RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
An important voice in Syria has been silenced. His name was Raed Fares, and he was one of Syria's most prominent activists. Fares was killed by unidentified gunmen in Idlib, Syria, on Friday. He founded Radio Fresh, an independent radio station that broadcasts from inside opposition-held areas of Syria.
He used his broadcast to criticize Syrian President Bashar Assad. It made him a target of militants and the Syrian government. He survived several attempts on his life. He was kidnapped by al-Qaida and tortured. Yet Fares became accustomed to these threats, and he told our colleague Steve Inskeep as much in a December, 2015, interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What are some of the ways they've tried to kill you? They meaning various armed groups.
RAED FARES: They tried to shoot me - like, 60 bullets against me. Three were in my chest and my shoulder. It took me, like, three months to recover. I came here, to United States, just to recover. And that was ISIS.
INSKEEP: You were sure that that was ISIS in that case?
FARES: Yeah. But after that, Jabhat al-Nusra tried to bomb my car. And I was in it, but I survived. And December, 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra, they kidnapped me from their checkpoint, and three days in their jail. They hanged me to the ceiling for six hours. But an activist in Istanbul, he came and talked to them and convinced them to release me. And earlier this year, they attacked my Radio Fresh station and attacked the Women's Center, which belongs to us.
INSKEEP: The Women's Center, OK.
FARES: Yeah. And, you know, you have to face all of that while you are fighting against Assad and the terrorism.
INSKEEP: In that incredible sequence, you said that at one point, when imprisoned by Jabhat al-Nusra, you were hanged from the ceiling.
FARES: Yeah, from handcuffs with chain to the ceiling. I imagined all what's happened with me the five years in the revolution in that six hours.
INSKEEP: I want people to know that you just told that story of dangling from the ceiling while smiling.
FARES: Yep. (Laughter). But it's not real laughing. You laugh because what's going on.
MARTIN: That was Syrian activist Raed Fares talking with Steve Inskeep back in 2015. Fares was assassinated in Syria on Friday. NPR international correspondent Ruth Sherlock knew him personally. She joins us now to remember Fares and his legacy. Ruth, I understand you met Raed Fares during the early days of the war in Syria, right? Tell us what struck you about him.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: That's right. Well, he always had this huge smile and enormous enthusiasm, even when faced with real danger. So I was in the northern province of Idlib, and he came to pick me up from a town to take me to his village, Kafranbel. And we had to kind of drive by night because this regime still controlled parts of these areas. We were bumping over fields to avoid main roads.
But then we came to a highway that we did have to cross, and there were government tanks stationed just meters away. Fares just switched off the lights of the car and put his foot flat on the accelerator. And we just sped right by. And so he had this kind of, yeah, incredible dynamism and determination.
MARTIN: And humor - I mean, as I'm just kind of looking through remembrances of him, I mean, as Steve mentioned in his conversation with him, he's relaying these really horrific details of his own imprisonment, and he's got a smile on his face. He's - he was was clearly someone who needed to compartmentalize the pain of what he was talking about and always kind of projected an optimism.
SHERLOCK: Yeah, and I think he used comedy to try to get people's attention. You know, you hear so many dark stories about the reality in Syria, and people can switch off. He tried to kind of punch through that with comedy. Maybe the best example of that is a short video he made that was meant to show the hypocrisy, or what he saw as the hypocrisy, of the West's decision to remove Assad's chemical weapons arsenal after an attack that killed hundreds in Syria but not to intervene against other uses of weapons, like barrel bombs, on civilian populations.
So there's this one video he makes which is set in the Stone Age. And men and children are with bare chests and dressed in brown rags. And they keep coming out of the cave to protest against the Syrian regime. But each time, the regime and its allies kill them using guns or TNT bombs. And all the while, there's these two men with an American and a European Union flag stamped on their chests sitting passively on the side chewing nuts.
And it's only when the attackers use chemical weapons that they stand up and take the barrels away from them. And then they sit back down and let the killing continue. So Fares told me - after, I interviewed him about that video, and he said to me, I set it in the Stone Age because there was no humanity in those days.
MARTIN: His loss is going to be felt in so many ways. What does it mean, sort of practically speaking, on the ground, when you think about this very long war?
SHERLOCK: Well, for many, I think he's become the symbol of what many people wanted the initial revolution, as they called it, against Bashar al-Assad to be, a nonviolent protest against the Syrian regime. I mean, since then, it's morphed into a bloody, bloody war where, you know, hundreds of thousands of people have died. And a lot of the peaceful opposition has been forced to flee the country.
He stayed there at his own personal risk and was a kind of symbol of what that stood for. So many people say that without - you know, with him gone, that kind of glimmer of hope for the original revolution dies, too. Now you have a situation where civilians are caught between bad actors of, you know, the Assad regime, a brutal dictatorship, and extremist groups that have increasingly taken control of rebel-held areas.
MARTIN: What is the situation in Idlib right now?
SHERLOCK: There's renewed bombardment now there. And it was the first attack since a cease-fire was put in place in September. The regime says it's in retaliation to an alleged chemical weapons attack on Aleppo that wounded dozens. That attack hasn't been confirmed, and the rebel opposition hasn't claimed responsibility. But certainly a break in the cease-fire would mean, you know, a terrible situation for millions of refugees that remain trapped in that part of Syria.
MARTIN: NPR international correspondent Ruth Sherlock remembering Syrian activist Raed Fares. Thanks so much, Ruth.
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