Mansour Omari had been held nearly a year in an underground Syrian prison, tortured and starved, when his name was called by the guards. He was going to be released. The other prisoners hugged him and wept. In the dark, they whispered, "Don't forget us."
Omari would not forget. When he was eventually set free in 2013, he smuggled out the names of all 82 inmates. The lists were written on torn pieces of clothing and penned in blood, then sewn into the collar and cuffs of his shirt. It was his duty, he says, to make sure the names saw the light of day.
The five pieces of fabric are now part of a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Omari lent the tattered cloth 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.
The government just takes people, says Omari, a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken man. One day, people are simply gone and never heard from again, the 38-year-old says.
"We have this proverb in Syria that can be translated into 'disappeared beyond the sun,' " Omari tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "That means when you say 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 working for the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression when he was picked up by the military police 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 installation were horrific. There wasn't enough space for everyone to lie down, so the men slept in shifts. Food was scarce; breakfast was three olives and some bread. Omari says he lost more than 70 pounds during his detention. For nine months, he didn't see the sun.
"You turn into a skeleton inside," Omari says. "You lose all your flesh, you stay bones and your skin. That's all you're left with you. Your skin is covered with wounds because of the beatings, and blisters and scabies."
Immortalizing names in blood and rust
Omari, who had once worked to document the names of the disappeared, was now one of them. If he could write down the names, and smuggle them out, he says, the men's families could learn of their fate and the world could know of the atrocities being committed.
Five of the prisoners worked in secret. With nothing to write with, or write on, they had to be resourceful. They found that the most durable ink was spit and blood from their bleeding gums, mixed with rust scraped from the bars of the cell. A splintered chicken bone — food scraps left over from the guards — worked as a quill. Nabil Shurbaji, a Syrian journalist, was the prisoner with the best handwriting. He was chosen to pen the names on bits of fabric cut from their shirts.
In secret, one of the men, a tailor, did his best to sew the fabric under the collar and cuffs of a shirt. The prisoners had no needles, so the tailor pierced the cloth with sharp bones and weaved bits of thread through holes to attach them.
The five agreed that the first one to be released would wear 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 groups secured his release. It did not stop him from being tortured, he says, but it saved his life.
Omari says he had mixed feelings about leaving the prison. "I was scared because I'm wearing the shirt, and I don't know if I'll be searched," says Omari. "And I was saying goodbye to my friends. I spent a long time with them."
Once free, Omari began to search for the families of the men he was imprisoned with. It was not easy: More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced since the start of the civil war. Once he found the families, Omari had to convince them that he wasn't a government spy.
"Many of them, it was the first time they knew anything about their sons," says Omari. "And they don't believe me. Because it was a shock for them. It's like been maybe years they didn't hear anything about their sons. And I come, like, out of nowhere, and telling them, 'Hi, I was with your son, and he's alive.' And that was shocking for them, of course."
Omari says the conversations were painful and that he kept the most gruesome details to himself.
After his release four years ago, Omari left for Turkey. He was later given refugee status in Sweden, where he now lives. His efforts to expose the Syrian regime are featured in a documentary, "Syria's Disappeared."
"The sheer heroism of what Mansour did is what drew us to the story," Sara Afshar, the film's director who attended the recent opening of the Holocaust Museum exhibit, wrote in an email. "We were also drawn to the story because the film (as a whole) looks at the importance of documentation in trying to get justice for survivors and the families of the tortured and disappeared."
Omari continues to work on behalf of the disappeared and to find out what happened to the men whose names he smuggled out. But of the 82 names, he has only been able to confirm what happened to 11 of the men. Four, including Nabil Shurbaji, who wrote the names, died in prison. The other seven were either released or sent to other prisons.
The names are fading
Digital imaging has captured the names, but the words in red won't last forever, says Jane Klinger, the Holocaust Museum's chief conservator. The fabric is now being kept at a constant temperature and away from light, but the rust and blood are breaking down.
"Any direct conservation treatment known will not be able to fully halt or mitigate the fading," Klinger says.
Nevertheless, the exhibition is proof that those still being held in Syria's prisons have not been forgotten. During the interview, Omari pats his jacket sleeves as if feeling for the names he has kept safe for the past five years. And he feels he has lived up to his promise to tell their story.
But Omari is grieving. He feels guilty that he was freed, while his friends stayed behind. And he believes some of the detainees are still alive and are being held in Syria's brutal detention centers.
"They think that if the world knew exactly what they are suffering, the world would not stand and look," he says. "The world would help."
"I don't know what to tell them now, after what has happened in Syria," he says, "and nobody's doing anything."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
By many measures, Mansour Omari should not be a free man. The Syrian human rights activist spent years documenting the many abuses of the Syrian government, keeping track of the tens of thousands of Syrians who have disappeared in the civil war and ended up in secret prisons. Then in 2012, Mansour Omari became one of those prisoners. He was held for nearly a year, starved and tortured.
