Syria Notes Spring 2019

Testimony: Listening to Syrians

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Introduction: Telling difficult stories of Syria

The Editors

Outside the sun was shining down on London. We were in a room with a group of secondary school students who had given up two hours of a spring afternoon to learn about Syria. We were telling them the story of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid, two non-violent activists murdered just a few months ago.

It is a story that touches all parts of the history of Syria’s revolution from 2011 until now. To tell it, we have been interviewing women and men who knew Raed and Hammoud, who worked with them and were friends with them. In this issue we bring you a first taste of this ongoing project.

The students were bright, inquisitive, and generally politically aware, but they knew very little about Syria. There we stood, trying to convey eight years’ worth of history, tragedy, and layers upon layers of complicated details. In that room we were faced by a realisation. This realisation is not new or shocking, and we have seen it creep up year after year, but it is heart breaking nonetheless: The story of the Syrian people is getting harder to be told, to be dissected and connected, and to be understood.

This issue of Syria Notes is an invitation to listen to Syrians telling stories about Syrians. About friends and family lost to imprisonment, torture, and murder. About dreamers who challenged the Assad dictatorship with its Russian and Iranian government backers, and also challenged the tyranny of jihadist armed groups. With these stories we hope the reader can capture parts of the Syrian dream that drove millions to the streets in 2011, a dream of a free and democratic inclusive civil state for Syria, a dream of a better world for all of us. In the words of one of the chants of Syria’s peaceful marchers: ‘Yes, we still want freedom.’

Remembering Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid

This feature is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid were both killed on the 23rd of November 2018, targeted in a gun attack in the town of Kafranbel, in Idlib province, Syria. A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights concluded that the jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al Sham was responsible for their murder.

Raed Fares was the most widely known civil society activist of Syria’s revolution. He and fellow activist Hammoud Juneid had been at the centre of organising demonstrations and civil resistance against the Assad regime in their home town of Kafranbel ever since the early days of protests in 2011.

In this issue we are publishing a number of interviews conducted as part of an ongoing Syria Notes project on Raed and Hammoud’s legacy.

Kafranbel’s fight against extremism

An interview with Mohammed Alhammadi

This interview is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

Mohammed Alhammadi is a Syrian doctor from the province of Idlib. We spoke to Mohammed in January 2019 as part of our Syria Notes project on the legacy of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid, the two Syrian activists killed in Kafranbel, Idlib, in November 2018.

We began by asking Mohammed about his first experiences of the Syrian revolution.

Mohammed Alhammadi: In 2011, I participated in the demonstrations. I was in a demonstration that took place in Maarat al-Numan in 2011, and on the 1st of April 2011 I was with a group that was demonstrating on the international highway. I was trying to have a voice among other Syrian voices against the authoritarianism, the dictatorship, and the injustice that Syrians were facing.

At that time our demands were very simple. We were asking for our basic rights. When the slogan ‘we want the fall of the regime’ was heard in that demonstration, it was a one-off, and not a lot of people wanted it to be raised then.

I also participated in demonstrations in Damascus, especially in the al-Midan neighbourhood. The nature of my work took me often to Damascus. Demonstrating in Damascus was riskier and more difficult. Once I remember I was attacked. When you are attacked, you stop being a doctor.

There was a man there that I didn’t know personally—nobody there knew me personally because I only worked in the hospital—this man was not exactly elderly, but for sure over fifty, maybe sixty, and he was being attacked by two people, two shabiha in civilian clothes, not dressed as security men. They were hitting him with thick sticks, clubs, so three or four of us, we engaged them, and we set him free.

At that point another group of shabiha came after us to attack us. I managed to change direction and escape. Then someone came with an electric prod with the intention to use it against me and the person next to me. Before he could attack, I managed to grab his arm, and I said to him, ‘I’m one of you.’ The man looked confused because he didn’t know who was with who. He didn’t believe me, though, and tried again to strike. I grabbed him again by the arm, and this time with a very firm voice I said again, ‘I’m one of you.’ And he left me.

There were a lot of funny stories like this that happened. You can’t really believe that you were part of it.

I used to talk to my colleagues in the hospital about the situation. I was trying to inform them about what was happening. Then I was ordered to go to one of the security branches, the Palestine Security Branch in Damascus. I was accused of being an agitator. Two of my colleagues were arrested. I had to flee Damascus, so I went back to Idlib.

In August 2012, there was a big battle where all the regime army barricades were attacked. At that point I was working in a nearby hospital in Idlib. A lot of injured people, civilians and others, would come to the hospital. Our medical services were for everyone, regardless of who they were.

After that I worked a long time in Kafranbel, starting in 2014. For two whole years I worked in several hospitals in Kafranbel. And I participated in establishing a lot of field hospitals.

Syria Notes: How did you first meet Raed Fares?

Mohammed Alhammadi: I don’t remember the exact moment, but I think some of my medical colleagues were friends with him, and they put us in touch. I worked in Kafranbel, but I didn’t live there. I lived most of my life in a village five kilometres away. My colleagues put us together as I was better connected to organisations in the outside world that could support us. We visited each other sometimes at his home, sometimes his office, and sometimes he came to me.

He asked if I would be happy to talk to international media outlets about the situation on the ground. I don’t remember which media outlet, but one time I did a media interview in his office. And one time we worked together on a project to highlight the huge amount of medical needs in the area.

