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Syrian Activist Loans Scraps Of Fabric With Prisoners' Names To Museum


A former Syrian political prisoner is in the U.S. to ask for help in holding his jailers accountable. It's been a confounding issue throughout the civil war. Just this week, a well-known prosecutor quit a U.N. commission looking into war crimes in Syria because of the lack of progress. But people are still trying. NPR's Michele Kelemen met the man who survived Syria's prisons and came to the United States with a smuggled list of names.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the Holocaust Memorial Museum's conservation center in Maryland, Mansour Omari slowly flips through a well-worn spiral notebook. The 37-year-old Syrian is showing the small scraps of fabric tucked in between the pages. On them, there are faded names of the 82 people he was held with for much of 2012 in an underground, top-secret military prison.


MANSOUR OMARI: Here is one name, Bassam Azim. He was 17 years old.

KELEMEN: Omari explains to the museum's chief conservationist, Jane Klinger, that he and a few other cellmates used a chicken bone and blood to write down the names on pieces of cloth that were sewn into the collar and cuffs of the shirt he wore when he was transferred to another jail.


OMARI: So we mixed the blood with rust, and that's how we could invent the liquid that we would write on.

JANE KLINGER: That's actually good information for us.

KELEMEN: By the time he was released, the names were fading. He's hoping that Klinger and her team can help him make out some of the ones he can't read. Now he's lending the material to the museum for a year so that experts can study it and put it on display.

OMARI: I want the visitors to know that those names - many of them are still now underground, and some of them are dying.

KELEMEN: Omari was an activist who was documenting forced disappearances in Syria before he was detained for having contact with foreigners, so he felt a duty to do what he could to tell the stories of those he actually met.

OMARI: Many of them asked me many times, saying, please don't forget us when you get out. Please try to help us.

KELEMEN: Omari, who's now a refugee in Sweden, hopes for a day when the Syrian regime will be held to account for its crimes, though it feels a long way off. That thought was echoed by Cameron Hudson of the Genocide Prevention Program at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

CAMERON HUDSON: All we can do is focus on what we think our responsibility is. And our responsibility is to help tell stories like this and to try to keep this issue on the front burner and - so that people don't forget what's happening and that people continue to have and ask hard policy questions about what more can be done to save civilians in Syria and bring people to account.

KELEMEN: All sides have committed war crimes in this more-than-six-year war, but it's not clear whether anyone will be brought to justice.

HUDSON: One of the real I think loopholes in the international justice system right now is unless you're a dual citizen of essentially a European country that will apply universal jurisdiction, Syrians don't have a means of pursuing justice themselves. So they have to work through a Spanish court or a Belgian court or a French court or a German court.

KELEMEN: Hudson calls it pockets of justice and says Syrians are pursuing wrongful death cases in some European courts for a handful of Syrian dual nationals. But Mansour Omari is looking for more. And he has one request for the Trump administration as it reevaluates its Syria policy.

OMARI: Well, at least talk about the crimes. Crimes are going on in Syria and mass atrocities and everything, and nobody's doing anything. Humans in Syria - it seems that they mean nothing to anybody.

KELEMEN: Earlier this month, the State Department said it was deeply saddened by reports of the execution of a Syrian blogger and activist. It was someone Omari knew well and had seen in detention. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.