everything was left as it was back when Saddam ruled, including the pillows and blankets on the cell floors

We were able to tour this place with a man who had himself been in a similar torture center and could tell us exactly what takes place at these things. He had been taken by Saddam’s soldiers in the middle of the night because they thought he was someone else. They kept him in solitary confinement – only being let out to be put through various means of torture – for 6 months before finally he was basically told “woops, guess you aren’t who we thought you were. You can go back but if you mention this to anyone, we’ll kill you.”

That was one thing that struck me. You couldn’t talk about anything back then. People in Sulay told us that even after they realized what was happening in Halabja, they couldn’t talk about it. You just had to live with this knowledge of such severe suffering, and fear of it coming to you, but you couldn’t act like anything was wrong. Because if you looked the wrong way, you’d be captured and tortured too. Or shot. 

While we were in the Red House compound, we were shown barbed wire on the top of the fence around it. Our guide told us Iraqi soldiers used to stand watch and if people across the street even looked at the compound, they could be shot.

(I just can’t imagine living under such fear all the time. It’s no wonder people describe that region as a whole people group suffering from PTSD.)

walking into one of the confinement rooms
The solitary confinement cells that we saw in the Red House were tiny holes with one tiny window at the top. We saw scribbling on the walls where prisoners tried to combat insanity by drawing or writing. Me and Caleb, another guy from my group, ended up lingering to stare longer into one of the cells when we saw an Iraqi man showing his friend specific markings on one of the walls. He saw us and excitedly said “I was here! I was in here years ago! I wrote on this wall!”

My stomach felt ill. We were looking right at one of the men who – likely for no reason – had spent time in this very terrible place.

Caleb and I rushed back to locate our group that had already moved on, both fighting back tears as we each stared into space trying to imagine that man’s experience here.

We passed under barbed wire, next to walls made specifically to be rough so that when prisoners were thrown against them, their skin would be scratched to pieces.

And we were taken into various torture chambers where our tour guide would explain exactly what would happen – because he’d been through it. The one that stood out the most to me was this room:

Where our guide proceeded to tell us that’s exactly how he was suspended in his own chamber – while they electrictuted his genitals so he couldn’t reproduce.

This is a man who was later told “oh yeah, guess you weren’t the guy we thought. Sorry!”


(But praise the Lord, he ended up having three sons anyway J I love that so much....)

And you might be thinking “yeah right, how do you know this stuff really happened?” And I felt skeptical at times myself. But between me asking one of our American friends who has lived in Kurdistan for a decade, and hearing story after story after story from people who don’t know each other who all have similar experiences, I can tell you I’m convinced. And astounded. And like I said, these people are happy. They have hope. They talk about their own future plans and the bright future of the Kurdistan and Iraq they believe in.

And I guess that’s new there. Our host told us just a few years ago when she would ask those kids at the English learning center we hung out with what they hoped for in the future, they’d say “nothing. This place will never get better. I don’t have plans.”

But when we talked to them, we heard “I want to be an engineer” or a “lawyer” or “doctor.” We also saw pride in their eyes for their country as they eagerly asked us what we thought about it. I just saw a quote about the Red House that helps sum up so much of what we experienced in Iraq, "...loathing at what humans can do to each other and pride at how humans can persevere and fight back..."
(quote, and additional reading, from here)

We would continue to feel that juxtaposition on the rest of trip. More in the next post. 

Memorial inside the Red House. Each piece of glass representing one of the hundreds of thousands of victims under Saddam. Each light bulb representing one of the 5,400 Kurdish villages destroyed.