الناشط الذي يحظى باحترام عالمي رائد فارس، 46، أغتيل من قبل جهاديين في شمال سوريا الأسبوع الماضي
الناشط الذي يحظى باحترام عالمي رائد فارس، 46، أغتيل من قبل جهاديين في شمال سوريا الأسبوع الماضي

“He was the pillar of the house and the pillar of Kafr Nabl. He was the bond between everyone, the pride of the family and the town.”

That was how Mohammed, the middle son of Syrian activist Raed Fares, expressed his feelings during the funeral of his father, who was slain by jihadist gunmen one week ago. 

Raed was an icon of the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011, the force behind the English-language banners and sarcastic slogans and caricatures that would put his small, unremarkable town on the global map.

Demonstrators display a banner in the town of Kafr Nabl in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.

For many Syrians, Kafr Nabl was an example of what Syria without President Bashar al-Assad could be, even as hardline jihadist groups consolidated power in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is now one of the last major pieces of territory outside the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“Al-Qaeda has penetrated the area. It is strong and cannot be uprooted,” the 21-year-old recalled his father saying before his death. 

After a 2014 attempt by the extremist group ISIS to assassinate him, Raed told his family and colleagues: “Every day is a bonus” 

The tireless activist was aware his life was in danger from the Islamists for whom he made no secret of his disdain. His father’s goal, Mohammed said, was to expel the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham group from Kafr Nabl.

But Raed had also found a reason to be hopeful.

“He felt a new optimism about the thousands of demonstrators who had in recent months returned to the squares and expelled jihadist militants and flags from their protests. 

“When he raised the flag of the revolution again, 30 meters high, his joy was indescribable,” said Mohammed.

The son, who studies general medicine at the University of Idlib, said that despite the threats, his father believed that “something changed in favor of the revolution.” 

After a 2014 attempt by the extremist  group ISIS to assassinate him, Raed told his family and colleagues: “Every day is a bonus.” 

Tinted windows

Ali Dandoush, a 21-year-old photographer, was riding in the backseat of the car when Raed and colleague Hamoud Junaid were killed.

“I had been sleeping in the media office and Raed had woken me up. We got in his car, Hamoud in the passenger seat and me in the back. We noticed there was a van with tinted windows driving in the lane next to us. It kept close to us for 1 kilometer as we drove to the house of one of Raed’s relatives.

When we arrived, before we could even turn off the engine, the van stopped to our left. Suddenly, a rifle was pointed from the passenger’s seat, the side door of the van opened, and there were two men squatting in back. All three opened fire on us.

Dandoush froze in the backseat until the shooting stopped and the van took off.

“I got out and screamed. Hammoud was sprawled halfway out of the car with his legs still inside and he took his last gasps of breath. Raed’s heart was still beating.”

Dandoush rushed Raed to the hospital, but before the surgery began the doctor came out to tell him that Raed was dead.

The maestro 

I met Raed in the spring of 2011, at the beginning of the Syrian uprising. I was also an activist in Idlib working to put towns in contact and unite the demands and slogans of the weekly protests. Two friends and I decided to visit Raed’s town. 

At the time, the lawyer Yasser al-Saleem – who has since been detained by Tahrir al-Sham – was the most prominent activist in Kafr Nabl and we met in the home of his grandfather.

There, he introduced us to Hassan al-Hamra, a policeman who had defected from the regime and founded the first opposition battalion in Kafr Nabl with the defected lieutenant Mohammed al-Bayoush. It was called Fursan al-Haq, or Knights of the Righteous, a name chosen by Hamra, Bayoush and Fares. The battalion would go on to liberate Kafr Nabl. 

Several months after our first meeting, the Syrian army deployed in most of the towns of Idlib, including Kafr Nabl, and the activists fled the town. I met Fares again in a small house in the south of Idlib province. It was a quick encounter in a room crowded with young activists on a cold day in the fall of 2011.

Fast forward to 2013, and Raed had created a remarkable example of civil activism in Kafr Nabl, which became a podium to speak to journalists from around the world and to share news of the multiplying battles against the regime.

Raed was a maestro in directing dozens of young activists who looked up to him as their role model. In their eyes, I saw the love of pupils for their favorite teacher.

They would wait for him to ask them to take this journalist to the front line or that journalist to the hospital or to accompany an international agency to the Turkish border and make sure they were safe.

For these activists, there was nothing like the thankful smile Raed would give them when they had succeeded in completing a task he had assigned them – a smile that rarely left his face.

The media office in Kafr Nabl was at its busiest at night, a gathering point for military commanders, local activists and journalists, coming from near and far. It there that I met the Fursan al-Haq military commander, Fares al-Bayoush, who became the leader of the Northern Division.

