In Memoriam: Raed Fares and the banners of Kafranbel

Oula A. Alrifai
Oula is a second-year AM candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. An activist and Middle East analyst, she currently works at the Middle East Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School. She tweets at @OulaAlrifai.

Raed Fares was gunned down alongside fellow activist Hamod Jneid on November 23rd. He was a leading figure in the Syrian Revolution, and took on a central role in anti-government protests from their outset in 2011. In his small town of Kafranbel in Idlib governorate, he organized and led some of the earliest protests against the Assad regime. Raed worked to amplify the voices of Syrian people suffering under the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown, broadcasting messages to Syrians revolting across the country and to those in solidarity with the revolution abroad. He became one of the most prominent civil society activists in Syria, opposing the Assad regime as well as the violent extremist organizations that began to form as the situation grew more violent. Raed survived kidnappings and assassination attempts by the Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra, and Jund al Aqsa for his refusal to stop criticising them, but he carried on his work out of a belief in the Syrian people and a desire to improve his community that never wavered.

In November 2011, I came across some of the banners that would make Kafranbel famous throughout the opposition community. Posted on the Kafranbel movement’s Facebook page, which is called “لافتات كفرنبل المحتلة” or “Occupied Kafranbel Banners,” signs in English and Arabic took honest and unflinching aim at any who crossed their path. The page entranced me, and I shared it with my friends, family, and Syrian activists living in the United States. I used to wait for every Friday to come, the official day of protests across Syria, to see the page’s new posts and photos of Kafranbel’s rallies. As I witnessed my country suffer, browsing the photos of Kafranbel’s peaceful protests and reading the messages on its banners gave me strength. The creative, witty slogans on the banners inspired my brother and I to make our own, which read: “To Occupied Kafranbel: your freedom represents us.” Seeing a photo of our own banner posted on Kafranbel’s page lifted my spirits, and brought me into contact with Raed for the first time.

Raed participated in hundreds of demonstrations against the Assad regime despite the increase in violence and threats against him and his colleagues, and remained staunchly inclusive in his rhetoric in order to resist the narratives of sectarian division that proliferated among international observers of the Syrian civil war. One of the early banners created by Raed and his team in mid-April 2012 said: “I am Druze, Alawite, Sunni, Kurdish, Ismaili, Christian, Jewish, and Assyrian. I am the proud Syrian revolutionary.” Since the early days of the revolution, Assad’s regime has pushed a narrative labeling nonviolent protesters as “terrorists.” Assad has positioned himself as the only alternative to “terrorists” overrunning the country, defending his tactics to the international community as necessary to maintain stability. Simultaneously, Assad’s army used violent tactics to suppress peaceful protesters, incentivizing them to take up arms and respond in kind. In this way, the regime continued to survive by delegitimizing and dividing the opposition. The strategy bore fruit as the international community started calling the revolution a “civil war,” shifting Syria’s story from a peaceful revolution to that of a bloody feud between neighbors fueled by religious extremism.

Through his work, Raed supported and empowered his countrymen and women, and he increasingly carried out his protests through his efforts to improve his community. In 2012, Raed founded the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB), a body that grew from an initiative to encourage reporting by civilian-journalist on the revolution to a network of civil society activists working to provide humanitarian services and counter extremist narratives in Idlib province. Initially a one-man operation, the organization came to employ hundreds of Kafranbel and Idlib residents working to generate information about the revolution and provide services to those in need. Raed’s organization filled an information gap not only by distributing information, but by training a generation of citizen journalists to report on demonstrations taking place across Idlib, documenting who was killed and arrested, and exposing residents to free media. URB’s civil society initiatives aimed to empower Syrians through cultural and educational programs, but they also supported Kafranbel residents in mundane ways by providing daycare services, a women’s center, and securing clean water for locals.

Raed responded to violence with hope and creativity, and prioritized efforts to generate information counteracting the misinformation he saw in Assad regime propaganda and extremist messaging by investing in the talent and expertise of people in his own community. In 2013, Raed founded Radio Fresh FM, a 24/7 independent radio station reaching listeners in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo provinces. It exposed the crimes of both the Assad regime and terrorist organizations, and it also elevated voices absent from the conversation on the Syrian revolution, especially women. Through peaceful mobilization and grassroots collective action, Raed knew that effective and sustainable social change was possible. He remained an advocate of peaceful resistance throughout his life, and worked to build the Syria he wished to see within his own community.

The last time I saw Raed was in November 2017 when I invited him to speak at Harvard University on a Syria panel I organized during the Arab Conference at Harvard. Raed flew from Kafranbel to speak to students and faculty about civil society activism and nonviolent resistance. When I asked him about the future, he insisted that we Syrians must never lose hope. When I said goodbye to Raed, I feared not being able to see him again. I wondered if he would be safe, but he reassured me because he knew that his work would continue even if he was killed. A year later, on November 23rd, Raed was murdered in his hometown. Although the killers remain unknown, the Idlib area is dominated by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an umbrella group containing significant elements of al-Qaeda. They had warned Raed to stop broadcasting, and finally made good on their threats to silence him.

Raed’s killers made one mistake. They underestimated the power of his educational efforts, and the depth of his impact on the people around him. Raed’s charisma carried over from his activism to his educational and journalistic work. By choosing to carry out his protests not only in the streets, but also in the classroom and the soundbooth, Raed ensured that he left behind like-minded compatriots equally committed to documenting truth and laughing in the face of terror. Raed knew we would continue his work, because he taught us how. Our responsibility is to carry on his legacy, and never lose hope.

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