In 2012, Syrian journalist Mansour Omari was one of tens of thousands of people who "disappeared" under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. He was taken to an underground military complex, where he lived in a cell with dozens of other prisoners. One of the worst realizations they confronted was that their families had no idea whether they were still alive.
Omari and a handful of other prisoners grouped together spoke about this at length. Ultimately, they made a pact: whoever made it out of the detention center first would take with them a record of who their fellow cellmates were.
Among the men, Nabil Shurbaji, another journalist, had the neatest handwriting. Discreetly, with the understanding that anyone could report him to the authorities, he began the work of collecting the identities of the inmates. The men had no pen or paper to record the names, so they tried writing with watery tomato soup. When that proved ineffective, they tried eggplant. Then, one of them, a tailor, had an idea. Like his fellow detainees, his gums were swollen and weak from malnutrition. He squeezed them until his blood filled a contraband plastic bag. Mixed with rust, the concoction formed their ink. Five precious scraps of cloth torn from a worn shirt served as paper.
Using a chicken bone, Shurbaji stained the names of 82 detainees onto the small strips of clothing. These precious records of blood and rust were then hidden away into the collar and cuffs of one of Shurbaji’s shirts until the day Omari’s name was called to be transferred to Adra Central prison.
Omari now lives in Sweden, and he stills has the cloths. Or, he still owns them, but they are on loan to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum until August. Read what happened to Omari, and about the cloths now on exhibit, at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)