‘The one who gave life to the demonstrations’: Raed Fares, remembered

An undated photo of Raed Fares. Photo courtesy of Kafr Nabl Media Center.

Syrian civil society leader and activist Raed Fares was no stranger to threats against his life.

Since the first years of the Syrian conflict, the father of four—who first gained fame for his sharp and humorous protest banners, and later for his widely listened-to radio station, Radio Fresh—was regularly targeted by an array of hardline Islamist factions. He survived at least two assassination attempts.

Even then, Fares vowed to remain in his rebel-held home of Kafr Nabl—a once-sleepy town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province whose vocal residents and vibrant civil society gained it widespread recognition both within Syria and abroad.

‘’Things will calm down, and the situation will improve’,” Fares’ close friend and colleague Turki Swied recalls him saying. “‘We just need to be patient’.”

“‘I won’t leave Kafr Nabl’.”

It was there, on November 23, that 46-year-old Fares was shot dead along with photographer and fellow activist Hamoud Juneid. The identity of the assailants, who fired a hail of bullets from a van before fleeing the scene, remains unknown.

“It was a tragic day,” says Swied, manager of the media office at Radio Fresh, which is part of a collection of formerly US-backed civil society organizations known as the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus (URB).

Fares founded the URB in 2012, and it quickly expanded to employ hundreds of people across the northwest in an array of projects including medical services, athletic programs and centers dedicated to women’s empowerment and adolescent support.

US funding to the URB came to an abrupt halt earlier this year, when the Trump administration froze, and ultimately cut, more than $200 million in stabilization assistance to Syria.

Fares’ projects took a jarring hit, but he had no intention of giving up. He spent his last days searching for new funds, in the hopes of preserving work that first began back in 2011.

“He’s the one who gave life to the demonstrations,” Swied tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar.

“When I think of Raed, I’ll remember the revolution. And when I think of the revolution, I’ll always remember Raed.”

Q: How did you first learn of Raed’s death?

I went to Friday prayer, and everything was normal. I prayed, and then a friend passed by and asked if I wanted to go for a drive around town. I went to the street. We were standing outside and I happened to mention to my friend that I noticed many strangers leaving the mosque—I didn’t know half the people there.

We took our drive and I returned home.

About an hour later, I turned on my phone. I opened the Radio Fresh group on WhatsApp, and one of the guys said Raed and Hamoud were injured and at the hospital. I left to find out which hospital they were at, but then the news started coming in—first the news that Hamoud had died, and then minutes later, that Raed had died as well.

At the time, I didn’t believe what was happening. I was in shock and everyone started messaging me and sending condolences. I saw the photos [of their bodies], but I couldn’t absorb the news. Finally, a guy from America called me to offer condolences and at that moment, I finally grasped what had happened.

It was a tragic day in Kafr Nabl.

Q: How did you first come to know Raed?

I’ve known Raed since long before the revolution, since we’re distant relatives and live in the same part of town.

During the revolution, I found him at one of the demonstrations. He asked me to hold a banner alongside him—although at the time, I was a bit scared because it was the beginning of the revolution and people were wanted by security forces. So I hesitated.

He pulled me aside and asked, ‘Why are you afraid?’

I told him, ‘I’m not afraid...I just thought you were speaking to someone else!’

Raed was brave in every sense of the word, and very generous. He had a great sense of humor. He loved to joke, and was very ambitious.

That was my first impression—and it remained that way until his death.

Q: Raed became one of the most recognizable faces of the Syrian uprising. What do you think motivated Raed to take such a prominent role in the popular movement?

To tell you the truth, everyone aspired to undertake revolutionary work that would allow them to relay the voice and suffering of people here to the outside world. But Raed in particular was truly a revolutionary in every sense of the word.

From the beginning of his work until the last days of his life, he strived to convey the full truth.

Everyone in Kafr Nabl aspired to be like Raed—in terms of his personality, his work and his reputation.

Kafr Nabl residents remember Fares and Juneid on Friday. Photo courtesy of Wael Abdulaziz.

