Kafranbel: Iconic revolutionary town falls to the Assad regime
This small town, which was virtually unknown before 2011, gained worldwide fame for its creative and satirical protests.
Demonstrations broke out across Syria in March 2011, but Kafranbel quickly distinguished itself with its huge banners featuring witty and sharp English-language slogans and caustic cartoons.
The town has been described as the "icon of the Syrian revolution" and for the past nine years has been a hub for civil activism.
Kafranbel has been associated with the original principles of freedom and dignity proclaimed by the protesters who took part in the first demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011.
The first protests in the town took place in April 2011 and -like elsewhere in Syria - were violently suppressed by the regime.
|Protesters in Kafranbel and other Syrian cities often called a no fly zone to protect civilians from Assad's airstrikes. Their calls fell on deaf ears.|
They continued and the regime eventually deployed tanks and set up checkpoints in a bid to quell the growing peaceful activism.
In August 2012, a rebel group known as Fursan Al-Haq made up of local people and troops who defected from the Syrian army drove out regime forces.
The slogans raised in the demonstrations targeted not only the regime, but also Islamist extremists such as the Islamic State group and Al-Nusra Front, later part of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.
They also criticised world leaders who had either supported the regime or were accused of showing callous indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people.
The people of the Idlib town showed an astute knowledge of world events, while former US President Obama was often lampooned in Kafranbel's cartoons and posters.
One of the most memorable slogans was "Obama! Your role in Syria will never be accepted as a mistake like Clinton's in Rwanda, but it will be a premeditated crime". This was in reference to the former US president’s failure to respond to calls to protect civilians in Syria from the Assad regime's daily airstrikes.
Kafranbel's slogans offered the world a particularly Syrian view of IS and Al-Nusra Front when the simplistic and false narrative of "Assad versus Islamist extremists" dominated global media coverage of the war.
The posters and art of the town reminded the world that Assad had created the environment for IS to grow by allowing them to capture territory at the expense of the rebels, while the regime focused their attention on battling the Free Syrian Army and civilian activism.
One banner displayed in October 2014 read: "Assad is the source of the [region's] terrorism. You are fighting his products and ignoring the producer."
One man in particular was credited with Kafranbel’s revolutionary slogans and artwork.
Raed Fares, an estate agent who was born in 1972, saw regime troops kill his dissident neighbour as a boy and met refugees from the 1982 Hama massacre as they fled to Kafranbel.
When the revolution began, he set up the Kafranbel Media Centre and started other civil society projects including a mobile health clinic and a new radio station, Radio Fresh.
Fares' activism placed him at odds with the Islamist extremists of the Al-Nusra Front, who opposed his liberal ideas and support for women's empowerment.
Al-Nusra Front took over Kafranbel from more moderate rebels in 2015 and tried to impose restrictions on activists.
Fares was repeatedly threatened with arrest if he didn't stop broadcasting music and women's voices on Radio Fresh.
To satirise these restrictions, Radio Fresh memorably started broadcasting animal noises instead of music and added distorting effects to the voices of their female presenters so that they would sound more like men.
Raed Fares was killed by unknown gunmen in 2018 but the town continued to be a hub of protest and activism, until very recently, when nearly all its inhabitants fled from the regime's latest assault on Idlib province.
Noha Noureddine, a Syrian refugee living in the UK, told The New Arab about the importance the town held for revolutionaries.
"Even though the physical city of Kafranbel is gone, its ideals and values will never fade. When Raed al-Fares was assassinated, his killing rooted his ideals deeper in the minds of people. People will never forget Kafranbel - Kafranbel will always be in the hearts and minds of Syrians," she said.
The regime is, for now, in control of the town and it will no doubt try to suppress the memory of what happened in Kafranbel during the eight years it was outside its control.
However, with their art and creativity, the activists of Kafranbel created an immortal testimony to the Syrian people's hopes for freedom and dignity which will inspire others across the world for a long time to come.