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The Syrians whose names are immortalized in blood

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The phrase, “written in blood,” is a powerful metaphor that’s sometimes evoked to describe the testimony of victims of genocide and other atrocities. But in the case of a group of Syrian men who opposed the Assad regime, it is no mere figure of speech. Their testimony, which was smuggled out of a prison cell and is now on exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was literally written in blood.

Mansour Omari, a Syrian human rights activist, recalls the time when a government militia invaded his office and dragged him to prison. He was placed in a crowded cell, where the men were forbidden to talk to one another and where torture was routine. The prisoners were among the “disappeared” – their whereabouts and fate unknown to even their friends and family. Fearful of vanishing without a trace – with the brutalities of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime going unabated and unacknowledged – they were determined to get word out about who they are and what happened to them. They wrote down the names of all the men in the cell and smuggled the list to the free world.

Lacking even the most basic writing supplies, they ripped off a strip of clothing, in lieu of paper. And one of the men, Omari recounts in a videotaped testimony that is part of the exhibit, went to the bathroom and came back with a small bag of red liquid. He had collected it from his bleeding gums, as a substitute for ink. To make it more stable, the men scraped some rust from the prison bars and mixed it with the blood. Using a cracked chicken bone as a quill, one of the prisoners, a Syrian journalist and peace activist named Nabil Shurbaji, inscribed the names of all 82 cellmates on the cloth.

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But how to sneak the cloth past the guards? One of the prisoners, a tailor, unraveled some thread, cut the cloth into five pieces and sewed them into the collar and cuffs of a shirt. The men agreed that the first one among them to be released would wear the shirt when he got out and would seek out the families of the prisoners, so they would know what had happened to their loved ones. That turned out to be Omari, who was freed after almost a year in prison. Once released, he ripped apart the seams of the shirt to retrieve the cloths, hid them among the pages of a notebook and brought them to the United States, in the hopes of making public what happened to his fellow prisoners and holding the brutal regime to account.

Omari brought the cloths to the Holocaust museum, trusting it to preserve them and honour them. Museum conservators treated the cloth to prevent further deterioration and the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide placed them on display in a stunning exhibition titled, Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us.

That Omari would think to bring this extraordinary evidence to the Holocaust museum and that the museum would understand its power and importance is a strong affirmation not only of the museum and its staff, but of the value of Holocaust education more broadly. To those who say that focusing on the Holocaust devalues the experiences of others, this exhibit demonstrates that thinking about the Holocaust heightens our awareness of what Samantha Power famously termed “the problem from hell.” And to those who fear that bringing the experiences of others into the context of the Holocaust diminishes the importance of the Shoah, the exhibit powerfully illustrates the importance of studying the Holocaust.

Omari reflects that when the names were first written down, “it was a matter of just … using our language, letters, words, numbers. But when I was released, and when I took those with me … it wasn’t any more words or letters … these were pieces of their souls.”