Raed Fares: A beacon of Syrian freedom in life and death
Yesterday, familiar faces in the town gathered to unveil new one. But while the unveiling of banners in the town had for seven years acquired an almost defiantly jovial atmosphere, the events this week were marked by a particularly sombre mood.
For while these banners have often spoken about the martyrdom of Syrians, this time, Kafranbel's revolutionaries had to write one about the very man who conceived of those banners in the first place.
The banner's message was as stark as ever:
"Raed and Hamoud's greatness was the gift of freedom, but their assassination was the result of the world's shameful indifference."
And this is, one feels, precisely the message Fares would've wanted to get out about his own death.
It was Fidel Castro, in his better days, who said that revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past. And it's only through this dynamic that one can begin to understand the recent murder of the Syrian revolutionary, Raed Fares.
|Fares' raison d'etre was to let the world see in full colour the spirit of the Syrian revolution
When revolution gripped Syria in 2011, Fares, at that point working in real estate, didn't hesitate to get involved.
He was among the first activists to be involved in the creation of civil society organisations for self-rule in opposition to the increasingly violent Baathist state, namely the Kafranbel Coordination Committee and the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, out of which his famous Kafranbel Media Centre emerged.
Even as the revolution turned violent, Fares never once considered picking up a gun. While he supported the necessity of armed rebellion in the face of Assad and Iran's violence, his own activism centred on attempting to put the principles of the revolution into practice.
Though he was just one man, and he is just one more victim of the genocide in Syria, Fares' raison d'etre was to let the world see in full colour the spirit of the Syrian revolution.
And that's where the idea of Kafranbel's famous banners came from. On a weekly basis, Fares and the residents of Kafranbel would write messages to the world on decorated banners, often accompanied with cartoons and images.
While most of the subjects covered on the banners reflected the situation in Syria and the values of the revolution, they also commented on social and cultural events beyond Syria's borders - from Caitlyn Jenner to the death of Nelson Mandela.
While these banners were often witty, the meaning behind them was no joke. The entire point of their messages was to put the principle of internationalism into practice.
Fares believed that connectivity was a key part of Syria's revolution.
While the world sees Syria as some Arab backwater, completely unconnected to their lives, Fares, utilising social media, wanted to demonstrate that it was full of living, breathing, thinking and creative people who had thoughts and ideas about everything in the world.
A key theme of Fares' banners was the abandonment of Syria by world powers, but his message was that Syrians, despite this, had not abandoned the world.
This, to Fares, was the meaning of the liberty that was the core goal of the revolution.
And it was precisely this dedication to liberty that made Fares' such a target. He had been responsible for setting up Radio Fresh, the first revolutionary radio station in liberated Syria.
Radio Fresh's anti-Assad broadcasts made him a target not just for the Assad regime, keen to destroy any positive aspect of the revolution, but also the counter-revolutionary Salafi-jihadist forces that Assad had helped cultivate to undermine the rebellion.
|Fares wanted to demonstrate the Arab world was was full of living, breathing, thinking and creative people
In an interview with NPR, Fares talks about the attempts against his life by the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda. "They tried to shoot me… like 60 bullets against me. Three were in my shoulder and chest. Jabhat al-Nusra [al-Qaeda] tried to bomb my car… and I was in it, but I survived."
In addition to these assassination attempts, Fares survived multiple attacks on Radio Fresh and his offices, while he was kidnapped for three days by al-Qaeda. And this perhaps underlines the point about Fares life and death representing the revolutionary future, with the actions of his assassins representing the counter-revolutionary past.
Fares was targeted by Salafi-jihadis because he refused to bow to their authoritarianism. When they demanded under pain of arrest for death for him to stop playing music on Radio Fresh, Fares reacted with characteristic defiance and wit.
As he put it to the BBC, "They tried to stop us playing music on air… so we started playing animals in the background as a kind of sarcastic gesture against them."
At one point, the Salafi-jihadi militants warned Fares to stop allowing women on air, so Fares simply found a programme that would make female voices sound like male ones and continued on with the broadcasts. To Fares, there was no point in fighting for some vague ideal of liberty if you weren't going to practice it, even if it meant sacrificing your wellbeing and life.
Despite Fares' numerous clashes with Salafi-jihadis, he never stopped reminding the world that the great evil that lay at the heart of every injustice in Syria was the Assad regime.
At a time when US intervention against Islamic State (IS) saw the world grow even more hostile to anti-Assad forces, Fares' banners attempted to remind the world that prioritising IS at the expense of Assad's genocidal war in Syria was folly.
One banner displayed on October 2014 reads: "Assad is the source of the [region's] terrorism. You are fighting his products and ignoring the producer."
Despite having several dealings with him, I did not know Raed Fares well enough to call him a friend, but over the years he, his messages and his actions came to define the Syrian revolution.
Fares reacted to what was ultimately his and millions of others' apocalypse by sending messages of hope to the world. It's almost as if he - this man who faced conditions most of us will never comprehend - was comforting us or attempting to coax out our humanity behind all the layers of indifference.
|Fares' banners attempted to remind the world that prioritising IS at the expense of Assad's genocidal war in Syria was folly
This is what, for me, came to be synonymous with Syria's struggle. Raed constantly reminded us precisely why Syrians fight and why they deserve the attention and support of the entire world.
Though he may have been martyred and his enemies might yet triumph in the wider war, it's for the reasons above that Raed will always be victorious.
You can't kill what Raed created. As another banner, crafted and unfurled by his comrades, lamenting the murder of Raed and Hamod read in Arabic, "They did not kill you, it only appeared that way to them. You are still inside of us as a beacon of freedom."
He was a true revolutionary of the 21st century.
As we say in Arabic, 'We belong to God and to Him we shall return',
إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ
Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.
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