The future of 'dark tourism' in Iraqi Kurdistan

The future of 'dark tourism' in Iraqi Kurdistan
5 min read
15 May, 2017
In-depth: War crimes sites in northern Iraq may be turned into museums to provide a place for commemoration, reflection and education, writes Paul Iddon.
The Kurdish area has a long history of genocidal campaigns [AFP]

In October 2013, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, then the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the United Kingdom, outlined sectors of the economy then being developed in Iraqi Kurdistan.

She discussed relevant prospects in the autonomous region's oil and gas sector, as well as its tourism industry.

One particular area she outlined was referred to as "sites of conscience", or "dark tourism".

"I'm sure you know people visit Auschwitz as a way of discovering the history of the Nazis and what happened the Jewish community," Rahman said. "This is apparently a sector of tourism worldwide that does very well.

"We want the world to know our story and what happened in Kurdistan, both positive and negative," she added. "We want the world to know about the genocide, the chemical weapon bombardments, the torture, the executions."

Rahman was referring to the Anfal, the genocidal campaign waged by the Saddam Hussein regime against Kurdistan in the late 1980s which killed 182,000 Kurds. One notably infamous incident of that period was the gassing and killing of 5,000 Kurdish civilians in a single day in the town of Halabja on the Iranian border.

The sites of these atrocities still exist. Amna Suraka, for example, was a headquarters of Iraqi intelligence during Saddam's rule, where his regime applied the most brutal forms of torture against his Kurdish victims and "disappeared" many. It is now a museum.

Rather than destroy the site, which was known as Saddam's "House of Horrors", the Kurdish authorities decided that preserving it as museum would commemorate those who were killed there, and as a stark reminder of the regime's brutality against the Kurds.

A hall of mirrors in the complex consists of a staggering 182,000 shards of glass, one for each victim of the Anfal. Also in Halabja there is a memorial and museum to the gas attack.

IS mass-murdered at least 3,500 men, women and children during the initial onslaught, with the same number still unaccounted for

Little did Rahman know when she gave her October 2013 talk another grave atrocity was on the horizon. Less than a year later the Yazidi minority in the Sinjar region were subjected to an ongoing campaign of genocide by the Islamic State group beginning on August 3, 2014.

IS mass-murdered at least 3,500 men, women and children during the initial onslaught, with the same number still unaccounted for - believed to be either in IS captivity or dead.

Several mass grave sites were found in the Sinjar area after IS was routed by Kurdish fighters [AFP]

It's clear IS' intent was to destroy the minority community and their homeland.

While KRG Peshmerga troops liberated the city of Sinjar in November 2015 it is still a gutted ruin. Today the Yazidi community remains displaced.

To the Iraqi Kurds, this atrocity resembled another, albeit smaller, Anfal-like moment in the region's history. They have been exploring appropriate and effective ways to commemorate, and educate about, such terrible events in hopes that they were firmly consigned to history.

Between 2003 and 2014 Iraqi Kurdistan achieved unprecedented autonomy, economic prosperity, security and stability compared with the rest of Iraq at that time. Kurdistan during that period, and today, was a world away from its dire state in the 1980s, when the Anfal campaign destroyed the vast majority of the region's towns and villages, and in the 1990s, when Iraqi Kurds endured a civil war and two economic embargoes - one levelled against all of Iraq by the United Nations following the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and another by the regime in Baghdad itself.

Plans have already been discussed about how to incorporate the Sinjar atrocity alongside the region's older sites of conscience.

"Two years ago, our people experienced a catastrophe at the hands of [IS] terrorists; this was not the first atrocity, but I hope it is the last one," said Iraqi Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani on the second anniversary of the Sinjar atrocity in August 2016.

"The old [Sinjar] should remain a symbol and memory for the next generation to know what happened to our people," he added, suggesting a new city should be built for the Yazidis.

Barzani's proposal is reminiscent of what happened in Oradour-sur-Glane in France after the Second World War.

On June 10, 1944, Nazi Waffen-SS forces massacred most of the town's population, killing 642 villagers, and burned it down, including the church where they had rounded up hundreds of women and children. Rather than rebuild it after the war the French decided to leave the town in its ruined state as a sombre symbol of that atrocity. They built a new town nearby as a replacement.

Barzani's proposal, and the French memorial at Oradour, are the polar opposite of what Saddam's Iraq tried to do in Halabja.

IS never tried to conceal what it did in Sinjar, instead choosing to boast and document their own crimes against the Yazidis in lurid propaganda videos

Shortly after its gassing of the town, which they tried to blame on Iran, the Iraqi regime forbade Halabja's residents from staying in their town - and rebuilt a new nearby town called "Saddam's Halabja", falsely claiming it was a humanitarian effort to give the people of "the old Halabja" a better life.

The regime even coerced residents to toe this line to foreign media in a bid to cloak its crime.

IS never tried to conceal what it did in Sinjar, instead choosing to boast and document their own crimes against the Yazidis in lurid propaganda videos. In the foreseeable future the ruins of Sinjar may well join the ranks of the Anfal sites of conscience as a physical remnant and symbol of yet another crime against humanity. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon