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.