Hammoud, Raed, and Khaled

I was also working with Khaled al-Essa and Hammoud al-Juneid. I was introduced to them in the same way. They used to come to the hospital and document civilian casualties. They were a team. They were rarely separated, always together in that office in Kafranbel. You would have thought that they didn’t have families of their own.

Syria Notes: There was an assassination attempt on Raed in 2014. What can you tell me about that?

Mohammed Alhammadi: When that happened I wasn’t in Kafranbel myself. What I know is that he was shot by unknown individuals in a car. His injuries were severe. The case was recorded as being by an unknown perpetrator.

Syria Notes: What legacy did Raed and Hammoud want to leave behind?

Mohammed Alhammadi: Raed had set a challenge to all Syrians, as someone who was free from the very first moment. He was always on the front line of activism, and he was like that from the very first day to the end.

He travelled around the world, he went to America, he went to Europe. He had the chance to go and live a good life with his family elsewhere, anywhere in the world that he wished, and he refused. He stayed in Syria for his very last moment, until the criminal hand of extremism took him away from us.

He was a thorn against all oppression and all types of dictatorship in Syria. He thought that we should always keep going, always keep fighting, and always stay in Syria. A lot of Syrians had to flee, to become refugees, running away from the situation in Syria, because they were being persecuted by the regime, or al-Nusra, or ISIS, or all different types of factions. Raed wanted to prove that he could stay on his land, not become a refugee, and keep fighting. That was a terrifying prospect for anyone, particularly anyone working to liberate Syria without pushing for a certain ideology.

Syria Notes: Why was he killed?

Mohammed Alhammadi: Frankly, he was killed because he was a free voice. I don’t think there is any other reason. He was an irritant voice against all oppressors, all those who tried to hold Syrians by the throat to do their bidding, all those trying to control the will and the life of Syrians, all those who are forcibly pushing Syrians to one direction or the other, whether it is the regime, al-Nusra, it could be a third party or a fourth party. There are a lot of oppressors—all oppressors are suspect.

Kafranbel is a town of about thirty thousand people in the province of Idlib, in a part of Syria outside the control of the Assad regime.

On Friday 23rd November 2018 at around noon, Raed Fares, Hammoud al-Juneid, and fellow activist Ali Dandous left the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus office in Raed’s car. A van with black-tinted windows followed. Raed stopped his car at the house of a relative. Gunmen emerged from the van and opened fire.

Ali Dandous survived by laying down between the seats in the back of Raed’s car. Raed and Hammoud were hit several times. Hammoud died on the way to hospital. Raed arrived at hospital in a critical condition, and died a few minutes later. The Syrian Network for Human Rights concluded that the jihadist armed group Hay’at Tahrir al Sham was responsible for the murders.

Syria Notes: When did you first hear about al-Nusra in Idlib?

Mohammed Alhammadi: The first time I heard about al-Nusra was after the explosion in al-Qazzaz in Damascus. I was in Damascus then, and I personally saw the injured, and treated the injured from that explosion. That name, Jabhat al-Nusra, was very strange to me. I initially thought that this was a propaganda group and name launched by the regime. I didn’t think for a moment that it was a real thing.

When I was in Kafranbel later, I met a few individuals who were working with al-Nusra. They were normal civilians. They were gullible, and they really didn’t know who they were affiliating with. There were very few of them, and al-Nusra barely had any existence in the area. I think there was foreign investment in al-Nusra to make it grow and become what it is now.

Syria Notes: What do you mean by that?

Mohammed Alhammadi: An investment in extremism that will breed more extremism.

I think that the extreme violence that civilians were subjected to, against women, men, children, against neighbourhoods and markets, against bakeries, the extremism I saw with my own eyes in the form of dismembered and burned children—I saw a pregnant woman who had a miscarriage because of the bombardment—this extremism drove some in our society to a state of helplessness, to lose hope in getting help from any of the international organisations. It’s driven them to a state of mind of fighting all those who have turned a blind eye to Syrian suffering. This losing hope is a dangerous state of mind, unfortunately.

Syria Notes: I am told Jabhat al-Nusra entered Kafranbel in 2014-2015. Can you verify that?

Mohammed Alhammadi: Do you mean seizing complete control, and Jabhat al-Nusra isolating all the civilian institutions? Yes, but the cancerous existence of Nusra first started to show in 2013, even late 2012. As I said, at that point it was only individuals. But 2015 was an important year in Idlib. That year the growth of Jabhat al-Nusra spiked, especially after Jabhat al-Nusra merged with Jaish al-Fatah. This was an extremist coalition made up of several extremist groups that seized control over Idlib and Ariha. One of these extreme groups was relatively good to locals, and that gave them popularity in Idlib, Ariha, and Jisr al-Shughur. Their popularity grew, and they managed to fight all the other factions including the Free Syrian Army. They exploited the trust they built with civilians to the full.

Syria Notes: Could you explain that? Did Jabhat al-Nusra get that popular in those areas?

Mohammed Alhammadi: In May 2015, Idlib, Ariha, and Jisr al-Shughur, were rid of regime forces. All of these areas had been under the control of the regime. Jabhat al-Nusra claimed to be the main force behind liberating the areas from the regime, so civilians didn’t really know how to react to this. And when al-Nusra then started attacking local councils and the local Free Police projects, and all peaceful civilian projects, any form of civilian organisations, there was no strong local voice opposing this. Then the Free Syrian Army factions found themselves being attacked and isolated one after another.

