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.