From the early days of the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the residents of Kafranbel, a small town in northwestern Syria, have carved out a reputation for plucky – and peaceful — defiance through the witty banners and cartoons they circulate on social media.
The hundreds of banners, also published on Kafranbel's opposition website (which boasts of being "The Little Syrian Town that Could"), are mostly in English in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. They skewer Assad, his ally Russian president Vladimir Putin, and US president Barack Obama amid cultural references that range from Pink Floyd to Steven Spielberg movies.
One cartoon depicts Assad as Gollum from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; another shows him dressed in a pink gown at the helm of a battleship, caught in Putin's embrace in a spoof of the film Titanic. The common theme of the banners, usually photographed held aloft by Kafranbel's residents, is that the world has not done enough to stop the killing in Syria. The signs often call bluntly for military intervention in Syria or for arming the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“These are our messages to the world,” says Raed Fares, a 40-year-old former property agent turned opposition activist who helps co-ordinate Kafranbel’s campaign. “We want to make sure we are not forgotten completely.”
Fares is one of 130 human rights campaigners from 85 countries who attended a three-day event organised by Dublin-based organisation Front Line Defenders at Dublin Castle this week. He told delegates of Kafranbel's initial anti-regime protests in spring 2011, inspired by the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia. Like elsewhere in Syria, Assad's forces responded brutally.
“Kafranbel has been shelled repeatedly and they have used military planes to bomb us and terrorise us,” Fares said. “They have committed atrocities I cannot even begin to describe.”
Kafranbel is now under opposition control – or “liberated” as Fares puts it – and, unlike many other towns in northern Syria, it has stayed largely true to the ideals of peaceful civilian activism and public protests that marked the beginning of the uprising.
More recently, its residents have found themselves resisting jihadist groups that have taken root elsewhere in the region. After one such faction took a local butcher hostage and tried to stop activists showing films in Kafranbel, Fares and others, including figures from the local FSA unit, told them not to come inside the town again. “Since then they have stopped trying to infringe on us, because they know we set too many obstacles for them,” he says. “Their ideas are foreign to us, and that is the reason I believe that once Assad is gone, they will vanish from Syria.”
Kafranbel's most recent triumph was a short video, titled The Syrian Revolution in Three Minutes, that went viral in the weeks after a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs killed hundreds. The film, which features Stone Age characters, depicts the evolution of the Syrian uprising and the meddling or inaction of different foreign powers, particularly in the wake of the gas attack. It ends with the message: "Death is death, regardless of the way it is done."
When the work of Kafranbel's activists makes such an impact, it raises morale in the town, says Fares. "Many are despairing now. Three years is a long time to endure a war. Everyone has lost someone close to them. Life is very difficult. It looks like there is nothing on the horizon," he explains.
“When people see there is a reaction from outside to our banners and videos, it gives them a boost and energy to continue their protests despite everything we have suffered.”