MANSOUR OMARI: For example, in the morning you'd get two, sometimes three olives.
MARTIN: Three olives. That was your breakfast?
OMARI: And half a bread or something. We were getting thin. Me, for example, I lost 35 kilos. You turn into a skeleton inside, and your skin is covered with wounds because of the beatings. Our gums were bleeding all the time. We never saw the sun for nine months.
MARTIN: Even so he kept working, documenting the names of the other prisoners, their names written in blood on scraps of cloth. With help from the U.N., Mansour was released. When he left, he took those pieces of cloth with him. The fabric is now kept in Plexiglas boxes, part of a new exhibit here in Washington at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that opened this week.
Has it been strange for you to just walk through that exhibit and hear your voice coming out of those speakers?
OMARI: It's emotional, really, and overwhelming.
MARTIN: I met Mansour Omari in a quiet back corner of the museum's theater. He is soft spoken, recounting the details of his imprisonment with a forced detachment.
OMARI: I couldn't memorize the names of all the people with me, and that's how we started to think to find something to write with and something to write on. After many attempts, one of us took a piece of plastic bag, nylon, and he went to the bathroom area and came back with red liquid in it, and it was his blood. He squeezed his gum and spit it.
MARTIN: And that was the liquid that you could use?
OMARI: Yeah, exactly. We tried the liquid on a piece of shirt and it didn't fade away. Later we also mixed it with rust so we got perfect ink, really. And we used a sharp chicken bone to dip in the liquid and write the names.
MARTIN: There's something optimistic about the idea of collecting those names, though.
OMARI: Exactly. Hope, you know, hope is the secret for Syrians. I think with all the disasters going on in Syria, with all the killings, the bombings, what's keeping them alive is hope.
MARTIN: Can you describe how you hid the pieces of cloth? How were you able to keep them from the prison guards?
OMARI: We thought of many ideas, and at the end we settled on hiding them in the cuffs and collars of a shirt.
MARTIN: One particular shirt?
OMARI: In one shirt, yeah. We took a shirt. One of the group, he had a dress shop and he knew how to...
OMARI: ...Sew. He plucked a few threads of this collar and cuffs, and he inserted those shirt pieces. And the same threads, he got them back inside the same holes.
MARTIN: The prisoners devised a plan. Whoever was released first would wear the shirt and smuggle the names out. After nine months, the guards came to the prison door and called out Mansour Omari's name.
OMARI: I just remember it was - I don't know how to describe it. It was a really emotional moment. They were saying to me, of course, please tell the world what we are suffering. They had hope. They had hope that if the world knew what they are suffering, the world would move. They believe in humanity and the values. They think if that the world knew exactly what they are suffering, the world would want to stand and look. The world would help. I don't know what to tell them now, of course, after what happened in Syria. And nobody's doing anything, but...
MARTIN: So you walked out of there with a lot of pressure on you.
OMARI: Yeah. Yeah, it was many feelings, mixed feelings. I was scared because I'm wearing the shirt and I don't know if I will be searched, one thing. I was saying goodbye to my friends. I spent a long time with them. And I was feeling guilty also somehow because I'm taken out and they're not. So it was very - a lot of feelings I couldn't handle.
MARTIN: What were the conversations like when you started contacting the families of the men whose names you had documented?
OMARI: Actually, I couldn't imagine that it would be so painful to contact mothers and wives and brothers and fathers. Each time I'd locate a family, the first thing was to build a trust because the family don't know who Mansour is.
OMARI: And why are you contacting us? Maybe you are intelligence - because we have this culture of fear inside Syria. After building the trust, I start to tell them the conditions in the detention. Many of them, it was the first time they knew anything about their sons, and they don't believe me because it was a shock for them. It's, like, been maybe years they didn't hear anything about your sons, and I come, like, out of nowhere and telling them, hi, I was with your son, and he's alive. And that was shocking for them, of course.
MARTIN: Do you know if any of those men survived?
OMARI: Out of the 82 people, I now confirmed the news about 11 of them only. And those 11, four of them are dead. And the others are either released or sent to central prisons. That means better prisons. The others, we don't know anything about them.
MARTIN: Mansour tells me that after traveling so far with those pieces of fabric, after living with them for so long, their meaning has changed.
OMARI: First I was thinking of them as names, mere information. But later, the relation really developed. Those are not information anymore for me. Those are souls of people. Each name represents a soul of a detainee.
MARTIN: Do you feel like you did what you promised you would do, even if those people are not here till this day, you gave voice to their experience, you named them?
OMARI: In part, in part. When I came today and I walked into the exhibition, I directly remembered their words to me. They wanted the world to know their situation, to know what they are suffering. And after all these years of working, for me it's I fulfilled a part of my promise that your story will be told.
(SOUNDBITE OF NABIL AZZAM SONG)
MARTIN: Syrian human rights activist and former prisoner, Mansour Omari.
(SOUNDBITE OF NABIL AZZAM SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.