Syria Notes: How did Raed and Hammoud react to al-Nusra?

Mohammed Alhammadi: I remember a discussion with Raed. We were standing in the doorway of his office. It was the afternoon, and we were specifically discussing this. It was 2013. A lot of people at that point didn’t see the danger of Nusra. Raed should get credit for this—he saw the danger very early on. Even I didn’t see it. I personally used to think it’s a very wrong ideology, but I didn’t recognise that we all needed to be extremely clear and forceful in resisting them. We were all focusing on resisting the oppression of the regime. But Raed did see the danger. He was trying to move against them and inform people about them.

Syria Notes: What practical steps did he take?

Mohammed Alhammadi: He was very careful. His speciality was civilian activism and involvement, and even with that he was careful not to have clear and direct slogans against them, like those used in other places. His activism was focused on informing civilians about them, because he understood the nature of the struggle against them. Until the end, he didn’t have a direct, one-to-one confrontation with them. He was doing more practical on the ground efforts, but that made him more of an irritant to them than people holding clear slogans against them, because he had projects on the ground against extremism, informing people on how it can take control, and that’s why he was targeted.

Syria Notes: So now Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, HTS, as al-Nusra is now called, is trying to seize control of all the civilian institutions in Idlib. What are the implications? Will they succeed? And what can we do to stop that happening?

Mohammed Alhammadi: As far as I know, the vast majority of people in Idlib are against extremist ideology. They are against extremist powers seizing control. However, civilians alone can’t stand up to them and stop that from happening. At the very least they need some support on the civic side. All civic initiatives and projects and local councils should continue to get support, no matter how small they are.

Those who are trying to be heard, those who are still pursuing the course that Raed set, those who are still resisting, there are many of them. They are still there. They are civilians who have never taken up arms, and never will. Those who are standing against the dark ideology, against destruction and extremism, they need support and they should be supported. They have not stopped working.

In the Women’s Centre

An interview with a female activist in Kafranbel.

This interview is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

As part of our project on the legacy of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid, Syria Notes spoke to a female activist in Kafranbel about her experiences with the Mazaya Women’s Centre and Radio Fresh, and her memories of Raed and Hammoud. She asked to stay anonymous. We began by asking her to introduce herself, and to tell us about her work.

Anon: I’m a Syrian female activist from Kafranbel. I’m twenty-one years old.

In the beginning of the revolution I used to participate in demonstrations organised by Raed and Hammoud, and other activists. This is how I got to know Raed for the first time.

At that point when the revolution started, I was under a lot of social pressure that was depriving me of my rights, and of getting education. I finished high school, and I wasn’t allowed or given a chance to study further in university or any other institution. They wouldn’t allow me to do anything after high school. Back then there was a women’s centre, a very basic women’s centre, and it was the only one in our area. This centre was founded by Raed, and his work supported the existence of the centre. I took refuge from society in that centre. I used to go there to learn, to develop my skills, to take a break from the social pressures around me.

I took media courses, journalism, photography. I learned how to use a camera. After a while I started working in that centre. I became the centre’s media person. I used to document their activities. And then my self-esteem became stronger. I became more aware of my rights and duties, of what I need to give and what I need to pursue. I had a very strong ambition to always keep learning, and to always gain more skills.

Mazaya Women’s Centre, Kafranbel. Photo:

Syria Notes: What are the main things that women activists managed to achieve?

Anon: When we first started at the centre, we were a small group of women with a varied set of skills. We volunteered, and we started teaching courses. We did sewing courses, nursing courses, and tutoring children at the elementary level. We tried to cover the needs of our society that had arisen after the war. The war had taken away our opportunities for education, because people became afraid to send their children to school.

We had come under constant bombardment by planes and artillery. Those planes—it was the first time in our lives we saw or heard these planes. There were always people being injured, and it required having someone able to administer medical aid available all of the time. Huge financial burdens were weighing on people, and women needed to find financial opportunities to help their families. We thought that in this way we could open possibilities for ourselves and other women.

Syria Notes: How did women’s activism influence the local society?

Anon: We felt our activities were always under pressure. From the start we were under pressure, and the society didn’t allow us much space to operate. People were critical. Some families forbade women from attending the centre. That oppressive social order was very present then, with views such as: ‘How can we allow women to go out of the house and work—women’s roles are only for the home and for children, and that’s it.’

People were afraid of new ideas. People rejected anything that would change the status quo.. On top of all that, Islamist militia forced their way into our centre. They attacked us, and they stopped us from being able to work for a while. We did not give up, and despite the threats we went back to work.

With time and perseverance, and with showing a good work ethic, people started to understand what we were trying to do, the need for education and development that we were trying to fulfil, the need to provide families with new sources of income. More women attended, and slowly it became popular.

So after some time, and a lot of work, we opened other centres, in the town of Kafranbel and the surrounding area. It was a fulfilment of the ambitions and the needs and the dreams of local women. It was also a reflection of what women could do socially and on the revolution front. Raed was very supportive, and it was a part of his overall vision.

Syria Notes: Can you tell us about Raed and Hammoud, and your relationship with them?

Anon: All through this period of time I was in contact with Raed. He always supported me to keep going and to be strong. He was a true supporter and ally. He was like a father. Raed asked me to join the team, and to help make my dream true: my dream of becoming a journalist, so I can get the voice of the people heard and tell the wide world about their suffering, so I can be an example of the Syrian women who defied the society, the war and tradition, the Syrian women who are equal to men and have the same rights and duties as men.

