Documenting Syria’s Disappeared

Names Written In Bloodstream And Rust: Documenting Syria’s Disappeared

toggle caption Dylan Collins/Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Mansour Omari have been held nearly a year within an underground Syrian prison, tortured and starved, when his name was called by the guards. He would be released. The various other prisoners hugged him and wept. In the dark, they whispered, “Remember us.”

Omari would not forget. When he was eventually set free in 2013, he smuggled out the labels of all 82 inmates. The lists were written on torn bits of garments and penned in blood, then sewn into the collar and cuffs of his clothing. It had been his duty, he says, to make sure the names saw the light of time.

The five bits of fabric are now part of a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Omari lent the tattered fabric to the museum to keep attention on the tens of thousands of Syrians who have disappeared since President Bashar Assad stepped up his crackdown on his critics in 2011.

Enlarge this image toggle caption Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR Jennifer Kerrigan/NPR

The federal government just takes people, says Omari, a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken man. 1 day, people are simply gone rather than heard from again, the 38-year-old says.

“We have this proverb in Syria which can be translated into ‘disappeared beyond the sun,’ ” Omari tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “Which means when you declare any word against the government or the government doesn’t like you, you will disappear. … Nobody will know about you and you will be in darkness.”

Omari, a journalist and activist, was doing work for the Syrian Middle for Media and Freedom of Expression when he was found by the military law enforcement in 2012. He was taken to one of the regime’s most notorious prisons – run by Maher Assad, the Syrian president’s brother – and held three stories underground.

Conditions at the makeshift prison in a military set up were horrific. There wasn’t enough space for everyone to lay down, so the guys slept in shifts. Food was scarce; breakfast was three olives plus some breads. Omari says he shed more than 70 pounds during his detention. For nine months, he didn’t start to see the sun.

“You become a skeleton interior,” Omari says. “You drop your flesh, you stay bones as well as your skin. That’s all you’re kept with you. Your skin layer is protected with wounds as a result of the beatings, and blisters and scabies.”

Immortalizing names in body and rust

Omari, who have had once worked to record the labels of the disappeared, was now one of these. If he could jot down the labels, and smuggle them out, he says, the men’s families could learn of their fate and the community could find out of the atrocities staying committed.

Five of the prisoners worked in secret. With nothing to create with, or publish on, they had to become resourceful. They discovered that the most sturdy ink was spit and bloodstream from their bleeding gums, mixed with rust scraped from the bars of the cell. A splintered chicken bone – meals scraps left over from the guards – performed as a quill. Nabil Shurbaji, a Syrian journalist, was the prisoner with the best handwriting. He was selected to pen the names on items of fabric cut from their shirts.

Enlarge this image toggle caption Dylan Collins/Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Dylan Collins/Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

In secret, one of the men, a tailor, did his better to sew the fabric beneath the collar and cuffs of a shirt. The prisoners had no needles, so the tailor pierced the fabric with sharp bones and weaved items of thread through holes to add them.

The five agreed that the first someone to be released has on the shirt out of prison. After being held for nine months, Omari’s name was called. He believes that pressure from the media and human rights groupings secured his let go. It didn’t stop him from staying tortured, he says, but it saved his life.

Omari says he previously mixed feelings about leaving the prison. “I was scared because I’m wearing the clothing, and I have no idea if I’ll be searched,” says Omari. “And I was declaring goodbye to my close friends. I spent quite a long time with them.”

Once free, Omari started out to find the families of the men he was imprisoned with. It had been not easy: More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced since the start of the civil war. Once he determined the families, Omari had to convince them that he wasn’t a federal government spy.

“Many of them, it was the 1st time they recognized anything about their sons,” says Omari. “Plus they don’t believe me. Because it was a shock for them. It’s like been maybe years they didn’t listen to anything about their sons. And I arrive, like, out of nowhere, and showing them, ‘Hi, I was together with your son, and he’s alive.’ And that was shocking for them, of training course.”

Omari says the conversations were painful and that he kept the most gruesome details to himself.

After his release four years ago, Omari kept for Turkey. He was in the future given refugee status in Sweden, where he right now lives. His work to expose the Syrian regime will be presented in a documentary, “Syria’s Disappeared.”

“The sheer heroism of what Mansour did is what drew us to the tale,” Sara Afshar, the film’s director who attended the recent opening of the Holocaust Museum exhibit, wrote within an email. “We had been also attracted to the story since the film (all together) looks at the value of documentation in trying to get justice for survivors and the families of the tortured and disappeared.”

Enlarge this image toggle caption Dylan Collins/Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Dylan Collins/Courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Omari continues to work on behalf of the disappeared and to find out what happened to the guys whose labels he smuggled out. But of the 82 labels, he has only had the opportunity to confirm what happened to 11 of the guys. Four, including Nabil Shurbaji, who wrote the labels, passed away in prison. The various other seven were either introduced or delivered to other prisons.

The names are fading

Digital imaging features captured the names, however the words in red won’t previous forever, says Jane Klinger, the Holocaust Museum’s chief conservator. The fabric is now being stored at a regular temperature and away from light, however the rust and blood are breaking down.

“Any direct conservation treatment known will not be in a position to fully halt or mitigate the fading,” Klinger says.

Nevertheless, the exhibition is definitely proof that those nonetheless being held in Syria’s prisons possess not been forgotten. During the interview, Omari pats his coat sleeves as if feeling for the labels he has kept secure for the past five years. And he feels he has lived up to his assurance to tell their tale.

But Omari is grieving. He feels guilty that he was freed, while his close friends stayed behind. And he believes a number of the detainees remain alive and so are being held in Syria’s brutal detention centers.

“They feel that if the world recognized specifically what they are struggling, the world would not stand and look,” he says. “The community would help.”

“I don’t know what to tell them right now, after what possesses happened in Syria,” he says, “and nobody’s doing anything.”

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