The overhead light in the blue Mazda 626 wasn’t working. Raed Fares, a Syrian activist whose video protests skewer ISIS and Bashar al-Assad alike, reached up to fiddle with the light bulb before squeezing himself out of the driver’s side door. The street was in darkness. In the last few years, the Assad regime cut most of the electricity (along with running water and mobile-phone service) to Kafranbel, the town in northwestern Syria where Fares lives. The only light came from an LED strip in his neighbor front doorway that was hooked up to a car battery. It was 12:45 a.m. on Jan. 29, 2014, and Fares, who often works until 4 a.m., had left the office early. As he fumbled to fit his key into the car lock, he heard the slap-slap of feet running toward him.
The feet stopped just in front of his car. The Czech pistol he usually carries was in his house, 15 feet away. In the watery glow of the light behind him, Fares could make out two ISIS militiamen. One, clad in a woolen mask, ammunition vest, windbreaker and unlaced boots, opened fire, spraying the car, the mud wall and Fares with bullets. Fares felt their heat sear through his canvas jacket and jean shirt and into the right side of his chest and shoulder. When he collapsed to the ground, a childhood nightmare returned: three black dogs, chasing him.
“There is no God but God, and Mohammad is his prophet,” he said as loudly as he could. He hoped this statement of faith would send him to heaven.
As a pool of his own blood spread around him, Fares lay in the road. He tried to stifle his groans, in fear that his attackers would return. Minutes later, his elder brother, who heard the shots from his home nearby, dragged Fares out of the street and into a car to race to the hospital.
“Who shot him?” a friend in the car asked his brother.
Raed struggled to repeat what he had seen.
“Stop talking,” his brother said.
“I’m dying,” he said. Then he slipped from consciousness.
Eight months later, Fares, 42, was in the back seat of a pewter-colored Kia, driving through southern Turkey and chain-smoking Lebanese cigarettes. In all, the would-be assassins fired at Fares 46 times. Twenty-seven bullets struck the wall behind him; 17 hit his car. Only two struck him. They shattered seven bones in his shoulder and ribs and punctured his right lung. From his hospital bed, he continued to orchestrate protests, posting them on Facebook and YouTube. Many used the block-lettered banners for which he’s known, broadcasting messages like: “OBAMA! YOUR ROLE IN SYRIA WILL NEVER BE ACCEPTED AS A MISTAKE LIKE CLINTON’S IN RWANDA, BUT IT WILL BE A PREMEDITATED CRIME.” Others relied on cartoons, like one of a Trojan horse with ISIS inside and “Made in USA” on its side.
“I still have trouble breathing,” Fares said. “My doctor says my lungs should be no problem because of the size of my nose.” (Fares does have a big nose.) The two Americans in the front seat laughed. One, a 57-year-old named Jim Hake, is the founder and chief executive of Spirit of America, a nongovernmental organization with the explicit mission to support US military and diplomatic efforts. (He relentlessly asks “What do you need?” The first time he asked it of Fares, Fares answered with withering dryness, “A new country.”) The driver, Isaac Eagan, 33, is a US Army veteran who works for Hake. Earlier that week, Fares had slipped over the Turkish-Syrian border to meet Hake and Eagan and collect 500 solar-powered and hand-crank radios that Spirit of America, working with the State Department, was giving to his radio station, Radio Fresh. A prototype, about the size of a man’s fist, was sitting in the Kia’s back seat, festooned with a Radio Fresh sticker. Now they needed to find the truck carrying the 500 radios that Eagan had spent the last couple of months procuring from a manufacturer in China.