I started working with Radio Fresh. I had a lot of stories about success and about suffering. I wanted the people to hear these stories. One time I had an idea to make a radio show that focused on social reform, to shed light on social issues, like child marriage, also lack of opportunities to get married, and disagreements in the local communities. Problems facing widows who lost their husband and now have difficulties in dealing with teenage children, and such issues.

The idea was that I would be presenting the show with the help of a female sociologist. I told my idea to Raed and he was very enthusiastic, he really liked the idea and the boldness of the way I wanted to address the issues. But the Islamist armed groups who were controlling our area at the time limited our ability to air what we wanted. They were controlling everything. They stopped us from going ahead with this idea because a woman’s voice is Awarh [not allowed to be heard—the voice of a woman is nakedness].

They also went after shows that talked about corruption and stopped us from airing them.

Their threats intensified to stop us from working. They made real their threats when they forced their way into the station and abducted Raed. We had to stop for a while and the station was shut down. We didn’t give in to desperation. We pulled through and came back on air again. This was because of our determination, and the big ambitions that Raed had, and his creative thinking. Raed had lots of ambitions and life.

He asked the women in the Radio Fresh team to change our voices using computer software to sound like men, so the Islamist armed groups wouldn’t notice that women were back on air. We broadcast with rough-sounding voices just like men. Even the programmes that addressed corruption, they were on air again but this time we used comedy to address the subject.

Changing our voices using computer software was a temporary solution. We hoped to change the mind of armed groups so we could air women’s voices again. That was our plan, but sadly until today we are still forced to change our voices. It’s been more than two years. Of course the Islamist groups are not happy with the fact that we have not stopped working. They are not happy with our determination to make the voice of the people heard, to air stories about the suffering of the people.

Raed kept us going through this with his passion and determination. Raed kept me going—he was like a father. At one point I went back to studying and I did a course that offered degrees in business management. It took me a year and half to finish my studies. I wanted to enhance my skills and be useful to society despite everything standing in my way.

I was doing exams at the institute on the day they killed Raed. It was a tragic day. I was in shock and could not believe that Raed had died. I abandoned my exams and everything else in my life. Everything we cared for died on the day he was killed. Raed was the revolution for us. He was brave, full of dreams, and peaceful. He was my role model, and I hope that some day I might become like him. On that day we all promised to keep Radio Fresh going, and to keep the path that Raed started alive.

Syria Notes: In your opinion, who is responsible for killing them, and why were they targeted?

Anon: I believe Islamist groups are responsible for killing Raed and Hammoud. No one dares to say this in public. They were targeted because they had a free mind. They were always critical of the destructive actions of these groups. They stood against the corruption of these groups that led to the poor security situation, and to the abduction of media activists and many other things.

They did not stop just with killing Raed and Hammoud. They keep targeting activists, doctors and White Helmets volunteers. We reached such a level of fear that we don’t even feel safe on the doorsteps of our own homes.

Kafranbel women show solidarity with besieged East Ghouta, March 2018.

Syria Notes: What do you think Raed and Hammoud wanted to leave behind?

Anon: Raed and Hammoud died for freedom of expression. They always spoke out bravely. They didn’t fear anyone or consequences their freedom of expression might bring on them. No one dared to speak out against the Islamist groups, but Raed and Hammoud were defiant. They spoke our pain, and the pain of many people who were afraid.

The legacy they left in our hearts is boundless. They taught us to be brave, and that the voices of the oppressed must be heard despite all those working against it. We started a revolution against the Assad regime and we won’t agree to these groups controlling us, oppressing us like the regime and even worse.

Syria Notes: What are the things that are endangering civil efforts and media activism in Kafranbel and Idlib?

Anon: Today I’m afraid of the control the groups are gaining over Idlib. We are being targeted. All free minds are targeted. Media activists are risking their lives to work. But God welling we will keep going on. The revolution is an idea, and ideas don’t die.

Syria Notes: What are your hopes and dreams for Syria and the revolution?

Anon: I dream and hope that we get rid of all these extreme groups, get rid of all corruption and those who are taking advantage of our revolution.

I dream that our revolution will get back on track, and that we achieve our first goal, the goal that a lot of us died for and that Raed has died for: the goal to topple the Assad regime, our goal of Syria being free and inclusive of all Syrians, our goal that every Syrian has a role to do and a voice to be heard, for everyone to find justice and for no one to be oppressed.

How Radio Fresh saved lives in Idlib

An interview with Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad.

This interview is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad is a forty-five year old Syrian activist and journalist. Originally from Idlib city, he lives and works in the town of Kafranbel. Syria Notes spoke to him about his memories of fellow civil society activists Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid, who were murdered in November 2018.

This interview was conducted in January 2019 as part of a Syria Notes project on the legacy of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid.

We began by asking Mahmoud about how he first became an activist back in 2011.

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: Although I am not one of those who participated in the very first revolutionary demonstration in Idlib, I haven’t missed a demonstration after the second one.

I believed in the idea of the revolution from the beginning of the Arab Spring. From the first days of Arab Spring, I was seeing a revolution coming to Syria. The Syrian people were living under all types of oppression and corruption for many years. But Syrians were always good in understanding and practicing politics, more than people in some other countries.

I joined the revolution with a clear vision, to fight oppression and injustice, and to get a democratic and civil Syria. I wanted Syria to be ruled by law, equality, and justice. This is was the main driver for me joining the revolution, and it keeps me fighting to this day.

