This is the story of the legendary town of Saraqeb, a lesson in resistance and a monument for the true spirit of the Syrian revolution.
5 February, 2020 – This is an update to a post published in 2014 and updated in 2017.
Regime forces have surrounded the city of Saraqeb, Idlib after weeks of brutal attacks that forced most of its residents to flee.
The legendary little city was once a living monument for the spirit of the revolution. Its people liberated their town from the regime, ISIS, and al Qaeda. They covered its walls with the distinctive graffiti Saraqeb has become famous for, and held local elections and public debates for the first time in the country in more than 50 years.
The story of Saraqeb is the story of Syria: an inspiring example of resistance and public spirit utterly failed by the world.
Saraqeb, we love you.
20 July, 2017 – This is an update to a post published in 2014. It will continue to be updated as events develop in Saraqeb.
This Tuesday, the legendary little town of Saraqeb, famous for kicking out both the Syrian regime and Isis, held democratic elections. That morning, 2,500 of its townspeople went to the polls to choose its next representatives for the local council –and these democratic men and women put into motion a fateful chain of events. The election elicited a violent reaction from yet another group of fighters: Tahrir Al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusra, also known as Al Qaeda in Syria. But Saraqeb wasn’t about to be cowed.
Last week a public debate was held between the local council, giving audience members an opportunity to grill their future representatives. Five days later, with their minds made up, residents of Saraqeb went to the polling centre at a local school and cast their ballots. The winners were decided that very day.
People in the town and Syrians across the world celebrated — few really cared which candidate won. These democratic elections were a triumph of democracy, hard-won by the people of Saraqeb who’d survived chlorine attacks, bombings and battles in order to see this day. In celebration, the town raised the flag of the Syrian revolution high atop Saraqeb’s radio tower.
Al Nusra’s fighters weren’t having it. They took down the huge flag, stepped on it, firing into the air to celebrate this affront to the revolution and democracy. People in Saraqeb say the armed group was angered by any celebration of democracy. Activists suspect that having women vote would probably annoy them the most. Al Qaeda’s tyranny wouldn’t be tolerated however. Saraqeb rallied in a demonstration yesterday, marching and chanting “Nusra out, out. Jolani out, out”. The town that had kicked out the regime and Isis would resist and get this armed group and its leader out too.
Fighters opened fire on the chanting protesters, killing media activist Mosaab Al Ezzo. The father of four, also a gym teacher, had protested many times before. He contributed to freeing his town from both the regime and Isis, and lost his life freeing it from Al Qaeda. As one Syrian activist put it, tiny Saraqeb and its people were carrying the weight of all Syrians on its back.
Abu Mohammad, Mosaab’s friend, said “Mosaab was not just any ordinary person. He helped so many people. He would come to the Local Council to try and get help for people in need. He would be involved in every civic activity, tree planting, elections, cleaning the city, Local Council meetings. Everywhere I go, I swear I see his face smiling.”
But demonstrations in Saraqeb against Al Qaeda continued. This was Saraqeb’s latest graffiti:
The very next day on Thursday, two days after the elections, Saraqeb demonstrated again after burying Mosaab, one of their own. The chants continued: “Out out, you coward out out!” Protesters marched through the town and to the courthouse, occupied by the Al Qaeda group.
And then what happened was extraordinary. Faced with the will of the protesters, the Al Qaeda fighters left. This is what running Al Qaeda out your town looks like:
Saraqeb, we love you.
August 4, 2014
Saraqeb, located in northern Syria, has become a living monument for the spirit of freedom. One of the first towns to join the peaceful protest movement, Saraqeb came out in solidarity when a group of teenagers in Daraa were arrested and tortured for anti-regime graffiti. Despite violent retribution from the Syrian government for their protests, residents of Saraqeb felt they had no choice but to continue with their protest. Demonstrations continued to be a public celebration of freedom and artists covered the city walls with the distinctive graffiti the town has become known for.
Raed, the man behind the idea of turning simple graffiti into decorative art in Syria, said: “We used to stay in groups all night to find the right words for graffiti, so it’d speak up for all of us. It would talk about all the love, grief, fear and resilience that’s inside everyone of us. We also used it to deliver messages to the rebels whenever we saw something wrong. These walls do not belong to those who painted them, these walls belong to the revolution, to those inspired by them, who live or walk beside them, to those who welcomed us to draw on them. This is why these walls are important, because no one is trying to own them.”
Raed’s favourite graffiti is not something he made himself, but a quote from a famous Mahmoud Darwish poem, “Jasmine in the Nights of June”. It speaks of love and defiance. “It’s our love story with this revolution that is still able to keep the smell of jasmine inside of us despite all the death.”
Somer, another activist who specialised in children’s graffiti, is also the creator of “Zaitoun and Zaitouna” magazine for children. She said, “Raed started first. He drew SpongeBob for his daughter, then asked me to do something for the kids. I drew many things, but children’s art became quite popular among kids, who don’t enjoy any kind of entertainment we used to have ourselves. If we want freedom, we want it for our children. We want them to have a better life than ours, and making them feel they’re part of this revolution is how they’re going to find their voice in the future.”
Somer’s favourite is one that Raed made: “You Are My Wings And My Freedom”, which he uses as his Facebook profile picture. “The girl I love was detained when they made this graffiti, and it reminds me of her.”
Every person in Saraqeb has their own story with the walls. Manhal, a journalist and civil activist, has a very personal story with a graffiti piece that reads: “Shadi…We’re Left Alone.” It was painted after his brother’s death. “A rocket fell from the sky and killed him. My brother was an oud player. I always thought he’d die playing music, but he died all by himself. At least I feel his presence whenever I sit by this wall.”
Zeina, an artist who works in Zaitoun and Zaitouna magazine loves “Tomorrow Will Be Better”. It makes her smile whenever she sees it. “Working with kids is a window to the future, and it let’s you know that it will be better. But sometimes we tend to forget that, that’s why it’s great to have it on my town’s wall so whenever I’m depressed I can find something to lift my spirit.”
Rana is a university student who recently had to leave her studies. She loves “Revolution is Female”. This graffiti speaks to her, she said. “Women prefer to work underground, especially with the horrific circumstances we’re going through. But that does not mean we don’t exist, and that does not make us lesser revolutionaries.”
For Abdul-Mo’men, his favourite is a wall that reads “How can I leave the revolution and mind my own future, how can I live without freedom?”. It is a quote from a civil activist who died in Homs after he came back from America to join the revolution. Abdul-Mo’men feels the quote speaks for him. “It’s just what I’m living. I was in my first university year when it all started, I was detained and tortured for my peaceful civil activity, then I had to be with my friends to stand up against tyranny, and I couldn’t continue with my studies.”
Assa’ad, a 12-year-old boy who lives in Saraqeb says,”My favourite is ‘Freedom’, it makes me feel free, and that Syria will get its freedom eventually.”
Ahmed, a 9-year-old boy loves “Be My Friend’ so much that when he goes out, he makes sure to pass by it. He said, “It makes us children happy and feel that we have friends. Saraqeb’s name is written on it as well.”
Ismael, a 12-year-old kid says: “I love the wall with SpongeBob, my friends love it too, and it makes me laugh. We always like to play by this wall.”