Mansour Omari, a Syrian journalist in his mid-thirties with wavy hair and sideburns, spent a year documenting the names of detainees who disappeared after the inspiring days of the Arab Spring devolved into a chaotic civil war. Then he became one of the disappeared.
Omari was picked up in 2012, with more than a dozen other people, in a lightning government raid on the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, in Damascus. He spent most of the next year in a military detention center three floors underground with no windows, little space, and no access to sun or exercise. The number of his cellmates fluctuated—from sixty to more than eighty—all squeezed into a single filthy room measuring about twenty-five square feet. The prisoners took turns standing, squatting, sleeping astride each other, and sharing a single toilet and a sewer hole to defecate. Omari had no access to legal aid and no way to communicate with his family. Beatings were regular. Bugs were pervasive. Bruises, scabies, and wounds were constant.
“The smell was unbelievable,” he told me. “People were, almost all of them, sick. All of them had blisters or wounds. It’s infections that eat your flesh so quickly.” Throughout their imprisonment, he said, the detainees were never given a change of clothes.
Prisoners in Omari’s cell informally regulated themselves. Groups of four or five shared three floor tiles as their communal space. Omari, who had studied English literature at the University of Damascus and worked as a magazine editor, was one of the few who moved among the groups. He taught English. It was something to do. Without pens or paper, they used strips of worn shirts and wrote words with their fingernails in the dirty film.
“When you can no longer wear your T-shirt anymore, you make it into pieces,” Omari told me. “It becomes very precious.”
Omari’s group included another young journalist, Nabil Shurbaji, a member of the Youth of Daraya, an activist group in a town outside Damascus. Shurbaji was arrested for championing free speech in a new publication. The others included a young tailor and two activists. The five men debated how to get word out about the detainees. Omari came up with the idea of reviving what he had done before his arrest—documenting Syria’s “disappeared.”
“I said to them, ‘What do you think if we write the names of all the people, since we can’t memorize all of them?’ ” he told me. “Of course, they said yes.”
The problem was how to do it, beginning with finding out the full names and home towns of dozens of detainees, without getting caught. “Maybe you have a rat or someone tells a jailer,” Omari told me. “It’s very dangerous. By Syrian law, it’s leaking military information. When you’re on a military base, in wartime, leaking military information could get you executed. So we tried our best not to tell anyone.” Omari used his mini English classes as cover to move around the cell and collect names, four or five at a time.
The next challenge was finding a way to write them down. Their only media were the cloth strips torn from worn shirts. For ink, they experimented with weak tomato soup. It ran or faded. They tried darker eggplant—same problem.
“We reached a point when we all said, ‘We failed.’ We were hopeless,” Omari told me.
The tailor—whose name Omari asked me to withhold—came up with an alternative. “He asked for a plastic bag,” Omari recalled. “The bread came to us in plastic bags, but the jailer always wanted the plastic bags back. He counted them. Nothing was allowed in the cell, even plastic bags. But sometimes we managed to steal a bag or a piece of it, because it’s important to have something to preserve things, like salt.”
The prisoners used salt to treat each other’s wounds from torture, Omari said. After a beating, cellmates would grip a prisoner’s arms and stuff a piece of cloth in his mouth to muffle the screams as another prisoner rubbed salt in the wounds.
“This is how we healed each other,” Omari said. “Sometimes it worked. Sometimes not.”
Because of malnutrition and horrid hygiene conditions, many of the detainees’ gums bled. “Anytime anyone smiles, you see a pink color on his teeth,” Omari told me. “It was always tasting blood in our mouths.” Without telling the other prisoners what he was doing, the tailor took the plastic bag into the tiny toilet. He squeezed his already bleeding gums, repeatedly. He came back with a small plastic bag of blood.
The prisoners then tried to write their names in blood, but it, too, ran, so the men scratched rust off the bars of the cells and mixed it with the tailor’s blood to fortify it. Omari began to weep as he recounted this part of his saga. I asked if he wanted to stop. “No,” Omari told me. The tailor, he went on, crafted a quill from a chicken bone. Then the other journalist, Shurbaji, who had the neatest handwriting, began writing the names. By the time the small team was done, they had written the identities of eighty-two men on five little strips of cloth.