Syria Notes: Can you tell us about Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid? What was your relationship with them?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: I hadn’t met Raed Fares and Hammoud Juneid or ever known of them before the revolution. I started meeting them at coordination meetings between activists during the first years of the revolution. However, the relationship developed and strengthened when the regime forces entered Kafranbel. Raed and Hammoud were among the people who left their homes for the nearby villages and farms, while I was one of those who stayed in the town. This situation developed a new type of coordination between us, where I was their eye, reporting to them the situation on the ground and the movements of the regime’s forces.

In the Radio Fresh studio

Syria Notes: One of the achievements that Raed and Hammoud are best known for is Kafranbel’s radio station, Radio Fresh. How did the idea of Radio Fresh begin?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: Radio Fresh was born as an idea for an early warning observatory, informing people about army movements and aircraft. Afterwards it came to play an important role in organising the movement of the people.

After the liberation of Kafranbel from the Assad regime, there was still shelling coming from the regime-held area around Kafranbel town, as well as bombing by regime aircraft. At that time, the use of aircraft was new for Syrians. They hadn’t seen this type of weapon before. This created fear and panic amongst civilians, especially as radio receivers were not available yet to warn people about aircraft.

Radio Fresh started with very limited resources and untrained staff. However, it was an essential source of news and revolution information for civilians at that time.

Syria Notes: What role did Raed play in Radio Fresh? What aim did he want to achieve?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: Motivated by their love for the country and their enthusiasm for work, it didn’t take long for people who volunteered at Radio Fresh to start developing new ideas to improve the station’s role in the political, educational and social sides.

Raed was the godfather and the founder of Radio Fresh. His role was to guide and support the work of the radio station. We benefitted from Raed’s creative and critical mind, and we used his advice in every new programme on the station. Most of the Radio Fresh programmes and projects were executed in consultation with Raed.

The station was affiliated to the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, and Raed was the managing director of the URB and of course of Radio Fresh for almost four years. Raed’s role was supervising and monitoring the station. Radio Fresh had an executive manager who was responsible for the day-to-day activity.

Syria Notes: Tell us about the impact of Radio Fresh on the local community.

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: The vision of Radio Fresh was to be a platform for the revolution, to raise awareness amongst civilians, to support civil society and to empower women in the community. It aimed also to educate ordinary people about their rights, and about the role of the revolution, and to inform the world about what is happening in Syria and what the regime is doing to civilians—killing, detaining people, and destroying the country. Our top priority was to support the civilians and make their voices heard.

Syria Notes: The radio station has been attacked several times. Could you tell us more about the attacks?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: The role of the radio has annoyed many, especially the most autocratic groups who wanted to be sole leaders of the revolution. It was not convenient for them to have voices other than theirs being heard in the area. Their aim was to model the revolution in their own way, not the way that people wanted it to be. Therefore, the radio station has experienced a lot of pressure and threats, as well as detentions.

These threats started for the first time when a group related to ISIS established a colony near Kafranbel. This group attacked Radio Fresh in December 2013, and detained some of the activists working there. Hammoud Juneid was one of those detained that day.

The next month, another ISIS sleeper cell attacked Raed Fares and injured him. The reasons of these attacks were to silence the voice of Raed and of Radio Fresh. After the defeat of ISIS and their escape to eastern Syria, Radio Fresh was in a no better situation. This is because of the appearance of Jabhat al-Nusra, which was very similar to ISIS in its autocracy and tyranny.

One of the pressures that Radio Fresh faced after the escape of ISIS was a threat by religious courts to shut down the station under the pretext that broadcasting music is prohibited by religion, or so they claimed. They also accused us of broadcasting women’s voices, which they also considered against Islamic law. All of these threats were made with the aim of closing the radio station and silencing its voice.

Frankly speaking, these threats affected our work at Radio Fresh. However, Raed was very innovative and creative. To tackle the problem, he decided to replace the original music with bird and sheep sounds to use between the programmes. We also broadcast the revolution song without accompanying music.

Regarding women’s voices, we manipulated their voice to appear as a robotic voice instead of a woman’s voice. Raed’s creativity has encouraged us to continue until now despite all the pressure and threats.

The last attack to Radio Fresh was the one which targeted the soul and the godfather of the radio, Raed Fares, and his friend Hammoud al-Juneid who was very active in the radio. In this attack, we lost two founders and two of the most influential people in Radio Fresh. This affected us all, especially in the immediate aftermath, but with time we have managed to keep the station running, and to continue what we started with Raed and Hammoud.

The funeral of Raed and Hammoud

Syria Notes: What are the challenges facing Radio Fresh currently?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: The challenges for Radio Fresh are pretty much the same, it hasn’t changed a lot. Radio Fresh is still running with the same vision and aims, and this is not convenient for many of the groups. These days, we can see that media voices are preyed upon, and journalists are under threat of being arrested or killed. Therefore, Radio Fresh is always under threat from the group ruling the area of Idlib. These threats will continue to exist as far as the radio is asking for a democratic and civil state.

I want to be honest with you, Radio Fresh is facing another type of threat nowadays, which is the lack of support. The station used to get some funding from the US State Department, but now that has been suspended after Trump’s decision to stop funding for Syria.

We have around seventy employees working with Radio Fresh, and it is not easy to cut a livelihood from more then seventy families. This is a big challenge for Radio Fresh. Staff at Radio Fresh have been working voluntarily for seven months now without getting any salaries.