Q: Raed was often linked with the town of Kafr Nabl, and vise versa. What makes Kafr Nabl unique? How was Raed able to impact the town, and how did the town impact him and help to achieve his goals?

Raed was very connected to the city of Kafr Nabl, especially since he was raised here. All of his family are here, and he spent his life here.

Kafr Nabl is distinguished by something that isn’t found in other towns—the residents’ revolutionary spirit. When people saw the banners that Raed wrote, they were proud of him and what he was presenting in front of the people of other towns. They would say, ‘He’s from our town.’

Raed and Kafr Nabl were melded together like glue. They couldn’t be separated from one another—not in any way.

Q: Raed worked with thousands of people in Idlib, and his projects spread across rebel-held Syria. What does his death mean for Idlib, as well as Syria’s civil society movement more broadly?

Raed’s death is tragedy and a great loss for all revolutionary Syrians dedicated to the revolution—not just the people of Kafr Nabl.

Raed is one of the personalities that has become rare in this period in which our revolution has reached its lowest point because those who disregard the ideals of the revolution have joined the scene.

The impact will be catastrophic. With the death of the revolution’s beacons, only those who distort its ideas will be left.

Over the course of years, we have suffered from the loss of many of our leaders, be it from assassinations, kidnapping or torture. We didn’t start the revolution for this to happen.

Q: Friday’s attack wasn’t the first time that Raed or his colleagues were targeted by hardline groups in Idlib. Was there ever a time where he considered stopping his work, or leaving Syria altogether?

Yes, Raed faced two assassination attempts before—the first in 2014 and the second in 2016. After each attempt on his life, we’d grow more afraid for him. We knew they wouldn’t leave him alone, and it was clear he had been targeted.

He told me about offers he received to work outside Syria, but he always refused. He loved his city, and had no desire to leave it. He would always say, ‘One day, things will calm down, and the situation will improve. We just need to be patient.’

Raed thought differently from everyone else. Others were thinking about leaving and seeking asylum, taking another language and living in better financial circumstances. Even though he had offers that—for others—would seem like golden opportunities, he would say, ‘I won’t leave Kafr Nabl. I’d be like a fish out of water. If I leave Kafr Nabl, I’ll die.’

Raed faced regular death threats from unknown sources. He always felt that they would kill him one day, since they’ve been watching him for years.

We don’t know who they’re affiliated with.

Q: Over the past years, the Radio Fresh project that Fares founded grew into an array of activities and civil society organizations under the URB, which received millions in funding from the US until the cuts earlier this year.

How did he react when the station lost its funding?

When the support was cut, Raed was persistent and tried many times to restore the support. He traveled to America and took part in a conference where he laid out the work at the Radio and the URB projects, and what the cuts meant.

So the final days of his life were spent trying to get support so that his project could continue to serve the people of Kafr Nabl, since more than 650 families were connected to URB. The loss of support meant that support for those families ceased.

He was determined not to let the support for URB stop. He would always tell us, ‘One day, the support will come.’ We waited and continue to wait, though we have been promised new support for the radio and the union.  

Raed never gave up trying to return the support. The cuts were a shock to everyone—not just Raed—although of course he was the founder. The situation bothered him in the beginning, but he still never stopped trying to get support.

Founding the URB was among the greatest things he did to serve the people of his town, and he was proud of it. And we’re proud of his association with us and our town.

Q: Could you share with us a memory of Raedperhaps one that’s stayed with you over the years?

About one year ago, I invited Raed, Hamoud and [citizen journalist] Hadi al-Abdullah to my place—there were a few other journalists from Aljazeera and others as well.

We were hanging out and talking about things that had nothing to do with the news, or our work at the radio station. Raed’s conversations and his presence were unforgettable—at the time, he just kept joking around. It was one of the greatest nights we spent together. I saw in that moment the ambitious, brave and humble person that he was.

Whenever I see a protest in Kafr Nabl or elsewhere, I’ll certainly remember Raed—he’s the one who gave life to the demonstrations and who wrote their banners.  

How can we forget the one who stood beside us in the first days of the revolution?

When I think of Raed, I’ll remember the revolution. And when I think of the revolution, I’ll always remember Raed.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.