The Sound of Revolution

By Daniel C. Britt Photography by Daniel C. Britt

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If he draws a blank for the 8:30 A.M. music block, Osama al-Salloum plays Fairuz. If he could play only one voice on Radio Fresh FM all day, it would be Fairuz. To Salloum, the singer’s songs tie all Syrians together, especially now, as war tears their country apart. Fairuz—regal, softly lit, draped in a shimmering gown—is a 78-year-old musical power who transcends everything. Not secular or sectarian. Not rebel or regime. Not Sunni or Alawite. Her songs lull Salloum into a state of peace, something he wants for all Syrians, and he loves to picture that feeling flowing up from his tiny underground radio station, through the FM radio waves and mingling with strangers passing on the sidewalk.

“Fairuz strips us of anger,” Salloum says. “She will bring you down, and you will be free.”

A desire for freedom—particularly freedom of speech—and connection to the world beyond Syria motivated the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011 and inspired Salloum to launch Fresh FM two years later. The radio station is Salloum’s nonprofit, peacenik attempt to help topple embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Peacenik because Salloum, a 29-year-old petroleum engineer, refuses to pick up a weapon. There is no way, he reasons, that the social changes he demonstrated for under gunfire in 2011 will come about through violence. (One night, someone handed Salloum a pistol. “I felt power in my hand,” he says. “I could kill a man and no one would ask why. A man should not have this power.”)

And because one night, when the revolution was budding, he heard Fairuz and had a vision of a free Syria, a vision that he holds on to nearly three years later, a vision that connects Salloum to the armed rebels in the northern provinces. His school chums and soccer buddies, some now missing limbs but still alive, singing to themselves through the long nights, shooting, shivering and shooting in turns. Music in their brains, just like his. It had been this way since the beginning, when everyone gathered with protest signs in the village square in Kafranbel, Salloum’s hometown. They sang revolution songs together. When regime soldiers opened fire, they sang louder.

But Salloum is not a fighter. “I am a coward,” he says unblinkingly when asked to explain the difference between his attitude and the warrior-martyr mentality of his village brothers on the front line. The ones with faces masked by black kaffiyehs, with commanders who ask, “Are you ready to die?”

“Allah-hu Akbar,” they respond—“God is great.” They mean God is greater than they are, than bullets, than death, than this world that is only a trial before paradise. Salloum shakes his head. “I would rather die myself than kill,” he says. No, he is bound to them only by music. He lives in a mental space beyond Arab pride and checkpoints and firefights, where speech is already free, someplace far, far away.

For now, Salloum is living in exile. It is December, and he is sitting cross-legged on a purple mat in Reyhanli, a ramshackle border town in Turkey’s southernmost limits. He fidgets in his bulky winter coat; in his left hand is a cigarette smoked well into the filter. Piles of shoes, stacked suitcases, folding chairs and a mound of sweaty blankets surround him, all of it the accumulated evidence of aid workers, journalists and fighters who rested for a day or two on the scuffed marble floor before jumping the border back to Syria and civil war. Behind a swirl of cigarette smoke, consternation creases Salloum’s face.

He doesn’t feel like being photographed.

It took 30 months of air strikes and weeks of wrestling with the shame of leaving to push him to this safe house in Reyhanli. Salloum needed a place outside the kill zone, and this building in Turkey, just a few kilometers from the Syrian border, is close enough that he can drop by his bombed-out home and his beloved radio station in Kafranbel.

The camera ready, I ask him to relax his face. He refuses.

“I want it to be true,” Salloum says. Click. He sinks within himself, deliberating over the possibility of truth in all this confusion. He’s gone. It takes an hour, a pack of Gauloises Blondes, a hot meal and tea before he speaks again.

But I know the song on repeat in Salloum’s mind: “My Little House in Canada,” sung by Fairuz. His favorite.

The war in Syria was changing. Salloum could hear it all around him. War hymns saturated the music. No one sang the revolution songs anymore. No one sang Fairuz. He knew that. What Salloum couldn’t know was that back in Syria, soldiers were about to kick down the door of the radio station, and his days of broadcasting Fairuz—and peace—into the Syrian airwaves were numbered.

SONGS OF FREEDOM

It is two months earlier, and a bomb tumbles lazily across the October sky toward me. I am standing in hilly Kafranbel, Syria, roughly three hours from the Turkish border, when soldiers push the barrel bomb—an oil drum packed with TNT and scrap metal—from the belly of a government helicopter. Children scream as the bomb’s impact shakes buildings; an ominous claw of smoke rises up over the village.

