Last Friday, in Kafranbel, a van began following Fares and his friend Hamoud Juneid, a Radio Fresh reporter, as they drove through town. Men in the van opened fire on Fares’s vehicle
December 3, 2018
By: Eliza Griswold
ne afternoon this past spring, Raed Fares paced around in my office at New York University, itching for a cigarette. Fares was one of the most prominent leaders of the democratic revolution against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. At forty-six, he had deep laugh lines around his brown eyes. He ran a radio show called Radio Fresh, and had found humor to be the most effective tool to draw the West’s waning attention to the ongoing catastrophe in his country, which was entering its seventh year. In one viral video that he posted on social media, he portrayed Syrians as cavemen, a sarcastic sendup of the United States’ lack of response to the chemical-weapons attacks launched by the Assad regime “because there was no humanity at that time,” he said. Fares had come to N.Y.U. to speak to students about the situation in Syria. (He had once spoken to my class from his radio station there, via FaceTime. He was smoking a cigarette, and, when he finished, he threw the butt into the corner of the room. The students gasped, and Fares laughed gently at their concern: a lit butt was nothing compared the government’s air strikes, which had destroyed the building twice.) Fares was still living in Syria despite repeated attempts on his life. He told me that he wasn’t going to move out of the country until Assad fell—a prospect that had grown in the past few years from an unlikelihood to a near impossibility.
I had met Fares in 2014, a few months after isis-linked militants shot him and left him for dead outside his home, in Kafranbel, a town in the northern region of Idlib. Fares had spoken out against the militants, and he ran a center for women, which the militants objected to. Fares survived the attack, and his family rushed him to a nearby hospital, and then carried him over the border to Turkey to be treated for a punctured lung. He liked to joke that the doctor had told him that he didn’t really need two lungs—his nose was big enough to take in plenty of air. We spent a week hanging around in border cafés, drinking Turkish coffee and listening to musicians play the oud, a traditional lute. He told me that he had grown up watching the abuses of the regime: during Fares’s childhood, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, who was then the President, ordered the arrest and torture of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that he feared was plotting to overthrow him. Fares hadn’t cared much about politics for most of his life. In his twenties, he became addicted to heroin, a habit that he managed to quit cold turkey. In his thirties, he sold real estate half-heartedly. But, in 2011, when the Arab Spring began, he took to the streets with thousands of other Syrians in peaceful protest against the regime.
Fares quickly realized that the protests, which took place most Fridays after prayer, weren’t going to be enough to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. He felt that his small band of Syrian activists would benefit from international attention, so he began posting pictures on Facebook of eye-catching banners written in English and Arabic. Some banners, painted on bed sheets, were darkly funny. “Assad has hypnotized the world and ordered it to behave like an asshole,” one read. Others were cutting and direct: “obama! your role in syria will never be accepted as a mistake like clinton’s in rwanda, but it will be a premeditated crime.” Fares believed that the Obama Administration’s indecision on whether to intervene in Syria was its greatest failure.
Fares’s courage and wit earned him international acclaim. “The truth is, Syrians are victims of two forms of terrorism,” Fares told a gathering of human-rights activists in Oslo last year. “From one side, Assad’s terrorism, and, from the other, isis and other extremists’ terrorism.” Fares insisted on poking fun at all sides. He’d started Radio Fresh to provide information to Syrians, and to challenge the growing power of the religious militants. “They’ve watched too many ‘Rambo’ movies,” he told me. His work was extremely dangerous. He survived several assassination attempts, and, at one point, he was kidnapped and tortured by militants, though he was eventually released. When militants demanded that Radio Fresh stop playing music on air, because they claimed that it was against Islam, Fares broadcast hours of chickens clucking. When they forbid Fares from allowing women to speak on the radio, he ran his female hosts’ voices through a software that made them sound like men.
In addition to running Radio Fresh, Fares helped take care of hundreds of thousands of people struggling to survive in northern Syria. He devised a system to alert residents of incoming air strikes by sending an employee with a walkie-talkie to stand on a nearby hill and watch for airplanes and attack helicopters. When the employee radioed in an attack, Fares sounded a Second World War-era air-raid siren. After Assad began launching coördinated bombings against children in schools, Fares organized classrooms in the basements of buildings, where the students would be safer. He also created a day care where women could leave their children during the day so that they could come to the classes and learn. He ran a program to train twenty-five hundred young men and women to become journalists.
In the past year, as Assad’s forces succeeded in retaking almost all of the country, displaced people flooded into Idlib, one of the few remaining bastions of liberated Syria. According to the U.N., the population of Idlib has nearly doubled, to about three million people, a third of whom are children. They are waiting for the Syrian military to launch an assault against Idlib, which, according to the U.N., could displace as many as eight hundred thousand people. A senior humanitarian official at the United Nations has said that the attack “will overwhelm capacities and has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through this crisis.” That’s saying a lot for Syria, where, according to the U.N., at least four hundred thousand people have died. (The U.N. stopped counting the death toll in 2016, when figures became too difficult to verify.) Fares tried to draw attention to this impending catastrophe. On September 21st, he posted a selfie with his two teen-age sons, Mohamad and Ahmad, from a protest against the coming offensive.
Fares was also part of a little-known program through which the U.S. State Department helped to smuggle radio transmitters to a small number of intrepid reporters in Syria, including Fares, so that they could broadcast information to civilians about impending air strikes, or give survival advice on, say, how to avoid freezing to death in the winter if a bomb blows out your windows. (Fares used these transmitters to broadcast Radio Fresh.) This funding, along with the funding for other humanitarian programs in Syria, has dried up under the Trump Administration. In June, Fares wrote an op-ed in the Washington Postabout the dangers of ending this kind of aid. “Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms to found the Islamic State’s second and third editions,” he wrote. “If the Trump administration does not release the remaining budget allocated for humanitarian groups, Americans will have to spend billions of dollars more to protect their allies and even themselves from new threats.”
Last Friday, in Kafranbel, a van began following Fares and his friend Hamoud Juneid, a Radio Fresh reporter, as they drove through town. Men in the van opened fire on Fares’s vehicle. When Fares and Juneid got out of their car and tried to escape, they were gunned down in the street, and both men died. No one has claimed responsibility for their killing, but Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (H.T.S.), a group that was formerly affiliated with Al Qaeda, is in charge of the town and all of its checkpoints, and is suspected of being behind the attack. On Saturday, hundreds of brave mourners gathered in silence for Fares’s funeral. Without Fares to lead them, they had nothing to say. Three years before his assassination, to the day, Fares posted a photo on Facebook of a protest banner lampooning the fact that other countries were fighting proxy wars in Syria: “black friday special offer, whoever wherever you are, bring your enemy and come fight in syria for free (free land & sky) limited time offer.”