These Cloths Tell the Story of the Worst Humanitarian Crisis of This Generation

At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the strips of fabric, written in blood and rust, serve as a testament to Syria’s disappeared

Jane Klinger, chief conservator for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, holds one of the cloths that Mansour Omari smuggled out of Syria. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

For ten months, the journalist Mansour Omari was “missing in detention” in a cramped, windowless underground military complex in Syria, one of tens of thousands to have been forcibly disappeared by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Of the many agonies he and his fellow prisoners faced as they languished in inhumane conditions under the supervision of Maher al-Assad, the brother of President Assad, one of the most unbearable was not being able to tell their loved ones what had happened to them.

Omari and a handful of other prisoners grouped together spoke about this at length. Ultimately, they made a pact: whoever made it out of the detention center first would take with them a record of who their fellow cellmates were.

Among the men, Nabil Shurbaji, another journalist, had the neatest handwriting. Discreetly, with the understanding that anyone could report him to the authorities, he began the work of collecting the identities of the inmates. The men had no pen or paper to record the names, so they tried writing with watery tomato soup. When that proved ineffective, they tried eggplant. Then, one of them, a tailor, had an idea. Like his fellow detainees, his gums were swollen and weak from malnutrition. He squeezed them until his blood filled a contraband plastic bag. Mixed with rust, the concoction formed their ink. Five precious scraps of cloth torn from a worn shirt served as paper.

Using a chicken bone, Shurbaji stained the names of 82 detainees onto the small strips of clothing. These precious records of blood and rust were then hidden away into the collar and cuffs of one of Shurbaji’s shirts until the day Omari’s name was called to be transferred to Adra Central prison. Tugging on the shirt in haste, he preserved the written testament on his person as he moved through Adra Central and then one more prison, before finally being released in February 2013.

In a video playing on loop in “Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us,” which debuted at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in December, Omari recounts his harrowing story of being picked up one day by military police in 2012. He was working at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus when they came for him, and took him to the notorious makeshift prison, once a military complex, located three stories underground. The museum’s mournful exhibition tells his story and those of his fellow inmates,  serving as a living testament to the atrocities occurring in Syria today.

“We go through great lengths to say Mansour is an average guy,” says Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “He was not looking to be a hero. He was not looking to fight the revolution. He was a journalist doing his job, and he was very surprised the day he got picked up. He was just an average guy, doing an average job.”

On a private tour of the exhibition, Hudson says Omari’s cloths tell a greater narrative of the conflict.  “It’s evidence of the crime, and a fight against denialism that’s happening today and most surely will happen in the future,” says Hudson. Already, revisionary history is happening in real time in Syria. “We have the president of the country, Assad, saying this is fake news,” says Hudson. “This torture isn’t happening; these crimes aren’t being committed; we’re not targeting civilians.”

Approaching its 25th anniversary this spring, the museum staged this powerful exhibition, in part, to combat the denialism of atrocities occuring in Syria, which comes from places like Russia, but also, as Hudson points out, western outlets that refute or underplay the significance of what’s going on. “I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that there hasn’t been a serious Security Council resolution at the UN condemning these crimes, condemning what’s going on, and partly that’s because of a kind of pervasive fake news or counter news narrative that has been emerging,” he says.

The museum first learned about Omari’s story when they screened the documentary Syria’s Disappeared in May of 2017. In the film, Omari shows his treasured cloths to the camera, and the curators realized he was storing them in a loose-leaf notebook.

The museum had only just recently opened a new conservation center in Maryland to preserve Holocaust-era artifacts, many of which were also written in blood, and wanted to help. Through filmmaker Sara Afshar, they reached out to Omari, who is living in exile in Sweden. “We knew how fragile these artifacts were, and so our first instinct was let us help him preserve this,” says Hudson.

Omari made a trip to the museum in August. He brought with him his loose-leaf notebook, which still held his cloths, protectively under his arm. “When he took them out again for the first time, he said you know I hadn’t looked at these in months,” says Hudson. “It reminded him of his time in detention and he didn’t want to be reminded of it. It was all too much.”

Once free, Omari didn’t dare publish the list of names out of fear that those identified in it would be punished by Assad’s regime. Instead, in exile, Omari quietly began attempting to track down the families of his fellow inmates. The work was difficult. Millions have been displaced by the conflict, and he has had to convince those he has tracked down that he is who he says he is, not a government spy. Of the 82 names, he says has only been able to confirm the fates of 11 of the men so far.

The museum asked and Omari agreed to loan the cloths and the notebook to tell the story of those left behind. In the next four months, “Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us” came together. Located on the second floor of the museum, it’s positioned so that when you leave the atrocities of 1945 in the permanent exhibition, you enter the atrocities of the present-day in the three-room show, fitting with the museum's mission to document crimes of humanity happening today, in addition to those of the past.

“This is probably the fastest we’ve created an exhibition,” says Hudson. The reason for such haste, he says, is because Omari wants his cloths back. “He doesn’t want to be separated from them,” says Hudson. “We have a one-year loan agreement with him to hold the cloths that started in August, so time was critical to get them on display as soon as we could so as many people could see them as we can get in there.”

The exhibition begins with basic facts of the Syria conflict: its origins in 2011; the death count, which is estimated at more than 500,000; and an explanation of what it means to be “forcibly disappeared.” The cloths are positioned in the main room, a dark, labyrinth-like setting, where Omari’s pre-recorded voice talks to you at different stations. In one, themed “their souls,” he explains what the names on the cloths have come to mean to him. After his release, his relationship to them changed, he says. No longer did he see words or letters, but instead he saw the names as pieces of their souls. Fittingly, on a periphery wall, 82 dots of light reflect into the darkness of the room, a visual representation of the missing.

Omari’s notebook, where he stored the cloths for so long, is also on display. It’s opened to a page where Omari recorded his thoughts from the day he was released. The words, a mix of Arabic and English, capture the chaos of his emotions, everything from “depression” and “sadness” to “hope,” “faith,” “resurrection,” “reconciliation,” and, finally, “back to life.”

Omari worked closely with the museum to curate the exhibition. One of the things they talked about was how to tell a larger story through the cloths. “He feels this overwhelming sense of guilt that he was selected to leave this prison,” says Hudson. During his stay, there were 82 people overall who were detained in that room, and he was the one who was chosen to go. He wanted the exhibition to be a story not about himself but the people who remain in detention today, and the hundreds of thousands who have been killed and the millions displaced in the conflict.

Omari also wanted to ensure that Shurbaji, the journalist who risked his life recording the names, was properly remembered. That’s why in the background, throughout the exhibition, a violin melody of “Raj’een ya Hawa” (My love, we are coming back) by the Rahbani Brothers, performed on the violin by N. Azzam, plays. Shurbaji was Omari’s closest friend in the detention center, and would often sing the song to keep his spirits up, dreaming about going back to his fiancé and a normal life. Unlike Omari, though, he never made it out of the prison. He died there in 2015, after being detained for three years.

While Shurbaji’s name is mentioned, the curators were careful to maintain a form of anonymity with the rest of the detainees throughout the exhibition. “He’s still really grappling with the fact that a lot of these people, their families don’t really know their children are on these cloths, so he doesn’t want it to come out in a public way,” says Hudson. Because of that, in the exhibition, the detainees are only referred to by their first names.

Those names can be heard in the walk space to the final room, which leads to a decompression space. If you linger there, you’ll hear Omari’s steady voice read aloud a selection of the 82 names, the souls of Syria he carries with him still.