But it is a blessed day: The bomb misses the elementary school packed with refugees I’ve come to photograph. Salloum arrives shortly after the explosion to mingle with activists and protest artists and to swab a tin of hot lamb fat with hard bread. Rattled, he chews nervously.

“This is what we live with. I must get out,” he says, more to himself than anyone else.

Government soldiers have killed his uncle, and Salloum’s family home has been bombed twice. He refuses to return to it, even after the gaping holes have been repaired. Last he heard, another displaced Syrian family was occupying it.

What is important is Fresh FM, and he is eager to introduce himself—and the station—to me. “I am Osama,” he says. “I work at the radio station. You are a journalist? Would you like to see it? I will take you there.”

The next day a group of boys stand among the rubble in the streets with their necks craned upward. Salloum sees them and listens. “It is a plane. It might kill us,” he says. A sweeping shopkeeper freezes with his broom. Kids yell to each other, “Tyara jayah” (“An airplane is coming”). Girls playing nearby start to cry.

The structure that houses Fresh FM stands out on a debris-cluttered block thanks to a brick facade dotted with squares of red, pink, yellow and blue. It feels more San Francisco than Syria. The building houses the Kafranbel media center and Karama Bus, a nonprofit that provides social activities for village children; Fresh FM is crammed into the rear of the basement. Salloum guides us past a coughing generator and a tangle of motorcycles to a metal door leading down a narrow, shoulder-width plywood hallway that branches off into claustrophobic, wire-veined rooms where staffers smoke, work and boil tea. The vibe is military efficiency meets activist squat. (Yes, that smell is definitely black mold.) A golden bust of President Bashar al-Assad, complete with black eyes, lipstick, a missing tooth and a Frankenstein forehead scar, looks down from the newsroom wall.

“Have you met our president?” a staffer asks, smacking the statue gently on the cheek. “Say hi, Bashar.”

This is home, even if relentless bombing has turned the buildings on either side into broken concrete accordions. Under Salloum’s supervision the Kafranbel office has evolved from a drafty concrete-and-plywood dungeon into something of a geeky casbah. There is a small fireplace, a kitchen with a candy counter, free cigarettes and tea. Rich red, embroidered curtains insulate the rooms. Staffers seated on tasseled cushions handle Twitter, Facebook and broadcast algorithms from their laptops. Weekly trivia-contest winners come in to claim prizes and be interviewed on the air.

Out on the street, café workers in the village square try their English on foreigners while listening to Follow Me, an on-air language lesson. Down the hill, a boy tunes the radio at his family’s tire shop.

“Are they allowed to say that?” the boy asks during a Fresh FM news report from the front line in Maarat al-Numan, a nearby city. His father hushes him and shrugs. “Listen. How many dead?”

Rebels learned the word hero from the Enrique Iglesias song of the same name. Fresh FM staffers regard Iglesias as the most influential Western artist to date and play him relentlessly. Salloum prefers Whitney Houston—“I Will Always Love You” is his favorite song in English—but lets it slide. “Tee Rush Rush” by Nasser Deeb also dominates the station’s music blocks.

From this bunker Salloum works on various large-scale nonprofit projects, all of which fit into his philosophy of nonviolent resistance: constructing a media conference center in Kafranbel that will house foreign reporters in exchange for public conversations with villagers; managing a logistics office and a rehabilitation program for wounded Syrians in Reyhanli. But he truly loves only the radio station. Fresh FM is his jewel.

Salloum has been sleeping at the station to insulate himself from the sound of government planes and bombs. Years of shelling have worn at his nerves. The sound of an airplane sometimes plunges him into a panic attack. Once, when air strikes shook the walls of his basement shelter in the station’s back room, Salloum went into convulsions. His radio colleagues rushed him to a hospital for a tranquilizer.

“This is how we live,” Salloum says. “The situation tests how much we believe in what we are doing.”