Syria Notes: Who do you think is responsible for the killing of Raed and Hammoud? Why were they targeted?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: I can’t mention a specific name or group apparently, because this will need to be supported by evidence. However, there is speculation that Raed received threats from Hay’at Tahrir al Sham—HTS. They might be the criminal responsible, and they might not. We can’t know for sure. However, we know for sure that the one who did this crime is benefitting from it. He has an interest in killing these two heroes and fighting their aims and their ideas.

Actually many groups might benefit from this murder. For example, ISIS, or even the Assad regime. The most important one for me is the group supposed to be protecting Raed and Hammoud. HTS were saying that they are on the ground protecting people and activists. I am asking HTS to find the criminals if they really care about securing the area and protecting people. They are responsible for identifying the criminal.

Syria Notes: What are the risks facing revolutionary and media now?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: The possible threats that go with civil work inside Kafranbel are quite a few. For example, because of the regular clashes between the armed groups in the area, it is difficult for an aid worker to move freely within the city to distribute aid or medication.

Kidnapping is another serious threat you can face while doing civil work. In addition, there is the threat of being arrested, as happened with the activists Yaser al-Saleem and Mohammad al-Salloum in Kafranbel. They have been arrested by HTS based on false excuses from HTS and the investigators.

These threats are making civil activists scared about their fate, and make their work very hard to achieve.

Syria Notes: What are your dreams and hopes for Syria today?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: My dreams and hopes for Syria are the same as from when I was growing up. I hoped Syrians to come together in one team and be like one hand. I hoped to be a proud Syrian. I have always dreamt of an equal, uncorrupted and free Syria. I hoped to get rid of corruption, sectarianism, bribery, oppression, and terrorism.

Syria Notes: Would you like to add anything else?

Mahmoud Yusuf Alswad: There are many things positive and negative that I can talk about, but I would like to say that the international community is responsible for the suffering of Syrian people. The international community failed Syrians who asked many times for help and support.

I put a huge responsibility on the USA for increasing the division between Syrians. I supported from day one funding the Free Syrian Army, but the reluctance of the USA to support the FSA allowed other armed groups to appear and to get power.

I also blame the international community for converting our revolution against oppression into a revolution against hunger. I blame Arabic countries for their betrayal of the Syrian people, most specifically Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They exported armed groups to Syria and these groups are fighting each other on Syrian land. Neighbouring countries also hold a big responsibility in not supporting and accepting Syrian refugees. We were expecting the international community to support our demand for freedom and justice, but unfortunately they have failed us.

Of course, we don’t want to disregard the role of other countries in supporting the Syrian revolution, even if their support was for their own benefit. I would like personally to thank Recep Erdogan for hosting and accommodating around four and a half million Syrian refugees, while other Arabic countries refused to accept them, or have put them in prisons called refugee camps in very bad conditions.

I would like also to thank some European governments, specifically the German government, for opening their doors for Syrian refugees, and the British government who have provided some support for refugees.

However, I would like to ask the British government as a member of the Security Council, first to stop the killing and fighting in Syria and support the Syrian people, and second, to help in removing Bashar al-Assad and his government from power, and to end the oppression towards the Syrian people. This if the British government really care about justice and democracy.

Nusra’s 2016 attack on Radio Fresh

Julia Taleb

This article is included in the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

On 10 January 2016, the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Syria, stormed the headquarters of Radio Fresh in Kafranbel and arrested its director Raed al-Fares and journalist Hadi Abdullah. The flag of the Syrian revolution was thrown on the floor and al-Nusra members stepped on it and forced the station’s members to do the same. They destroyed and confiscated equipment and books, burned the flag and—according to Ghalia al-Rahal, director of Mazaya, a women’s centre in Kafranbel—shouted, ‘We do not want any media in Kafranbel.’ They closed the station and placed a sign at the main door saying, ‘Confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra, do not approach.’

Read the original article online at Waging Nonviolence.

Photo: ‘Confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra,’ painted on the URB office in January 2016.

Kafranbel’s cartoon revolution

An interview with Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal

This interview is from the Spring 2019 issue of Syria Notes.

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal is the artist responsible for most of the satirical drawings seen in demonstrations in Kafranbel. As part of our project on Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Juneid, we spoke to Ahmad about his part in Kafranbel’s uprising, and his memories of Raed and Hammoud.

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: I was born in Kafranbel in 1982. I graduated from the Institute of Dental Prosthodontics at Aleppo University in 2006. I’ve always liked to draw, and the ability was there for years, but I didn’t do much before the demonstrations. Art runs in my family—several of my cousins are artists.

Syria Notes: How did the idea of the banners of Kafranbel start? Can you tell us about working with Raed on developing the idea?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: In the beginning of the revolution, just organising a protest was a massive task in itself. The regime had a strong grip on the area, and fear controlled people. The first demonstration ever to take place in Kafranbel was on the 1st of April 2011. No banners were held then, the sheer act of protesting was itself a great achievement. Later, when the demonstrations were more regular and were happening every Friday or several days of the week, people started making and carrying their own banners. The banners usually carried messages popular at the time—for example, ‘The people want the fall of the Regime,’ or ‘The Syrian people are united.’ It was spontaneous, and I was one of those people. I didn’t coordinate with Raed at that point. I used to write my own banners when I went to demonstrations. Raed did the same with his group of friends.

