5 April, 2006
The terrible coincidence that I had met the Iraqi Trade Union leader, Najim Abd-Jasem in Arbil exactly a year before I heard of his recent murder by militias has led me to provide a daily record of what I was involved in a year ago. This is about 5 April, 2006.
The delegation I was with spent the day in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. We had friends with us from the Kurdish Workers Federation in Arbil. But it was now their equivalent Trade Unionists in Sulaymaniah who helped arrange our programme and accomodation, whilst taking on the enthusiastic role of guides.
The Red House
The memory that will always be with us is our visit to the Red House - red which came to be for blood. It was run as a hideous torture chamber by the Baathist regime.
Those incarsorated where crammed into unbelievable conditions with 70 to a cell. Cells no larger than an average living room. They were subject to a range of torture techniques, including having their hands bound behind their backs, hung on meat hooks whilst being wired to an electricity generator, as shown here.
Our guide, Bakar Hussein, had experienced this particular torture, regularly passing out after an hour or so and then being thrown back into his crowded hell-hole. Although Bakar survived these terrible conditions, 5000 others did not.
Initially residents living near the Red House heard continual screams. So central rooms were sound proofed and the sounds of torture muffled.
The Red House is scarred with bullets.Its extensive surrounding yards, from which the Baathist troops operated contain the hulks of rotting Soviet tanks they once used.
The Kurds eventually liberated the Red House and it is now a telling and terrifying museam to the horrors of the past.
The Cigarette Factory
Cigarette factories were introduced into Iraq in the early inter-war years when the country operated under a British Mandate.
We visited a Cigarette factory with a difference. Its machines dated back to 1963 and no longer worked. They had not produced a fag for four years. Yet 600 workers turn up daily to sit beside their inoperative machines. They don't get paid otherwise. They keenly look forward to the introduction of new machinery.
We were taken round by their shop stewards, who included a number of Islamic women dressed in the Chador. A key issue was whether this form of hidden unemployment shoudl be turned into open unemployment, with such workers then being paid unemployment benefit. But on the whole, the workers preferred to stick with their theoretical jobs and be in situ when the new machines eventually arrive.
We also had a busy schedule of meetings, although some of these would have bit the dust if a planned trip to Hallabjah had taken place. But our hosts (ever mindful of our safety) cancelled that trip due to local disruptions, including the shameful smashing of the monument which had been put up to those gassed by Saddam Hussein's forces.
We met the Minister of Industry and Energy, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Deputy Governor and a large group of local politicians which included both representatives from the Islamic League and the governing Patrotic Union of Kurdistan.
There was no shortage os issues for discussion. Such as problems of inward investment, whether to move to joint enterpises, possible social contracts, hydro-electric plans, trade potential with Turkey and Iran, the expliotation of minerals, skills and training problems and why there were petrol shortages in a nation built on oil.
Food For Thought
We ended up at dinner, again with the Minister of Industry and also with the Minister of Higher Education.
But whilst our various meetings and the discussions over the meal provided important food for thought, it was the 600 workers with nothing to do all day and the past horrors of the Red House which are the abiding memories.