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.
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MARTIN: Syrian human rights activist and former prisoner, Mansour Omari.
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