A Syrian Activist as I Knew Him

The late Raed Fares was not shy about protesting the Assad government despite the obvious danger

A Syrian Activist as I Knew Him
Raed Fares / Photo courtesy of Lina Sergie Attar

It took me years to write about one of the smartest and bravest Syrians I ever met, whom I was lucky enough to call a friend. A little over 10 years ago, I wrote an article about Raed Fares and the cartoonist Ahmad Jalal for the pan-Arab newspaper Alhayat.

It was the first time they as individuals were featured in a news report, after the posters they made in the northern Syrian town of Kafranbel went viral and were covered in international media, even gracing the walls of some foreign diplomatic missions in the region.

I did the interview via Skype, as I was in London then finishing my master’s degree. “Dragon mouth fire” was the username of Raed’s account, which confused me. Why would the intelligent mature mind behind those messages choose such a childish handle?

His status, though, was “I have a dream.”

If he were still among us, Raed would have been running around his town this week to finalize all the details for the celebration of the revolution’s anniversary. Every March for eight years he would be so stressed out preparing new creative and relevant posters along with targeted slogans, while answering endless questions from the locals about their roles in the events to come. He used to forgo sleep and food for a couple of days, subsisting on coffee and cigarettes until the anniversary ended. Assuming that the regime didn’t bomb the celebration and no one was harmed, he would then sleep his exhaustion off.

The people of his town, Kafranbel, were not surprised that the medical student who left his university to work in the real estate business had turned into a national leader who captured the imagination of people abroad with his satire and energy. With courage and determination, he had all it took to be a freedom icon.

For the world, Raed was one of Syria’s most prominent activists, known for eye-catching protest banners and influential “Radio Fresh” broadcasts. For me, he was the last connection to the pioneering uprising. Since his death, I have stopped attending any events on its anniversary.

I quoted him in the article saying, “We understood from the very first weeks of the revolution that media is in the heart of our battle with the regime, so we had to find something attractive enough for the world to notice our demonstrations, so we thought about these posters, which we wrote in Arabic, English, and even Russian and Chinese.”

Raed wanted to use his real name in my article, while the vast majority of the Syrian activists then were using noms-de-guerre , fearing reprisals by the regime. I was hesitant to do so, but he told me: “Since April this year, I participated in the uprising with my uncovered face, full name, posters and even my coffin [protesters held them to indicate that they were ready to die for the cause], and that resulted in being forced to leave my home and family behind to live in a tent in the mountains with al-ahrar [free people] who share the same dreams.”

I put his name in the piece and ended my article with his quote, “Our fear of death and the regime have faded out, our spirits are as high as the sky, and we’ll win soon.”

I returned to Syria a couple of months later, in early 2012, and Raed came with Ahmad to pick me up from the Turkish border.

In the first conversation I had with Raed face to face, I told him that if he had survived bombing and arbitrary arrest, he would certainly be killed in a car accident, as he drove like a maniac all the way back to Kafranbel. At the time, the Syrian military still had a presence in some areas in Kafranbel, so we avoided their checkpoints and went to the main square that had emerged as an icon for the protests.

I was wearing a headscarf at the request of a friend, Omar, who accompanied me. But when we arrived at the square, Raed asked me why I was wearing it. I told him that I was forced to by Omar, to which he expressed shock. “Asho [What]! Don’t listen to him! Take it off and those who dare to question your personal freedoms here have to deal with me. I am a ‘arsa; you don’t know me yet.”

‘Arsa is a profane word that Raed and most of the men in Kafranbel used all the time and that has contradictory meanings. It literally means “pimp” but in common usage means despicable. But they use it to compliment and vilify someone at the same time. A ‘arsa is therefore either one of us or an asshole.

I took my headscarf off, and we paused for a souvenir picture that shows Omar embarrassed and Raed giggling.

I spent a couple of days at their media office with them. It was a fascinating beehive, men coming in and out all the time, local and international journalists using it as a hub, “madafa” (guesthouse), hostel and restaurant all at once. They were covering all these expenses of their guests and refused to receive even a penny or a meal from the visitors. To be able to pay for one dinner, I had to go to the souk on my own to buy the food and they accused me of ruining their reputation.

They were working more than 20 hours a day, their eyes always puffy and red, working in shifts so one team member would always be on standby if called to film a bombing or an attack or to offer any other kind of help.

I also noticed that Raed and the team used to eat hawader — local tapas made of cheese, thyme and yogurt — when they were on their own. But when they had guests in the media office, they would bring chicken and meat, despite the modest budget they had, which consisted only of donations sent by expats.

A year later, in early 2013, I returned to Kafranbel. The Syrian army had left the town, which meant more freedom to move around but also more barrel bombs and airstrikes. Nevertheless, the weekly protests, which had captured the imagination of a global audience, continued.

Protest banner by Raed Fares / Photograph courtesy of Lina Sergie Attar

Fridays became very stressful for Raed, as he came under many layers of pressure. There were high expectations of what the revolutionaries of Kafranbel would be saying and doing, as many eyes were on them. Then would come the deadline stress of finalizing the sentences and paintings that would appear on the posters and checking the language with English speakers before the calligrapher drew them on to the posters, not to mention the daily risk of being targeted by indiscriminate bombing. And above all that, civilians who were desperate to make sense of the meaningless random punishment they faced started blaming whoever was holding a camera of causing the bombings.

Raed didn’t sleep or eat the night before, subsisting on cigarettes and coffee. “You know, Zaina, if the ‘arsa [Bashar al-Assad] is going to bomb the demonstrators today, I wish I will be among the dead bodies. Otherwise, the people will eat me alive.”

