While languishing inside a grim Syrian prison, a small group of inmates etched the names of 82 prisoners onto scraps of cloth using a chicken bone, rust, and their own blood. They hoped the list would someday make it beyond the walls of the prison, serving as a testament to the atrocities wrought by the Syrian civil war. Thanks to the bravery and ingenuity of one former prisoner, the faded scraps were recently transferred to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Brian Witte reports for the Associated Press.
The remarkable documents were smuggled out of Syria by Mansour Omari, a 37-year-old human-rights activist. At the start of the war, Omari was working at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, where he was tasked with chronicling the cases of people who had been vanished by the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In 2012, the organization’s office was raided and Omari was arrested. According to Avantika Chilkoti of the New York Times, he spent a year in several brutal detention centers, among them the notorious prison supervised by Maher al-Assad, the president's brother.
Although he had been robbed of his freedom and, as Witte reports, subjected to torture, Omari did not stop in his quest to document the horrors taking place in Syria. Aided by four other inmates, he worked to record the names of his fellow prisoners on swatches of fabric that had been cut from the backs of their shirts. They used broken chicken bones as pens, and created “ink” by mixing rust from the bars of their cells with blood from their gums.
“[P]art of the reason that led me to decide to document the names in this way is a challenge to the government — that no matter what you did, even if you put us underground, we were still working on what we believe in, and you will never conquer," Omari tells Witte.
Omari was first among the group to be freed. The reason for his release is not known, but according to Chilkoti, foreign groups who had been in contact with Omari prior to his arrest may have advocated on his behalf. Before he left the prison, an inmate who had experience as a tailor sewed the cloth scraps into the collar and cuffs of his shirt, so he could smuggle them out of the facility without attracting the attention of the guards.
After his release, Omari started a new life in Sweden. He kept the inscribed pieces of fabric pressed inside a notebook that he bought at a civilian prison in late 2012. Last Tuesday, he presented the notebook to conservationists at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
More than 117,000 people have been detained or gone missing since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, according to Human Rights Watch. As of February 2016, 470,000 people had been killed according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent non-governmental non-profit. According to UN estimates, the violence in Syria has displaced 6.3 million people within the country, and forced some 4 million people to seek asylum abroad.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum, which works to call attention to recent mass atrocities, includes an exhibit devoted to the bitter Syrian conflict. Once conservationists have finished preserving Omari’s inscribed cloths, the fabric will go on display as an enduring reminder of the war’s victims.
Editor's note, August 16, 2017: This story has been updated to reflect that a small group of prisoners recorded the names of the 82 inmates, rather than each prisoner inscribing their own names on the cloth scraps. Additionally, Mansour did not sew the fabric into his collar and cuffs, a tailor among the inmates did it for him.