After killing, defiant Syria town determined to protest on

Gunmen may have killed their most charismatic activist, but Syrians in Kafranbel are determined to keep the northwestern town's revolutionary spirit alive. (AFP)
Updated 29 November 2018
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After killing, defiant Syria town determined to protest on

  • The gunning down of Raed Fares was the latest blow to what remains of the dwindling civil society movement that rose up against President Bashar Assad in 2011
  • Seven years into a brutal civil war and is controlled by a powerful alliance led by former Al-Qaeda militants

KAFRANBEL: Gunmen may have killed their most charismatic activist, but Syrians in Kafranbel are determined to keep the northwestern town’s revolutionary spirit alive.
The gunning down of Raed Fares on Friday was the latest blow to what remains of the dwindling civil society movement that rose up against President Bashar Assad in 2011.
“We lost Raed Fares but he represented an idea that will not die,” 26-year-old activist Abdallah Al-Dani said, standing in front of a wall of graffiti calling for freedom.
Seven years into a brutal civil war, Kafranbel lies in the last major rebel bastion in the country, and is controlled by a powerful alliance led by former Al-Qaeda militants.
But its walls are still daubed with brightly colored murals, reflecting the town’s worldwide renown as a bastion of protest throughout the uprising.
Kafranbel, up in the province of Idlib on the Turkish border, was one of the first to join in as revolutionary fervor spread across Syria in 2011.
“It was the spark for the revolution in the north, a candle in oppressed northern Syria,” said Dani, wearing a winter jacket to keep out the cold.
A town of some 20,000 people, Kafranbel soon became known for the often humorous signs in English and Arabic that its residents held up at weekly demonstrations.
“Down with the regime — and the opposition,” a sign at one of the town’s protests famously read in 2011.
“Down with the Arab and the Islamic nation... Down with the (UN) Security Council... Down with the world... Down with everything.” 


As protests spiralled into war, in 2012 Kafranbel was rocked by fighting between regime fighters and defectors from Assad’s army, soon slipping out of the government’s control.
“I have a dream. Let freedom ring from Kafranbel,” said one sign that year in English, playing on the town’s name and echoing the words of Martin Luther King.
Another poster the same year complained of congested skies.
“We demand a policeman be appointed to regulate war plane traffic,” it said in Arabic, signed “Liberated Kafranbel.”
At Christmas approached, Kafranbel sent a message to the pope.
“Merry Christmas from Syria, the land where Assad killed Santa Claus,” it said in bold black Roman letters.
By 2015, Kafranbel was part of a large region under the control of opposition forces.
As the civil war became increasingly complex, involving world powers and jihadists, the clamour coming out of Kafranbel targeted all sides of the conflict.
“Islamic State (group) in Syria and Iraq: We didn’t liberate it so you could rule it,” the town’s people raged, referring to land beyond regime control.
Activist Bilal Bayush says people may have started protesting the Damascus regime, but they were soon also challenging powerful militants.
These include IS, but also the militant-led Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) alliance that rules more than half of Idlib, including Kafranbel.
“Kafranbel has stood up against IS since 2013, and it also holds demonstrations in solidarity with activists being held by HTS,” Bayush said.

Fares, who died aged 46, was among those to have run-ins with the militants after he set up a popular radio station named Fresh FM in 2013.
When HTS tried to ban him from broadcasting music two years ago, he fought back with barnyard noises.
“He decided to air the noises of animals such as birds or cockerels instead,” says Bayush.
Daesh fighters raided the office on several occasions, he wrote in the Washington Post in July, and the regime also bombarded it.
Fares said he was shot at by armed men in 2014, and then abducted several times by the group now known as HTS.
Often in creative ways, Kafranbel’s people have stood up for what they believe is right.
In 2014, the town’s women sewed together a 75-meter-long version of the three-star flag of the uprising, and paraded it down its streets.
Even following the killing of Fares with fellow activist Hamod Jnaid, which sparked a flurry of tributes on social media, the town’s residents say they will keep up the fight.
After almost eight years of war, “our determination has only increased,” said Bayush, despite admitting he was a little fearful over a recent spate of killings and kidnappings in the province.
“We’ll carry on until the regime falls and we get the rights we have been demanding from the beginning,” he said.
On a recent foggy day, 21-year-old activist Mohammad Allush explained what the town meant to him.
“Kafranbel is revolution — revolution against oppression, whatever that may be.”