The tailor proposed sewing the strips into the collar and cuffs of one of the prisoner’s shirts. They selected Shurbaji’s shirt, which was blue-and-white-striped. He had taken it off after his arrest and saved to wear when he was released. He had just gotten engaged and talked daily about his fiancée. He wanted to look good for her when he was freed.
With no needle, the tailor used the chicken bone to pull the threads out of the cuff and collar, tuck the folded cloths inside, and pull the threads delicately back through the holes. The five agreed: whoever got out first would wear the shirt.
Then they waited. Prisoner releases or transfers were rare. Detainees were given only minutes to leave when a jailer summoned them. Ten months after his arrest, Omari’s name was the first to be called. He grabbed Shurbaji’s shirt.
“I was leaving hell,” he told me. He had lost more than seventy-five pounds.
Omari was held at two more prisons before he was released, in February of 2013. After he returned home, Omari removed the hidden strips but didn’t dare publish the list. “The regime would see it and recognize where it came from,” he explained. “That would hurt the people who helped me—and who I was trying to help.”
By then, moisture and perspiration had damaged the shirt. Half the names had faded. Omari quietly started contacting mothers, brothers, daughters, and wives—by word of mouth, on Facebook, and through the opposition’s local coördinating committees. He had to be careful. He faced imprisonment again since his case was still open. Six days after his release, Omari fled Syria by bribing an official to get across the border to Lebanon. He spent a year in Turkey, then took refuge in Sweden.
From exile, Omari tried scanning the cloths and using Photoshop to change the contrast and sharpen the words. It helped him decipher a couple more names, he told me. In the end, he reached about thirty families.
This month, the five cloths arrived in the United States. They are the centerpiece of a haunting new exhibit—“Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us”—that opened at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, on December 5th. The cloths—with their runny names—are each encased separately in a darkened room to prevent light from fading them even more. Omari came for the opening, where I interviewed him.
The trick was saving the cloths without changing the story, Jane Klinger, the museum’s chief conservator, told me. “They’re frayed, they’re wrinkled. There’s a little staining here and there from dirt and sweat,” she said. “We are not going to clean them up. Each wrinkle, each stain has evidentiary value. Our responsibility was preservation, not intervention or conservation treatment.” I asked if she’d ever worked on comparable projects at the Holocaust Museum. “No,” she said. “I’ve never dealt with anything so raw that we can still see unfolding in the news.”
In a video that plays at the entrance of the exhibit, Omari reflects in an interview. “When we were writing them, it was a matter of just recording names and using language, letters, words, numbers. But when I was released, and when I took those with me, my relation with it changed,” he said. “It wasn’t anymore words or letters. I started to get thoughts in my mind that those are pieces of their souls.”
From Sweden, Omari now does the same work that led to his arrest—tracking Syria’s “disappeared”—for Reporters Without Borders. “He works relentlessly on trying to make sure people who suffered abuses, especially those who were arrested or kidnapped, are not being forgotten,” Alexandra el Khazen, who heads the Middle East division of Reporters without Borders, told me. The latest report issued by Human Rights Watch estimated that more than a hundred and seventeen thousand Syrians were detained or disappeared between 2011 and 2016. For journalists, Syria is now the deadliest country in the world. Reporters Without Borders’ online barometer of deaths and detentions lists two hundred and twenty-eight journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants who have been killed since 2011. Dozens are still detained.
Omari also tracks the men with whom he shared a cell: “Whenever I eat, whenever I see colors, whenever I see forests, nature, I all the time remember their suffering, and I all the time remember that they don’t have what I have now. And I remember their words. They say, ‘Don’t forget us.’ ”
Three of the five in his group—including the tailor—died in prison, he told me. Shurbaji’s fiancée—the young woman for whom the journalist had saved the shirt for his release—learned that he died in 2015, after three years in prison and a particularly brutal beating, Omari told me. The music that plays in the background of the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit is “Raj’een ya Hawa,” the song Shurbaji sang in prison to remind him of his fiancée. The title translates as “My love, we are coming back.”
(c) 2017 The New Yorker