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Memory & Action

Syrian prisoners recorded the names of their fellow detainees on this and other scraps of fabric in hopes that one of them would be able to smuggle it out. That person was Mansour Omari, who has loaned this evidence to the Museum for preservation and display. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Syria: A Mother’s Plea, A Shred of Evidence, and a Prosecutor’s Commitment

Since 2011, the Assad regime, supported by Russia and Iran, has waged a war against its own citizens, killing as many as half a million and forcing more than five million to flee the country. Half of the country’s population, more than ten million people, has been displaced or killed. As part of our efforts to do for victims of mass atrocities today what was not done for the Jews of Europe, the Museum has worked to raise awareness of the Syrian tragedy, the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust. While the international community has thus far failed to prevent or mitigate the killings, we hope there will be opportunities in the future for Syrians and others to pursue justice on behalf of the victims.

Mariam Hallaq, whose son died in Syria regime detention, tells her story in the documentary “Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad,” which had its US premiere at the Museum. —Afshar Films

A Mother’s Plea

Mariam Hallaq, whose son died in Syrian regime detention, sent a message to be read at the Museum’s screening of Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad in May 2017. Her brother, Taufik Hallaq, read it on her behalf. The letter has been condensed for publication.

My participation in this film is a message from every Syrian mother who lost her son in prison, and was not able to get his body, and was not able to bury him, or to visit his grave. But those women cannot talk about this subject because of their fear of the Syrian regime. In a year and a half, I saw hundreds of women like me who were just seeking to see the body of their sons — they just wanted to know if their sons are dead or not.

After my son — Ayham — was killed, we had his funeral. Most of our family and relatives did not come, nor did our friends. Coming to his service would have been like sacrificing their lives. In our village, usually what happens is that someone would go up to the minaret of the mosque to announce that a person originally from that village has died. But the man who announced that my son died did not have the courage to say he died as a martyr. He just said that he died. Most of the people in our village wouldn’t even talk with the man who went to the minaret and announced it, all because they were afraid of being detained, of being tortured, of being killed by the government.

I can never return to Syria, because I’m wanted by the security service. But I decided to use every moment left in my life to defend those left in Assad’s prisons. I thank everyone who worked on the film, because they were able to deliver my voice and the voices of the other mothers and the voices of those detained. And I ask that every one of you who can deliver our voices to international platforms do so. What happened to Ayham didn’t only happen to him — it happened to every one of you and to all humans on earth.

A Shred of Evidence

Mansour Omari kept the scraps of fabric carefully pressed in the pages of a notebook. He and some fellow prisoners recorded on them — in ink made from blood and rust — the names of their cellmates. These prisoners are considered “disappeared” — taken without warning, their families given no information about their whereabouts or any charges against them.

Omari and his colleagues at the Syrian Center for Media and Expression were seized in 2012. He was kept in a secret prison for more than a year. When he was released, he wore a shirt with the scraps of fabric sewn into the cuffs and collar. He escaped to Europe, where he is haunted by the desire to help those who remained behind. The Museum has preserved and is displaying the fabric pieces containing the names of the 82 other men detained with him in prison — documentation that could someday be used to hold members of the Syrian regime accountable for their crimes.

During his visit to the Museum, Omari recounted how the scraps of cloth came to be and what they represent for him and those detained with him:

The cell was like three floors underground. It was, I think, eight by eight meters, and we were like 60 people. Later there was more than that. We couldn’t lay down and sleep because of the space.

I wanted to do something just to make time pass. Before I was detained, I used to teach English so I said to myself, ok let me teach those people English if they agree. So I started teaching people, first with a small group, my close group. Later many people wanted that, so at some point I was teaching 30 detainees each day.

We decided to start documenting the names. We sat in circles, like three or four people, giving each other our phone numbers and names. If one in this group is released, he can contact the family. But this depends on your memory. When I left there were 82 people, so you cannot memorize them, with their phone numbers, and where they are from. So I thought of trying to find some way to document all the names without the possibility they would be forgotten.

We needed first the tools. We already had these shirt pieces we used for teaching English. But we needed some ink, some kind of ink. We tried first the soup. Sometimes there was eggplant — it was a little blue but it didn’t hold.

But one day, one of our group said, “I have an idea.” He asked for a plastic bag and he went to the bathroom area and came back carrying the plastic bag with something red in it and we knew. He told us that he squeezed his gum and spit the blood inside this. Our gums were bleeding, I think because of the very bad conditions.

Mansour Omari holds one of the fabric scraps he secreted out of a Syrian prison. He has entrusted them to the Museum for conservation and display. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum

When we were writing them, it was a matter of just recording names. But when I was released and took the list with me, my relationship with it changed. It wasn’t just words or letters — in my mind, those are pieces of their souls. I know people who are confirmed dead. And others, we don’t know if they are dead or alive.

[When I was released], one of them said to me, “Please don’t forget us.” They had this hope that when I got out I could help them. And I’ve been working on that — trying to convince people, organizations, and governments to do anything for them since I was released in 2013. And not one has been released.

A Prosecutor’s Commitment

At age 27, Benjamin B. Ferencz led the prosecution of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) trial at Nuremberg — which opened 70 years ago on September 29.

“The killing of defenseless civilians during a war may be a war crime, but the same killings are part of another crime, a graver one, if you will — genocide, or a crime against humanity,” said Ferencz in his opening statement. It was the first instance of the term “genocide” being used in a court, though it had no legal meaning at the time. Ferencz defined such crimes as “systematic violations of fundamental human rights committed at any time against the nationals of any nation.”

Chief prosecutor Benjain Ferencz presents documents as evidence at the Einsatzgruppen trial. —Courtesy of Benjamin Ferencz

The Einsatzgruppen trial resulted in the world’s first convictions for crimes against humanity. Ferencz has spent the seven decades since trying to enshrine the punishment of perpetrators in international law. To secure this legacy, he has created the Ferencz International Justice Initiative at the Museum. Through the Planethood Foundation Ferencz established to promote international law as an alternative to war and crimes against humanity, he will donate $1 million on an annually renewable basis to the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

The Ferencz Initiative advances the principle established at Nuremberg that accountability is key to preventing future atrocities. Victims and their communities will be central to its efforts, which will focus on connecting those seeking justice with local, regional, national, and international institutions. “By empowering the communities that are most affected by mass atrocities to relentlessly pursue justice over time, we will create sustainable prevention efforts,” said the initiative’s director, Anna Cave. In November, the first Ferencz Initiative convening will bring together victims’ representatives with those who pursue justice on the international stage.

This article was first published in Fall 2017.

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