Two years after his murder, Raed Fares' legacy lives on

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 23, 2018 Mourners attend the funeral of Raed Fares and Hammoud al-Jneid in the village of Kafranbel in the northwestern province of Idlib. 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 November 23 was the latest blow to what remains of the dwindling civil society movement that rose up against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. / AFP / Muhammad HAJ KADOUR
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If you followed the past 10 years of grisly conflict and death in Syria, you probably came across Raed Fares's work. Based in the town of Kafranbel in the province of Idlib, he along with other revolutionaries inked some of the most powerful and widely shared images of the uprising.

These images were not of death. They were of banners bearing statements that were often calls for help for Syria’s long-suffering civilians, while frequently exhibiting great wit, good humour and compassion. They were an act of resistance amid the horrors that he and his cohorts endured on a daily basis; a dose of optimism in a well of misery.

There was the banner announcing a mock Black Friday special offer for every militia or air force that wished to bomb Syria – satirical commentary on the myriad nations and their proxy forces that shredded the country. Or the ones standing in solidarity with the victims of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings, or the 2015 Charleston church shooting. There was the banner mourning the death of actor Robin Williams in 2014 with his quote as the genie in Aladdin: "To be free. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world."

Raed Fares spoke out against atrocities committed by the Assad regime, but also by groups such as ISIS. Handout

Two years ago this week, Fares – who also founded the influential media collective Radio Fresh, campaigned against extremists, organised protests, ran initiatives to empower women, and strove to keep the world's attention on the suffering in Syria – was murdered by unknown assailants.

He had many enemies. In addition to exposing and campaigning against the atrocities of Bashar Al Assad’s regime, he fought against the extremist and totalitarian ideologies of groups such as ISIS and Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), the former Al Qaeda affiliate. He also survived assassination attempts and other forms of abuse. Many widely blame HTS for orchestrating the assassination that also killed fellow journalist Hammud Al Junayd.

Fares was, by all accounts, a beautiful soul. His murder exemplified the waning fortunes of the revolution he paid for with his life – from the creative and bursting promise of a courageous stand for dignity, to the battle for its soul by those who embodied its ideals against the forces of darkness and extremism, and the extinguishing of that candle in the dark with no recourse for justice.

Fares was mourned in Syria and beyond for his death. Perhaps it was because he was a funny, kind and compassionate soul, according to the unanimous testimony of those who knew or worked with him. Perhaps it was the idea that such pure good could generate such lethal hatred. Maybe it was because a vibrant and passionate revolution had been reduced to a narrow corner of Syria, and his epitaph signified that of a broader collapse.

The followers of failed revolutions often take comfort in the cliche that revolution is an idea and therefore cannot be killed. Syria, however, proved that you could, perhaps emotionally if not physically, hunt and destroy every adherent of the revolution until the dream of it is itself extinguished.

In this photo released Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020 on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, speaks with people during his visit to the coastal province of Latakia, Syria. Assad made a rare public visit to Latakia where he toured areas that suffered heavy damage in last week’s deadly wildfires. (Syrian Presidency via Facebook via AP)

Perhaps that is the lasting tragedy of Fares's killing – that it signalled the death of an idea, of what Syria could have been had the international community done more to resist the regime's determination to rob its citizens of dignity and freedom. His death did not cause the revolution's defeat, but it was one of the last nails in its coffin.

Of course, there is one aspect in which Fares was like everybody else, or at least like the rest of the half a million lives that the war is believed to have claimed: nobody has been held accountable for his killing, and it is a fool's hope to contemplate that someone might face justice over it one day. The vast majority of Syria's crimes will go unpunished. Few will stand in the dock facing their victims or their loved ones. As closure remains elusive, it is hard to contemplate how life can go back to normal.

And perhaps it shouldn't go back to normal, with the moral arc of the universe so bent out of shape. Fares's legacy will endure long after his death. For many, their memory of Syria's revolution will be forever associated with his banners, not with the bearded hooligans of ISIS, the fascists of HTS, or the criminal gangsters who led some of the unsavoury rebel groups. The gentle visage of Fares, hard at work and smiling wide, will endure and be remembered.

Syrian fighters attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, during a graduation of new Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) members at a camp in the countryside of the northern Idlib province on August 14, 2018. (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP)

And his legacy will live on in the work of the many independent journalists and citizen journalists who trained under him. A pioneer of independent media, Fares observed first-hand the emergence of a slew of vibrant media outlets and civil society organisations that, even amid defeat, continued to lay the groundwork for free, just and vibrant communities, whether in Syria or among the diaspora.

The death of Raed Fares was a moment of great grief and despair. But there is solace in his story, too. We often wonder whether we can make a difference, whether the flap of a butterfly can carry along the breeze. He proved that we can, and that it does.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National