Fares was planning to put these radios in hair salons, tea shops, hospitals and other places people gather to listen to what little news there is. Since 2012, when the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed opposition group, helped liberate Kafranbel from Assad, the town has been essentially cut off and under constant attack from government forces. Fares reports mostly about surviving day to day. He tells people which streets are closed because of snipers, when to expect airstrikes and how to keep children warm when the windows are blown out. But Fares has another mission too: to tell the world about the horrors of a war he calls “Obama’s Rwanda.” Most Fridays, he films his band of activists holding banners on which he has scrawled caustic and sometimes shocking messages, and he later posts the results on YouTube. Using felt-tip pens, bedsheets and messages of generally less than 140 characters, Fares figured out how to tweet to a world that wasn’t following him.
On the far side of an olive grove, a few hundred feet away, Syria began. At the edge of a field dotted with white tufts of cotton, near a laundry line hung with red peppers drying in the sun, a yellow bulldozer chewed a nine-foot-deep trench into the hillside. The trench was an attempt to secure the notoriously porous 500-mile border between Turkey and Syria, now a spillover zone for Syria’s war, where all manner of fighters coexist uneasily: moderate members of the FSA, ISIS militiamen and other freelance jihadis.
“What do you think of fighters coming from other countries?” asked Hake, who had been poring over news reports about the “jihadi highway.”
“I hate them,” Fares said. “They’re fighting us.”
“What attracts them?” Hake asked. He studied the Kia’s route along a satellite map on his iPhone.
“They’ve watched too many Rambo movies,” Fares said. “They have nothing to do with Islam.”
Hake asked Fares whether he thought Assad or ISIS was worse. That was complicated: Each wanted Fares dead. Although Fares feared the immediate threat of ISIS (the group was still trying to kill him), for him the first enemy of the Syrian people remained Assad. “Whenever we get rid of the regime, it’s going to be easy to get rid of ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Nusra Front,” he said. The jihadis justified their presence by saying to the local people, “We’re here to help you topple the regime.” Once the regime was gone, he said, people would see the foreign fighters for what they were: carpetbaggers.
The Kia hurtled past a line of cypresses that snaked through a dry wadi, a streambed where blue tarps, strung up in the shade, served as shelters for Syrian refugees. A few sheep grazed on the border’s scrubby badland. Hake asked how the jihadis got across the border. Fares, laconic, leaned forward from the back seat to answer him. “Like Mexicans,” he answered. “They find an illegal way.”
Eagan leaned his forearms against the steering wheel. They were inked with tattoos: phrases in Arabic and a Celtic cross. He scanned the roadside for the small white truck parked somewhere near Bab al-Hawa, the border crossing commanded by the Free Syrian Army. Most of the border, including this stretch, was in the hands of the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. “Nusra controls all of this,” Fares said. He pointed to the hillside where Syria began. “Watch out for snipers.” He grinned. Three and a half miles out from the official crossing, dusty trucks lined up to enter Syria. Some drivers squatted by the road; they had been waiting for days. Along the highway’s edge, what looked like white ant hills were actually drifts of cigarette butts.
“The needs are so great, the line of trucks is getting longer,” Fares said. The flatbeds were loaded with cement. “They’ll have to rebuild what’s being destroyed.”
Over the past four years, Fares has met many journalists who have come through Syria, including James Foley, the American freelance journalist captured and beheaded by ISIS. After Foley was murdered, Fares dedicated a banner to him. It read: “James Foley’s will to expose Assad and ISIS pushed him to sacrifice his blood to enlighten Obama’s vague vision. Humanity is proud of James.”
Among the photos in his Facebook archive, three snapshots stand out. They belong to three medical students who were among 21 boys from Kafranbel studying at the University of Aleppo until earlier this year. “The regime arrested all 21 in January because they were from our town,” Fares said. The three in the school photos were tortured to death. On April 23, he told me, their mutilated bodies were sent back to their families with a warning: “If you publish photos of these bodies on Facebook, we will kill the other 18.”
“I always wanted to go to America,” Fares said. “Now I have a two-year visa, and I want to stay in Syria.”
By Eliza Griswold
Dec. 4, 2014
Edited according to Orient Net. Link for the original source of NYT