The media office in Kafr Nabl was at its busiest at night, a gathering point for military commanders, local activists and journalists, coming from near and far

Raed would rush to visit areas that had been bombed and to cover the massacres in villages across Idlib – to check on friends, transport journalists and bring them to the media offices in other towns.

He would often bring journalists, laughing that “our office is full and we don’t know how we’ll sleep” while carrying in their luggage with his best friend Khaled al-Issa, a photographer who was killed by a car bomb in Aleppo in mid-2016.

In July 2013, ISIS attacked the media office in Saraqeb while everyone was sleeping, punching me in the head and kidnapping the Polish journalist Marcin Suder.   

I had to be taken to the hospital and Raed, Khaled and Hamoud were the first to check on me. Raed joked and said, “Is your head broken?”

We laughed, but we were aware that worse was to come with the start of a ruthless frenzy that began with the kidnapping of journalists and the killing of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army factions and activists by jihadists.

It was then that the international and Arab press began to consider the areas controlled by the opposition to be under the rule of the extremist factions and gradually prevented their journalists from entering Syria.

The vision of Kafr Nabl 

Raed and his colleagues in Kafr Nabl had another vision for Syria. They had sought to create a safe haven for civil activists, including many women, who spent many months there.

A psychosocial support center for children was founded. Other activists helped establish a women’s center run by the mother of Khaled al-Issa, the slain photographer.

Kafr Nabl became known for its banners featuring the caricatures of the artist Ahmed Jalal. From early on, Raed did not shy from criticizing rebel factions’ mistakes and violations and stressing the importance of Syrian unity.

A banner in Kafr Nabl.

He criticized the Turkey-backed opposition factions who invaded the Kurdish town of Afrin and expressed solidarity with the minority Druze of Suweida kidnapped by ISIS. He called for the release of the lawyer Yasser Salim after he was detained by Tahrir al-Sham.

Raed established the Federation of Revolutionary Offices, which included the Women’s Office, the Children’s Office, the Media Office, as well as Radio Fresh, with a total of 650 employees, after months of work.

With the cutting of American support and the decline of European support for the opposition-held northwestern regions of Syria, Raed struggled to keep Radio Fresh going, overcoming threats, arrests, attacks, and even theft of equipment. He would work from safe houses and even the then-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (now Tahrir al-Sham) could not shut down the radio when they detained Raed in December 2014.

A banner in Kafr Nabl,

Everyone who knew Raed knew his slogan: “The worst thing they can do is kill me. And if they want to kill me let them kill me. The youth will finish the task.”

Everyone who knew Raed knew his slogan: “The worst thing they can do is kill me. And if they want to kill me let them kill me. The youth will finish the task.”

Every time Tahrir al-Sham would threaten to arrest him, he was unafraid. He traveled to attend meetings in Europe and the United States and meet up with organizations in Turkey, always returning after a week or two.

He believed in the cause of Syrians fighting for freedom against the regime and jihadist groups and he kept working for the cause of his friends who died one by one, or who left the country.

He was aware that Tahrir al-Sham had taken the decision to murder him, but he still preferred to live cautiously in Kafr Nabl rather than leave the country. He seemed to know that this would be his last stand, and he was committed to facing it as a hero.

Today, the province of Idlib faces the threat of being painted black by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham and the Huras al-Deen (Guardians of Religion), loyal to Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

This is what Raed sought to resist by insisting on the colors of spring in Idlib being used in protest artwork – almond blossom green and the vibrant wildflowers of his village that sprout up between rocks.

After the killing of their teacher, dozens of loyal activists say they feel they have a responsibility to continue Raed’s work and to prove that the voice of civil society is louder than those of extremist groups.

It is a very difficult task and has become even more difficult with the decline of international attention on Idlib and the fact that the moderate opposition factions are shirking their duty to protect civilians, activists and journalists from violations by jihadist factions.

Raed had become optimistic before his death that the revolution would continue. The day after he was killed there was a sign that he would have taken to mean it was not over.

Residents of Kafr Nabl took to the streets, holding portraits of the slain activists and waving the flag of the revolution, gathering at the gate of the local Tahrir al-Sham headquarters, as the bearded jihadists stared down from the roof.

“To the people of Kafr Nabl, until when will you put up with the killing, kidnapping and threats with no one to investigate, or to hold those accountable?” a handwritten sign demanded. 

WhatsApp Image 2018-11-30 at 3.00.05 PM

On Friday, braving the cold and fog, the town took to the streets again. A young boy and a man stood with their message on a sign, “To the dregs of Al-Qaeda: It is time you leave.”

Manhal Bareesh is a Syrian journalist and activist from Saraqeb, Idlib 

Translation: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

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