He took pictures of the posters in front of the media center as we left, in case he wasn’t able to document them during the demonstrations if they were bombed.

When we arrived at what became known as Freedom Square, where we had taken our photograph a year earlier, the first mortar fell, followed by a couple of more originating from Wadi al-Daif, a nearby military base.

Chaos dominated the senses. The dust from bombed-out buildings blinded my eyes. I ran toward the nearest wall, waiting for the raids to end.

Luckily no one died that day, and the demonstration was called off. When I finally found Raed, he was relieved, laughing loudly, proclaiming, “We made it for another week!”

I didn’t understand how he could handle all this pressure every single Friday and above that still be able to produce smart satire, campaign for cross-national solidarity and maintain his deep belief in human rights.

The legend of epic banner-making, Raed Fares, was shot dead in November 2018/ Photograph courtesy of Lina Sergie Attar/ New Lines

That year, Islamists started to gain more territory and influence, and the power dynamics were changing. In 2012, we would tell armed militias that “we are media” to avoid being interrogated, whereas in 2013 we were trying to hide the camera and claim to be locals so as not to be interrogated.

Despite this, when Raed was driving me from Kafranbel to the Turkish border crossings, he demanded that I sit next to him in the front seat.

“You are our journalist! It would be shameful if we seated you in the back seat! Ahmad the ‘arsa is going to sit in the back,” he said.

I was terrified of causing him any problems, as I wasn’t wearing a headscarf and didn’t have a first-degree male relative “guardian” accompanying me, which became something women were obliged to have to be able to move around in rebel-controlled northern Syria.

Whenever we approached a checkpoint I panicked, because I knew the one who was going to be punished for my actions was him, not me. I was a woman and would not be treated as though I had any agency.

At one checkpoint, a young armed man approached him with a shocked look asking who I was and why I was not wearing a headscarf. Raed answered, “She is a journalist from Idlib. She is working for the revolution like you. No one has the right to ask her what she is wearing or not wearing.”

When we arrived at the Bab al-Salamah crossing, Raed was asked whether he was my “mohram” (male guardian), and he answered with a firm voice that I was not his relative, leaving the armed man astonished. To further make his point — this time by lampooning the situation that he disdained — he started calling out to his comrades to “come and see what we have here; this hurma [an archaic term for woman] is moving around with two men who are not her relatives.” More men came to us to witness what indeed appeared to them to be an entertaining show.

The armed men took Raed in for questioning. It was the first and last time I saw him angry. A couple of months later I saw a picture of the man who had interrogated Raed standing with Sen. John McCain when he visited this crossing on May 28 of that year.

By the summer, our ability to debate with such armed men dissipated as the Islamic State group began gaining prominence.

That summer, the media activist Mohamad Nour Mattar was kidnaped by the group in Raqqa. I knew him too, and his family had hosted me when I went to work there.

I asked Ahmad Jalal to write on a poster and Raed took a picture of me holding it. It read, “Freedom to my friend Aktham Abu Alhusn from the Assad state prisons and Moh Nour Mattar from the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq prisons.”

Raed then published it on his team’s main page, the beginning of a series of actions he and his group took against the extremists. And again he was attaching his uncovered face to the poster.

Usually in the past, dozens of men had joined him in the photos holding up the posters with anti-regime messages. But fewer people now stood alongside him as he held aloft the posters mocking and challenging the extremists.

Ahmad Jalal, who established the media office with Raed and kept working closely with him when he established the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB) and Radio Fresh, their journalism and media initiatives, said: “Raed was working for his town through many projects implemented by the URB such as aid, development, media, education and others. At the same time he was establishing international connections and with the posters he was trying to disconnect the revolution from the extremists who started claiming it. He also wanted to show that the desire for living is more powerful than death and that we deserve to live.”

All that attracted more threats, which led to the first assassination attempt against him in January 2014, in which Raed was shot in front of his home, with three bullets piercing his chest.

I was in the nearby town of Maarat al-Numan when I heard, and I rushed to visit him in the morning. He was in a local hospital where dozens of men were crowded inside and outside to see him.

I was the only woman there and was so angry that his security was not being taken seriously even after he had been shot.

When he saw me, he laughed, with some pain showing in his features, and said, “I am recovered now. The most important journalist in Idlib is visiting me. There is nothing more I want. I am ready to be shot at again. What do you want to drink?”

I tried throughout the visit to persuade him to leave Syria, even for a short while, but it was in vain.

The last time I saw him, in Idlib in 2015, was for a training for women in journalism. Raed seemed more scared than I had ever seen him. He had installed an alarm in his car and covered its windows with blinds. He was moving like a ghost in his own town and he rarely went home.

The radio itself was raided many times by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (or HTS — an extremist group affiliated with al-Qaeda). HTS ordered Raed and his team to stop the women from being on air, because their voices are “haram” (forbidden) and shouldn’t be heard by strangers. So the radio station started editing the women presenters’ voices, mixing them into a lower pitch to make it sound more masculine, and he kept the 50 women journalists, breadwinners for their families, working for the radio station until the last days of his life.

In the the summer of 2018, in the last conversation we had before his assassination several months later, I told him, “You will give us heart attacks with the number of assaults and attacks against you every couple of months.”

He responded, “God only takes the good people, I am a ‘arsa. Don’t worry.”

And then he died. He was assassinated with his comrade Hamoud Jneed in their town by masked men who kept shooting at their car until they were sure their victims were dead.

For many, the peaceful revolution was stabbed in the heart by this assassination. But URB, the journalists he supported, the radio he established and the legacy of satire, solidarity and human rights will live far longer. Raed used to repeat the saying that “ideas don’t die,” and Raed was one of our best ideas.

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