This scrap of frayed material carries a secret. It’s a secret that, on one level, seems almost trivial – the smudged writing is merely a list of names. Yet the very existence of this unofficial roll call, written on the cloth using ink made out of blood mixed with rust, could have led to a severe beating – possibly death – for the man who is holding it, and who still treasures it. Mansour al-Omari is a Syrian human rights activist.
On 16 February 2012, four men in civilian clothes came into his office carrying AK- 47s and arrested everybody they could find. For the next 356 days, Mansour was a secret prisoner of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He was held in an overcrowded cell with more than 50 other men, beaten every day and forced to endure appalling living conditions with very little food.
Meanwhile, Mansour’s elderly parents had no idea where their son was, or whether he was alive or dead. Many of his fellow inmates did not survive the ordeal. And it is this uncertainty that led Mansour to write the men’s names on the cloth.
“My working life before I was arrested was finding out the identities of people who had been arrested and detained by Assad. So when I was detained, I knew I needed to document what was going on.” That way, the men’s suffering would not go unnoticed; and the men’s relatives would, it was hoped, find out that their husband, father, brother, was alive.
“We’d gather in groups and tell each other our names and phone numbers, so that if one of us was released we’d be able to call the families. I felt it was my duty, if I survived, to get the names out. But because of the conditions, and the lack of food, we started to forget lots of things.”
So a more sophisticated plan was hatched. One of the prisoners was a tailor. If they could write the names on pieces of old clothing, he would be able to stitch the material inside the collar and cuffs of a shirt, which could be smuggled out on the back of anyone fortunate enough to be released.
After a bit of experimentation with different inks, the blood-and-rust combination was used to inscribe the names. They used a fragment of chicken bone as a rudimentary quill.
Mansour’s story and others are told in Channel 4’s Syria’s Disappeared. The documentary is, as you’d expect, grim and distressing – though there is a hint of hope towards the end when it describes an audacious legal bid to bring at least some of the Assad’s henchmen to justice.
Three years after his release, Mansour speaks to RT from his new adoptive home in Sweden, where he continues his human rights work. He talks candidly but unemotionally, and I’ve been warned not to pry too deeply into the detail of the treatment meted out to him. But he talks of a prison regime that sounds unbearable.
Around 60 prisoners were kept together in a cell of approximately 500 square feet. Think about that: less than ten square feet per person. The lack of space meant the men had to draw up a “shift system” to sleep.
There simply wasn’t enough room for everybody to lie down on the floor at the same time. (And even with the shift system, prisoners only had room to sleep on their sides, rather than on their backs.)
Mansour says that the guards were armed with truncheons, tasers, iron bars. They beat the prisoners every day, usually twice – whenever they brought food. As a result, detainees were left with open, infected wounds.
During interrogation, there was extreme torture: men were hung from their wrists or electrocuted. Ribs were broken. Unspeakable things were done to their genitals.
The documentary provides photographic evidence of some of this torture. Too often, the only evidence of the brutality of war that we see on our screens is bombed streets and destroyed buildings.
But Assad’s regime, like other dictatorships before it, seems to take a bureaucratic pride in documenting everything it does. This includes photographing the torture it carries out. One man was brave enough to smuggle out a huge cache of these photos.
In 2013 a defector, code-named “Caesar”, brought more than 53,000 images out of the country. It’s shocking that this leak from the heart of a brutal regime did not cause more of a stir at the time. But some of these photos are shown in the programme. Be warned: these are some of the most graphic images ever seen on TV.
It is one thing to read that interrogators gouge out the eyes of prisoners before killing them. It is quite another to see a picture.
Producer Nicola Cutcher says the photographs are “certainly on the edge of what is tolerable for a television audience”. It was, she says, a very difficult decision to include them.
“We thought the photographs were important. When their existence was first reported, somehow they failed to make an impact on the public consciousness. Most people don’t know about them. Why is that? We hope this will finally make people realise the truth about Assad’s regime.”
That said, “A lot of photos are too horrible to show.” And what of Mansour? His release was almost as sudden as his capture. Almost a year after his arrest (on charges of “spreading fake news” and unauthorised contacts with foreigners), he was brought into a courtroom and placed in front of a judge.
“The judge said, ‘Do you confess?’ I said: ‘No, nothing is true.’ Then he said, ‘OK, you can go. You are innocent.’”
I ask Mansour whether he believes that Bashar al-Assad – the man directing all this unspeakable cruelty – will himself die a peaceful death. “I’m sure he will not die peacefully,” says the former detainee, explaining that the Syrian leader is believed to be implicated in the deaths of 230,000 people.
“Even if he leaves, or he flees, he will be caught – either by people seeking revenge or by justice.”
Syria’s Disappeared: the Case Against Assad is on Thursday 23 March at 10.00pm on C4