10 June, 2010

Suly 5: Ghosts

At 9:30 AM, two boys knock on the gate. My guide-in-training, Zewar, is sixteen, and he's brought fourteen year old Şıwanı along for the ride. Zewar speaks excellent English, a fact he attributes not to practice or homework - since he reports blowing those off - but to a laptop full of American music, among other cultural sources. We stop at the language institute two blocks away, for a brief tour.

Andrew explains that the KRG mandated that the language of instruction in Kurdistan should be English. Originally intended to bridge the gap between Kurdish-speaking pupils and primarily Arabic-speaking instructors, the measure did not prove so successful. The students have difficulty understanding English, a problem compounded teachers with strong non-English accents. Here at Brittania Institute, the students i meet from the morning class are part of an American Embassy-funded program to increase English language proficiency.

My guides hail a cab to our first destination, the Suleimaniye Museum. Zewar had been here a number of times and found very little of interest - so at first i suggested we skip it. But a few moments into our visit, i begin to be fascinated. This region was the point of convergence for ethnic groups dating back to the origins of humanity. There are bone scythes dating to the Neolithic period; arrowheads from the iron age. Clay urns, lamps, seals both stamped and rolling. Sumerians, Akkadians, Medes, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arabs... the artifacts spanned twelve thousand years of archeological heritage to be found only here in Iraq. Yet it was a small, bare-bones museum, a fact reflecting that even today, Suleymaniyah lies at a geopolitical fault line.

A second taxi ride took us to Anna Suraka, a prison during Saddam's era, where [hundreds?] of Kurds were tortured and killed. At first it didn't seem like we'd be allowed inside - although a memorial site of sorts, the inner chambers are not always open to visitors - but we were told to hurry, and catch up with three men ahead of us.

Stepping past the heavy, metal doors we moved from a world of harsh sun into a dark nightmare. We saw the cells where people were held awaiting torture, and a small room where over ninety women and children had once huddled. Throughout the prison thin blankets lay on the floor, some folded, others rumpled, and dishes for water lay beside them. Here and there life sized figures are posed - some in thought, some in torture, one looking hopefully toward a window. At the first one, standing in a narrow cell, the boys spook, on edge. To them, the place is full of ghosts. Zewar lost two uncles here at Anna Suraka: one as a prisoner in 1986, the other in the liberation struggle. Though growing up in Suleymaniyah, neither of the boys had been inside the prison before.

I am not sure if the tableaux add to or detract from the haunting power of the place. While they bring to life the atrocities that happened within the dark confines of this prison, they distract visitors from the silent emptiness, from the handwriting on its walls, messages of love in despair.

Outside, there were tanks and artillery, which the boys clambered excitedly over while an older fellow shook my hand and repeated "America f*cked Saddam Hussein," grinning. A playful mood masked, and gradually replaced, the boys' fear. They tried out every cannon, while i examined the bullet-riddled walls of the prison. Unfortunately, Anna Suraka is still wounding young Kurds - jumping from a tank, Şıwanı tore his pants, gashing his leg open, and it was a painful walk to a clinic - just around the corner.