Normalcy restored in Egyptian Sinai city, but danger lurks

Updated 11 December 2018
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Normalcy restored in Egyptian Sinai city, but danger lurks

  • Authorities are building a wall around the city's airport after militants rocketed a helicopter used by the then defense and interior ministers
  • The pervasive security, and the great lengths to which the military went to protect the journalists, suggest danger may not be far away

EL-ARISH, Egypt: Mohammed Amer Shaaban stood over trays of fresh fish at his tiny store in the coastal Sinai Peninsula city of El-Arish, pointing to his right and left while recalling the tough days when Daesh militants operated with impunity.
"They killed a Christian who owns a knife shop there and an informant over there. They also killed one of my cousins," he said.
"We have enjoyed some stability and peace for the past six or seven months," added the 48-year-old father of five as some two dozen journalists descended on El-Arish's fish market as part of a rare, army-organized trip.
The trip was chiefly designed to show off signs of normalcy in El-Arish, northern Sinai's largest city, as evidence that the military's all-out offensive against militants launched nearly 10 months ago has succeeded.
But in the city and the surrounding deserts, the signs of war are difficult to miss, particularly the enormous security presence. The Associated Press was required to submit the photos and video accompanying this story to Egypt's military censor, which did not say two weeks after submission if or when the material would be released.
The carefully scripted trip included visits to an indoor arena packed with thousands of screaming schoolchildren, a new housing project, a school and a factory. No one is claiming the militants have been defeated, but there have been no major attacks for several months, save a recent ambush of buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a remote desert monastery south of Cairo that left seven dead.
The fight against militants in Sinai has gone on for years, but the insurgency gathered steam after the 2013 ouster by the military of a freely elected but divisive president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities have since shut down almost all underground tunnels that they suspected militants used to smuggle fighters and weapons into Sinai from neighboring Gaza, ruled by the Islamist Hamas group since 2007.
They also razed to the ground much of the town of Rafah on the Gaza border in a bid to deny the militants a safe haven and stop its use as cover for tunnels. Elsewhere in northern Sinai, olive orchards have been bulldozed to deny the militants sanctuary.
A brutal militant attack on a Sinai mosque that killed more than 300 worshippers a year ago — the deadliest such attack in Egypt in living memory — prompted general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to order a major offensive.
The operation, with thousands of troops backed by tanks, jet-fighters and warships, got underway in February. Security forces almost completely sealed off northern Sinai, causing shortages of food and fuel. The siege was eased in May, allowing normalcy to gradually return to the mostly desert region, especially in El-Arish.
Barely a year ago, militants in El-Arish killed suspected informants in broad daylight, set up bogus checkpoints, shot Christians in their stores, snatched clerics and members of the security forces to later dump their bodies on the streets. Now traffic is heavy, families are out in public, stores are filled with goods, and school classes are packed with children.
The military is eager to tout the changes.
"Terrorism will be completely defeated in a matter of a few months," announced Mohammed Abdel-Fadeel Shoushah, a retired general who serves as the governor of northern Sinai. "Now we are focusing on development, which is the basis of security."
For now, though, El-Arish shows enduring signs of conflict.
A Pharaonic-style building across the road from the governor's heavily guarded office has almost every one of its windows shattered. Some streets are blocked by sand berms, while others are sealed off by concrete blocks. Unfinished buildings are everywhere in the city, parts of which look deserted. Many of the date palms in the city look like they have received little care for years.
Authorities are building a wall around the city's airport after militants last December rocketed a helicopter used by the then defense and interior ministers while parked on the tarmac. The ministers were unharmed, but one officer was killed in the attack.
Another wall with heavily fortified watch towers is being built on the southern reaches of the city to prevent militants from infiltrating through dense olive orchards.
The pervasive security, and the great lengths to which the military went to protect the journalists, suggest danger may not be far away. The reporters traveled in armored cars with gunners in full combat gear perched atop, and a signal-jamming vehicle tagged along as a precaution against roadside bombs. The top officials in the convoy were protected by heavily armed policemen in black fatigues and ski masks.
In late October, militants twice attacked workers employed by the company building the wall just south of El-Arish, killing at least six and wounding 16. Earlier in November, security forces killed 12 militants hiding in unused buildings in El-Arish.
"Stay put in the vehicle and don't come out and wander around," an armed plainclothes police officer sternly warned reporters during one stop. "It is not as safe as you might think," he said, pointing to the expanse of desert on one side of the road.
The magnitude of the counterterrorism task becomes apparent during the nearly 200-kilometer (125-mile) journey through the desert from the east bank of the Suez Canal to El-Arish.
All along the road are military positions. At some, tanks are buried in the sand for protection with only their turrets showing. Soldiers on watch towers in the middle of nowhere cut forlorn figures against a backdrop of desert. The checkpoints create long lines of vehicles. Helicopters occasionally hover above.
El-Arish resident Hassan Mahdi, a lawyer who came to Sinai from a Nile Delta province as a young boy nearly 30 years ago, said the restored security is a welcome change.
"To be honest, life was very, very difficult here," he said. "Businesses were relocating out of Sinai in search of security and many things were in short supply. Not anymore."