On January 29, 2014, Raed al-Fares, the head of the media center at Syria’s most famous revolutionary town, Kafranbel, was taken into the emergency room following an attempt on his life. Al-Fares, who has received several death threats because of his work in the revolution, only survived the assassination attempt after a long and gruesome surgery, to the relief of many of his friends and fellow activists.
Al-Fares, who was known as the main impetus behind the Kafranbel banners which made the small town world famous, had been, since the early days of the revolution, one of the main proponents of nonviolent activism against the regime of Assad. His convictions that creative, nonviolent and civil resistance was the only path to victory for the revolution, had set him up on a collision course with Islamist militias from the early days of militarization.
Al-Fares soon realized that Syrians will have to maintain their resistance on many fronts: against the regime, against the chaos, and against militias with radical agendas that did not subscribe to the fundamental pillars of democracy and human rights. He repeatedly proclaimed that his struggle is against “any group attempting to impose its will upon Syrians by force,” as recounted by his friend, activist Razan Ghazzawi.
Al-Fares himself declared as much, during a conference in Dublin in October 2013: “The message of the Kafranbel media center is that the people of Kafranbel condemn the state’s violence, as well as the violence of armed militias.” This last statement opened the gates of hell, and death threats became a daily occurrence.
During a December 2013 international tour where Ghazzawi and al-Fares spoke at several human rights conventions to advance awareness of the Syrian uprising, they received the news of the attack on the Kafranbel media center. Six activists from the center, and four from the radio station were detained, and released after six hours. Soon after that, the editor-in-chief of al-Ghorbal magazine, and his counterpart from al-Mantara newspaper were also kidnapped. According to Ghazzawi, this was a direct act of hostility against the media professionals operating in Kafranbel, and al-Fares came out strongly against it.
This public stand directly led to the attempt on his life, where the assassins waited for his return from his tour, and opened fire as he was entering his house. Al-Fares recounted the events of that day:
“I parked my car right next to my house, I went out and locked the vehicle. I looked left to see one of the cowards hiding behind his mask and his gun, he opened fire first. Next to him was another one, and another gun that fired at me. They were mere steps away from me, and I truly felt that death was upon me. I did not yell, so that they wouldn’t come back to finish me off, and the only thing I muttered was the Islamic shahada: There is no god but God, Mohammad is the prophet of God. A few minutes later I felt people come and take me to the field hospital, but I still don’t believe that I survived.” Al-Fares added, “who has the right to eliminate me from life? What kind of a person gives himself the right to kill other people as a proof of righteousness? Who has the right to declare me a believer or not? Is that not the prerogative of God almighty, without whose protection I wouldn’t be here today?”
The identity of the assassins has been the subject of significant accusations and speculation, but no concrete evidence has emerged. And as far as the activists of Kafranbel are concerned, so long as the perpetrators remain anonymous, they will be under threat. According to Ghazzawi: “We can not simply say that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are behind this, because of the complexity of the situation. There are many different enemies at play: those of the media center, those of civil activism in general, and there are those who have a problem with Raed al-Fares personally.”
Ghazzawi concludes by saying: “We can not pinpoint the perpetrators of this assassination attempt, but we can surmise the clear and present threats to Raed, personally, as well as to media professionals and nonviolent activists in general.”
The activist behind the solidarity campaign with Raed al-Fares believe that the most important things activists can do to resist such threats is to “unite amongst themselves, to form local councils that can administer their areas and to keep cautious against suspicious elements.” Ghazzawi points out the irony inherent in the struggle of nonviolent activists:
“We are living and working in a war of militias, and for one to effectively protect himself, one has to use a weapon. But we are, first and foremost, nonviolent activists. So the only solution that remains for us is to do what we did in response to the pressure of the regime in the beginning of the revolution: leave the town and go underground.”
The people of Kafranbel on their part did not let the assassination attempt pass without making their discontent heard. On January 31, 2014, a demonstration protesting the attempt on al-Fares’s life carried banners that read: “Raed al-Fares, the knight of truth, may the treacherous hands that shot at you be paralyzed.”
Several online solidarity campaigns were also launched including one from Avaaz under the title, “We are All Raed al-Fares”, and one titled, “Postcards to Raed”, organized by friends and colleagues of Raed living in exile.
Activist Hanadi Zahlout wrote an article in solidarity with al-Fares saying: “The attempt on al-Fares’s life, is not only aimed at him personally, but at Kafranbel in general and all it symbolizes for a free Syrian uprising and its dream of a civil, democratic and modern state in Syria.”