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.”