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Remembering Saddam's Iraq

Kanan Makiya prepares a museum for Baghdad documenting the evils of Saddam's rule and the courage of those who fought against it.

11:00 PM, Dec 15, 2003 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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PRESIDENT BUSH'S MESSAGE to Iraqis on Sunday was deliciously absolute: "You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again." Kanan Makiya's message to Iraqis does not convey the same sense of finality, but it rings just as true: You can never forget Saddam.

Last Friday--just a day before American soldiers found Saddam hiding in an eight foot, camouflaged "spider hole" near Tikrit--Makiya, an Iraqi-born professor, architect, and author, spoke to a small audience of journalists and policy experts at the Capitol about his plans to document life under Saddam's brutal dictatorship, from 1968, when the Baath party took power, to 2003.

What Makiya calls "a dark, dark page in modern Iraqi history" has gotten brighter with Saddam's capture, but 35 years of horrific events remain foggy--or even ignored--in the minds of many. Makiya, who left Iraq in 1968 to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sought to change this. He began protesting Saddam in the 1970s and published "Republic of Fear" in 1989, under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. The book became a bestseller in 1990, after Saddam invaded Kuwait.

In 1992, Makiya used Iraqi state records recovered during the Gulf War to found the Iraq Research and Documentation Project (IRDP) at Harvard University. The project has since grown into the Iraq Memory Foundation. Begun in July 2003, the foundation's purpose is to place the oppression of Iraqis under Saddam's rule in the more global context of human suffering. The foundation's plans include a museum to be built in central Baghdad, possibly at the site where Saddam built a monument of two crossed swords to commemorate Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran. "[The museum will be] a place not devoted to bombastic rhetoric . . . but a place, so to speak, that remembers and honors those that died unjustly . . . at the hands of other Iraqis," Makiya said. The foundation also envisions a public outreach project, which will train elementary and secondary school teachers to help students comprehend what happened in Iraq from 1968 to 2003, and a research facility linked to the future Iraqi university system. "The eyes [of the Iraq Memory Foundation] are firmly fixed on the next generation of Iraqis," Makiya explained.

MAKIYA DESCRIBED THE FOUNDATION as being based on three tools: "the paper trail of atrocity," which consists of 2.4 million pages of official Iraqi documents captured by the Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War and 725,000 pages of Iraqi documents captured in Kuwait upon its liberation by coalition forces in 1991; films of interviews with survivors and witnesses of Saddam's brutality; and artifacts--works of art, poetry, books, songs, films, and architecture--produced both by members of Saddam's regime and those who protested against it.

The foundation seeks to digitize, index, and classify all recovered documents, many of which describe tortures, executions, mass graves, even rumors about Iraqi citizens collected by Saddam's repressive officers over a span of seven years. "We have documents on the sublime to the mundane to the ridiculous," director of documentation Hassan Mneimneh said, though the foundation has less than 1 percent of the 300 million documents it is seeking for a comprehensive archive. The foundation also plans to archive oral histories and filmed interviews with survivors.

One filmed interview, shown during the presentation, tells the story of Shaoul Sasson, an Iraqi Jew imprisoned by Saddam in 1968. Now 98 years old, Sasson spoke of his year spent in Saddam's Qasr Al-Nihaya, or "Terminal Palace." There, he was blindfolded, brutally beaten, and burned by Saddam's henchmen. The film, just one example of Saddam's cruelty toward Jews, is reminiscent of those shown at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In fact, the foundation's director of oral history, Mustafa Al-Kadhimiy, is in the United States at the invitation of the Holocaust Museum, where he is learning how the museum acquires and conserves its materials and makes them accessible to the public. Makiya, however, is quick to distinguish his future museum from the former: "Unlike the Holocaust Museum, we are not 50 years removed [from our atrocity]--we are right at the edge."

CONGRESS HAS ALLOCATED $1 million to the Iraq Memory Foundation, though Makiya says it needs $20 million more over the next two years. The architect does not know exactly what his future museum will look like, but he said it may take a few years for his vision to become a reality. "Everything is piled inside the basement of my house," he told an audience at the National Endowment for Democracy. But the fact that those pages and artifacts are accumulating and ready for classification is promising, and a big step towards building memories and forging new identities in a new and free Iraq. Makiya asks, "Will they erase the dark pages, or will they say 'We are who we are because of these 30 some years'?" With Saddam in captivity, now is as good a time as ever for Iraqis to answer this question.

Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.