Photo: A demonstration in January 2013 shows the scale of work by Kafranbel’s creative team, with cartoons by Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal on the bottom left, cartoons by Iman on the right, and banners in both English and Arabic.

When the Assad regime army occupied Kafranbel—that was on the 4th of July 2011—we had to flee the town. A lot of people were wanted by the regime forces because of protesting. We fled to the villages and orchards surrounding Kafranbel. We were around one hundred people, every seven or ten of us hid together in the same house or tent. This is how I got to know Raed well, and we started coordinating and working on producing banners, and this is how Kafranbel media office started. We made big banners in Arabic and English, as well as small banners. The drawings came a bit later and happened by accident. I saw a caricature of Bashar al-Assad, and an idea came to me. I tried to make my own caricature of Assad, and put my own twist on it. This was in August 2011. We noticed that the caricature grabbed the attention of fellow protestors and was liked by many of them. We realised that making drawings can be a vehicle to achieve the aim of our demonstrations, which was to deliver messages and ideas. From that point, cartoons were an essential part of the banners of Kafranbel.

Syria Notes: How were the messages of the banner chosen, and how did you come up with ideas for cartoons?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: Ideas for the banners came from all that was happening around us and how the world was reacting toward our revolution. It was a team effort—the ideas came from those who were living in hiding around Kafranbel. We saw each other a lot and communicated a lot. Whoever had an idea for a banner or a cartoon told it to the others and we had a discussion. The people inside Kafranbel contacted us with ideas and messages they wanted the banners to highlight. Raed and I listen to everyone and then came up with the final vision of the banner and the cartoon.

Syria Notes: Was deciding on the banner part of planning weekly protests? Were the demonstrations planned around the messages on the banners?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: The banners were an essential part of Kafranbel’s weekly protests. At the beginning of the revolution a lot of attention was given to the number of protesters. For example a million or half a million went out to the street and protested in Hama City. Numbers were the loudest message you could put across. After the regime military forces occupied Kafranbel, organising a protest became difficult. So, we started protesting outside the town or we went into town and protested but we were chased by the military and some of us got arrested. The numbers were becoming less and less and we were not able anymore to count on numbers to make our voices heard. We started looking for alternatives, and this was when the banners became more important.

We started paying more attention into how we made the banners. The banners became our mark and set us apart from the rest. Banners and messages are being held all over Syria, but because we took extra care early on, our banners stood out.

Syria Notes: Did other activists work on the banners?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: Many people were involved in creating the banners. People got in touch via social media and told us what was on their minds. But Raed was the architect who listened to everyone and then came up with a response. His ideas and creativity were the main agent in creating the banners.

Syria Notes: Do you have a favourite banner or drawing?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: I don’t have a favourite banner, but I like the banners that stood out and influenced people deeply. For example, banners with messages about the coexistence and harmony between the Syrian people. Banners that envisioned Syria in the future, the Syria we aspire to. A Syria where every citizen is respected, the civic and human rights of all the citizens are respected, no matter what religion or denomination they belong to. Banners that spoke of the goals of the revolution.

Those are my favourite because these banners are not in response to an event or an emergency. They are an expression of the constants—they expressed the soul of the revolution and what it aspired to achieve.

Syria Notes: At some point the banners stopped, and then reappeared after several months. What was the reason for that?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: The last two years before the banners stopped the number of people attending demonstrations was going down. It was a small group that kept going and it was always the same faces. We even changed the way we signed banners—we stopped signing the bottom of the banner with ‘Kafranbel’ we instead started signing ‘From Kafranbel.’ Because we felt in those last few years the banners only represented the activists holding the banners.

Sadly, with the passing of time and with the intense bombardment and militarisation, people lost interest in demonstrations and numbers kept going down. We kept going on and we persisted in making banners and organising demonstrations even if we were not able to protest in Kafranbel main square. Even when we published photos of the demonstration we would write: ‘Activist from Kafranbel held a demonstration.’ We did not feel we represented our town anymore because the people of Kafranbel stopped going to demonstrations for a long time.

The last group of activists were faced by a series of accusations, spread mostly by the Islamist armed groups. We were accused of being traitors, controlled by the dollars of the West, and of being secular. We found ourselves in a weak position and we did not feel we were able to keep on demonstrating or asking people to come and support us. The people were fed up with everything and demonstrations were the last thing on their minds. We stopped for a long while and we did not organise any demonstrations.

The demonstrations came back [in 2018] when the people went back to the streets. We took part in these demonstrations, but we were not the organisers. These demonstrations came from the fear of an attack on Idlib, and Turkey was promising to protect the civilians in Idlib and was negotiating some kind of a deal. The people wanted protection—they didn’t want to live under endless fear of bombardment, even if that meant to give some power to Turkey at this temporary stage. Some people who support the Turkish agenda in the region and some Turkish efforts played a role in activating demonstrations in Idlib at that point.

The main factor that drove people to protest again was fear: the fear of the regime forces attacking an invading the area and the fear of relentless air bombardment. Before these new demonstrations, only those who were brave dared to participate and organise. That is the difference between demonstrations we used to organise and the most recent ones. After a while those large demonstrations that were fuelled by fear started to get smaller because the fear of an immediate attack subsided. Right now there are no demonstrations in Kafranbel.