No one doubts Salloum’s belief. From his laptop on a mat on the concrete floor, he operates a mobile communications desk. Resources from dozens of European and American humanitarian organizations—money, medicine and ideas—are rerouted based on Salloum’s assessment of the situation on the ground. It is his job because he can give those assessments in English and Arabic. He is trusted for his intelligence, humility and ability to break a project into manageable tasks. Salloum is like many of the young nonprofit workers from such places as Colorado and northern California. Fashionably unkempt, unusually blunt (he once introduced himself to an American nonprofit worker by asking, “Why are you so fat?”), an introverted virgin married to the undulating international conversation of tweets and blog posts that he sees swelling like an ocean wave. That’s the idea, anyway, and Salloum, the man behind the most listened-for voice on the radio waves in Idlib province, is an idea man.

It was Salloum and fellow Kafranbel activist Raed Fares who spent three months in Gaziantep, Turkey in the spring of 2013 learning radio-broadcast techniques in workshops funded by a nonprofit organization. Afterward, the pair used $5,000 and an outdated laptop to produce a signal just strong enough to reach the FM dial on radios in local cars, shops and back rooms, where listeners anxiously awaited the day’s war tally. (Today, Fresh FM’s director of programming estimates the audience has grown to around 90,000 listeners spread among the station in Kafranbel and satellites in Saraqeb—another village in Idlib—and Gaziantep.)

To keep Fresh FM on-air from eight A.M. to one A.M., Salloum and Fares recruited Ahmed al-Bayoosh, a soft-spoken Kafranbel social-media guru. Bayoosh fills his days combing the web as their in-house statistician, analyzing battle results and counting war dead and missing people. Stone-faced, six-foot-three Abdullah “the Truck” al-Hamaadi came aboard as the de facto bouncer. They hired Hamood Juneid as a news reporter for his fearlessness—and for his black motorcycle, which carries him to stories both on- and off-road. Juneid knows everyone and greets all soldiers on the front lines, regardless of their rank or affiliation, the same way: “Kifak ya ars?” (“What’s up, pimp?”)

As Fresh FM grew, the staffers ate together, fed the chickens in the backyard together and smoked endless packs of cigarettes together. Fares grew into his role at the organization and even built a following in the United States after the Boston Marathon bombing. In a photo he posted online, Kafranbel residents hold a banner: BOSTON BOMBINGS REPRESENT A SORROWFUL SCENE OF WHAT HAPPENS EVERY DAY IN SYRIA. DO ACCEPT OUR CONDOLENCES. The culture-bridging message went viral, and Fares was quoted everywhere from The New York Times to BuzzFeed to NPR.

If Fares was the backbone of Fresh FM, Salloum was the beating heart. Last summer, for the station’s first broadcast, it was Salloum behind the microphone. For the first time in more than 40 years there would be a voice on the Syrian airwaves that sounded Idlibian. And that voice could say anything. His trembled.

“This was the first time anyone in Kafranbel heard a voice on the radio in their accent,” recalls Salloum, “the first time there was a voice from outside Damascus.”

Salloum knew what happened to people who spoke out of turn. They were kidnapped by the regime and tortured, or shot in the night, as his uncle had been. The regime doesn’t take criticism; it takes people away, Salloum thought. He leaned in toward the microphone.

“Hello, I am Osama. I hope someone is listening.”

Then he played Fairuz.

SONGS OF WAR

The fall olive harvest yielded less than in the two previous years of fighting, explain the tattered growers by the highway in Idlib. Those who worked the harvest last year are dead or haunted by the dead and dressed as though for mourning. Long, open stretches of soil set aside for vegetables are left half tilled in Hama. On the outskirts of the village of Kafra, a line of rebels pray in one such field before they attack an outpost manned by soldiers of the Assad regime. There is no cover from return fire because the trees have been razed for firewood. Commanders announce that the wounded will be left where they lie. Fighters ask God to guide bullets into their heads or not at all.

“It’s like going to work. We shoot at them. They shoot back. We have lunch. Sometimes they send a tank. We have tea,” says Abdul, 34, a sniper perched in a crumbling villa in Maarat al-Numan. Abdul used to be a carpenter.

He and five other men run from apartment to apartment in what were once luxury complexes, through man-size holes smashed in the walls, taking shots at regime soldiers and running for cover. The best cover is to shoot through two rooms at a target. The rebels move with the sun, searching for unbroken shafts of light that cut though the collapsed concrete.

Hameed, a heavy machine gunner, has a saying: “Walla len kayiff” (“Tomorrow will be better”). When the heavy winter sky mutes the sun or when the fire dies before everyone is warm: Walla len kayiff.

