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?