Syria Notes: Can you tell us about Raed and Hammoud, and your relationship with them?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: Raed and Hammoud, may they rest in peace. They were my friends on this path I have taken. I got to know them in the revolution. They became my best friends. Hammoud was one of the bravest photojournalists—he was always first on the scene of any event, or when the town was under bombardment, or in the middle of a battle. He documented the regimes crimes against the people of Kafranbel. Once the regime forces burned, robbed, and vandalised shops in Kafranbel, and Hammoud documented the event. He was brave enough to do it, and his bravery was what made him stand out. He was loved by everyone. He was known for his sense of humour and his big heart. Raed is well known, he was the architect of the banners of Kafranbel and the brain behind the media office. He made a difference and he made the name of Kafranbel well known. Kafranbel is lucky to have Raed as one of its children. He was my friend, my big brother, and my fellow activist. He was all of this and more.

Syria Notes: How did Raed and Hammoud influence the local community and civil society projects in their local area?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: The death of Raed and Hammoud had a very big impact on the community. Raed had established the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel. The Union has left a positive impact on Kafranbel and the areas around it. It has had many projects, for example Radio Fresh, several women centres, mental health support centres for children, and training centres. In addition to that, Raed worked on projects that focused on the local infrastructure like the water system. It’s a long list.

The death of Raed will effect the Union greatly as he was its leader. The Union is a group of people who share the same values, and now we feel like a ship without a captain. We feel a bit lost and we are reaching for what holds us together.

As a Union we are in a very difficult position—those who killed Raed and Hammoud were not only aiming to kill the individuals, they want to kill what they stood for as well. They want to kill the freedom that we believe in and that they don’t. They will try to destroy the legacy of Raed, and that is why the Union is targeted. We are being targeted by these extremists. I pray to God to protect us and give us strength.

Syria Notes: Who is responsible for the murder of Raed and Hammoud? Why were they targeted?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: I accuse Jabhat al-Nusra directly of killing Raed and Hammoud. I have many reasons to believe this, even though I don’t hold in my hands any physical evidence. Like with many other assassinations, we don’t have the means to investigate. We don’t have a fair legal system to take on such a task.

The Nusra Front history in the area is an indication. It has forced its way into Radio Fresh twice, and took and destroyed equipment. They abducted Raed twice and detained him, and in one of these detentions they tortured him. They threatened him all time—he received non stop threats from them, threats to detained him and threats to kill him. Shortly before he was killed, their threats escalated. They tried several times to kill him and finally they succeeded.

At the time of the assassination, they were supposed to be providing security in Kafranbel. No other group can execute the assassination the way it happened but them. If the assassination was done by an explosive device, I might have suspected ISIS of doing it or someone else. But the way he was killed is a strong indication: The van entered the city in broad day light and followed the car of Raed and Hammoud. Men stepped out and killed Raed and Hammoud in the middle of Kafranbel. Then the killers fled without a trace. This could only happen if the killers had informed al-Nusra beforehand, and al-Nusra allowed it to happen. Or if the killers were working for al-Nusra or were members of it.

Raed and Hammoud were killed for a simple reason. All dictatorships, no matter what political or religious ideology shapes them, all dictatorships hate free thought, hate the other, and hate criticism. Raed and the group around him held different ideas and values to those that al-Nusra holds. That made Raed a target whom they wanted to eliminate, and they did everything they could to kill him. They considered Raed a heretic and the group around him slaves of dollars. Raed was a free human. He used to say that ideas can’t be killed by weapons.

Syria Notes: Can you tell us about your current security situation, and why you are in danger now?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: I’m in hiding and I can’t leave my hiding place because I’m in danger of being assassinated. After al-Nusra killed Raed, I activated my Facebook account and started publicly attacking al-Nusra Front and I held them responsible for killing Raed. I also made some cartoons for the Friday demonstration. I drew a provocative cartoon: I drew a regime solider, only his feet were visible. The soldier had military boots on his feet. On the left foot I wrote al-Nusra and on the right one I wrote ISIS. With the cartoon I wanted to say, al-Nusra and ISIS are tools which the regime uses to eliminate revolutionaries. They kill on behalf of the Assad regime and they are his agents.

The very next day al-Nusra police came to my house and asked for me. They knew I wasn’t there, that’s why they didn’t force their way in. The purpose of the visit was to let me know that they are watching me, and to threaten me into silence. I knew they would come and that is why I left the house.

After I did that cartoon, I went into hiding. Abducting or killing people are things al-Nusra do on a regular basis. They are acting exactly like the Assad regime Mukhabarat. I didn’t speak up to be threatened into silence.

Shortly after this interview, Ahmad al-Jalal and his family fled from Kafranbel to Turkey. In a post on 11 February 2019, he wrote, ‘At the end we had no choice but to be forcibly displaced. May God damn Assad and al-Jolani.’

Syria Notes: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Ahmad Kalil al-Jalal: I don’t know if these words will reach anyone. After Raed and Hammoud was killed, they were mourned by peaceful activists around the world. Many spoke about Raed and some of the statements came from people who are in positions of power. For example, the French president Macron sent his condolences, as well as the White House in the US, and many others.

My message is to those who hold power, if you are sadden by the murder of Raed and if you believe in the importance of the work he did, then why did you not protect him? I’m not talking about Raed as the man, I’m talking about everyone who Raed represents, those who hold the same beliefs and values as him. Why did you leave Syria to be divided between the Assad regime and the extremists? Those who were not killed or detained by the regime are being killed and detained by the extremists. The rest are being forcibly displaced. What is the point of sending condolences when you should have offered protection?