Sunday 15 September 2019

'Conscience of the revolution' Fares spoke for ordinary Syrians

Murdered: Syrian opposition activist Raed Fares of Radio Fresh
Murdered: Syrian opposition activist Raed Fares of Radio Fresh

Mary Fitzgerald

Last Friday in the northern Syria town of Kafranbel began like any other. It ended with the news that Raed Fares, a local opposition activist who had brought Kafranbel to international attention through wit, ingenuity and an unswerving belief in his cause, had been shot dead.

Raed Fares was the kind of Syrian Bashar al-Assad did not want the world to know as he sought to cast the uprising against his regime as a jihadist conspiracy.

Fares was not a jihadist. In fact, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group formerly affiliated with al-Qa'ida, is suspected of murdering him.

What Fares represented was all those ordinary Syrians who took to the streets demanding change in the early years of what they called their revolution, only to later find themselves caught between a regime that would stop at nothing to stay in power and extremists who rushed to take advantage.

Fares had worked as a property agent before 2011, the year when a series of uprisings and revolutions toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and threatened to do the same elsewhere, including in Syria.

He had childhood memories of how the Assad regime had dealt with any challenges to it, witnessing security forces kill a neighbour and meeting people who had fled the infamous Hama massacre carried out by Assad's father in 1982.

When Kafranbel came under the control of the opposition Free Syrian Army in 2012, Fares found what he considered his true calling.

He organised demonstrations against the regime, ran a health centre, established a fund to help those struggling to survive, and oversaw a programme to train young people to become journalists.

In between, he set up Radio Fresh, the first station to broadcast from opposition-held territory, and came up with the idea of creating banners with messages in English and Arabic aimed at telling the world about their cause.

Made from gigantic white cotton sheets, the banners featured slogans in large black capital letters that were sometimes witty, sometimes caustic, and always eye-catching. At times, they included clever references to Western pop culture. Others were scathing about the failures of the international community - particularly the Obama administration - to do something about a war that has cost the lives of some 500,000 people.

"Syria has two conflicting parties: people who try to survive, and a regime that tries to crush them," was one early example of the banners that often went viral on social media and earned Kafranbel the nickname "the conscience of the revolution".

But as Fares's beloved revolution darkened with the emergence of extremist groups including Isil who saw opportunity in the bloody mayhem, the conflicting parties multiplied.

"The truth is, Syrians are victims of two forms of terrorism," Fares told a gathering of human rights activists in Oslo last year. "From one side, Assad's terrorism, and, from the other, Isis (Isil) and other extremists' terrorism."

The mild-mannered activist became a target of both. The civil society organisation he founded was bombed by the regime and raided by jihadists. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt four years ago. He was later seized by al-Qa'ida affiliates and tortured before being released.

Fares's response to the militants' efforts to crush the spirit of what had made Kafranbel known across the world was typically mischievous.

After extremists demanded Radio Fresh stop playing music because they considered it contrary to religious teachings, Fares broadcast the sounds of farm animals and ticking clocks. When they told him it was unacceptable to allow women speak on the radio, he used software that distorted the women's voices to sound like men. No matter what pressure Radio Fresh and Fares came under, they always found a way.

"The question is, was it worth starting a revolution and confronting Assad?" he asked in Oslo last year, going on to answer himself: "It was indeed important."

Fares remained a true believer, despite the years of bloody horror and the threats against him. "We have decided to guide our future and our destiny with our own hands," he said. "Revolutions are ideas and ideas cannot be killed by weapons."

Fares was driving around Kafranbel last Friday with his friend Hamoud Juneid, a reporter with Radio Fresh, when a van began trailing them. Gunmen in the van opened fire.

The news of their deaths quickly swept social media, shocking fellow activists. "A part of our revolution died with Raed," one said.

More than 2,000 people gathered for the funeral, including many who were inspired by Fares's belief that the civil society he tried to nurture would someday bear fruit.

"If civil society keeps developing in the right direction, the military situation will become far less important," he said once.

"If society is strong enough, then tyranny has no chance."

Irish Independent

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