Raed Fares was a voice of hope, brutally silenced

The assassination of a prominent activist in Syria's Idlib province is a loss to the world

Mourners attend the funeral of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Jneid in the village of Kafranbel in the northwestern province of Idlib on November 23, 2018. / AFP / Muhammad HAJ KADOUR
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Late on Thursday, two men were shot dead in the north-western Syrian town of Kafranbel. Raed Fares and his friend Hammoud Al Jneid were driving home from a mosque when unknown gunmen opened fire on their car. Unlike many in the restive province of Idlib, Fares's name was well-known, both locally and around the world. Starting out by photographing protests during the initial Syrian uprisings and circulating the images on the internet, he rose to prominence as an outspoken advocate of democracy.

Always a fierce critic of the Assad regime, Fares took an equally determined stance against Islamist extremists and global powers. His viral videos and acerbically witty protest banners grabbed the attention of the world, promoting the idea of peaceful revolution and highlighting urgent Syrian issues with barbed English-language slogans. These efforts made Fares a high-profile target of groups such as ISIS and Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, now the dominant militant organisation in Idlib. Several attempts were made on his life throughout the Syrian war and in 2014, he survived gunshot wounds to the chest after an attack by masked militants.

Far from being a one-man operation, Fares held a powerful belief in the value of collaboration and mentoring. In 2011, he established the Kafranbel Media Centre. Two years later, he launched his most ambitious venture, Radio Fresh. In addition to the station’s immediate remit of reporting independent news to the Syrian people and countering fundamentalist narratives, Radio Fresh had a greater long-term aim.

As he wrote in an article for the Washington Post in June, following the US State Department's decision to cut the station's funding: "We provide media training for more than 2,500 young men and women. We are helping them become the citizen-journalists that are so badly needed in Syria." It is essential, for the the sake of Syrians, that those young trainees continue to give a voice to the voiceless and are galvanised to uphold the messages and values he held dear.

For in many ways, Fares was an exceptional man. When militants demanded that Radio Fresh stop playing music, he responded by broadcasting a non-stop schedule of animal noises: birdsong in the morning, bleating goats in the afternoon and croaking frogs at night. His choice of programming was, he stated, a form of resistance to hardline interpretations of Islam – it was also a typically wilful and wryly humorous response. While nearly eight years of grinding violence have forced many similarly minded Syrian activists into exile, Fares remained determined to stay at home, steadfast in the belief that a better world was possible. It is a tragedy that he will no longer be able to play a part in making this long-held dream a reality.