The television in a sandwich shop plays Orient News, clips of gunfire and government-enforced starvation in Damascus, Hama and refugee camps. The sound of the TV overlaps rifle bursts from outside, somewhere in the night. Rebel fighters chewing on dry shawarma sandwiches don’t even blink. It has been a blessed day. The daily air strike that put a hole in the city center wounded only three. Two of the men were rushed to the hospital—one with a lacerated neck, the other with shrapnel wounds; he lost most of his large intestine in surgery. The third cursed God aloud moments after the bomb hit and was beaten unconscious by witnesses for apostasy.

“They shouldn’t have done that,” says Ahmad Saoud, a commander of one of the largest brigades of the Free Syrian Army in the city. “It’s getting cold. The people need their God close.”

According to UN reports, since the conflict began, more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, many of them members of the Free Syrian Army, a disconnected collection of brigades fighting for a freer, more democratic Syria. Until recently, the generally ragtag group was plagued by petty bickering over weapons and funding, often resorting to extortion. They were outgunned from the start by Assad’s government, which has used chemical weapons, planes, helicopters, tanks and even starvation to terrorize civilians.

Then, in January 2012, the Al Qaeda–funded group Jabhat al-Nusra entered Syria with hundreds of foreign jihadist fighters hardened by guerrilla battle in Chechnya, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The group’s militant Islamic ethics set it apart from moderate Syrians, but its savage efficacy earned respect. In the past two years, al-Nusra has been credited with several rebel victories, including the seizure of a massive government weapons-storage facility reported to be the second largest in the country. While the group’s abilities were not questioned, its motives were.

“Al-Nusra fighters are here for jihad. They’re not revolutionaries. They’re not fighting for Syrian rights, but they can definitely fight,” says Layth al-Midani, a Syrian American nonprofit worker who routinely deals with rebel groups to facilitate aid distribution.

The arrival of Jabhat al-Nusra caused a shift in the war. The revolutionary ideas behind the uprising took a backseat to the centuries-old conflict between Syria’s Sunnis and the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs. By last fall, the democratic revolution had morphed into a Sunni fight to eliminate Alawites and Assad’s Shia backers in Iran, the kafir—the infidels. The struggle was no longer a fight for free speech, but what were outgunned, war-weary Syrians to do?

What they did was sign on. The melancholy al-Nusra war song replaced the old revolution songs as one of the most popular tunes in northern Syria. People sang it while they worked: “Greetings to Jabhat al-Nusra-ah-ah/Over apostates we will tri-uh-uh-uh-umph.”

Midani hums the song while sorting bags full of donated clothing for refugees in Hama. The dry air carries the sound toward two boys wobbling down the road with a tub of dirty water in the refugee camp near the village of Atmah. A kilometer from an illegal path across the Turkey-Syria border, a man selling sodas, belts and socks sings it loudly, hitting every note. SONG OF THE CARROTS

When a new homegrown war single pops up on YouTube, Ahmed, a long-haired 25-year-old misanthrope, hears it at his small marble ranch house in Reyhanli, a lifetime away from the violence that surrounds his Syrian home in Aleppo, where his brother led a brigade of rebel fighters. Ahmed and the rest of the family have moved to Turkey for safety. Besides, Ahmed thinks the war is stupid. Wearing one of his three Pink Floyd T-shirts, he shuffles cards and repeats his mantra, “War sucks, man. No chicks,” between drags on a cigarette.

The nonprofit workers he plays cards and smokes hash with claim Ahmed spent a few weeks fighting after the war began but soon quit. He played guitar a little and wrote songs until he quit that too.

Ahmed has visited Aleppo a few times since—not to fight but out of sheer boredom. The first time he went back, regime soldiers who controlled the city captured and beat him, telling him that if they saw his face again he would disappear forever. They handcuffed him and threw him against the wall, demanding he hold still for a mug shot.

“Can I have six little ones and one big one for my living room?” Ahmed asked. The soldiers beat him again.

Ahmed knows where to find whores and hash but still complains that refugee life lacks luster. There’s nothing to do in Reyhanli. (With the influx of refugees and foreign fighters traveling to and from Syria, Reyhanli has tripled in size since 2011.) He hates Turkish food. Honking motorcades clog the streets whenever there’s a wedding, and some weeks there are two or three a day. Partiers lean out of passenger windows to fire AK-47 rounds into the air.

“They’re taking our money and getting married,” Ahmed says. “Fucking losers.”

He spends most days getting high and playing cards while execution videos play in the next room. He waits for bad news about friends to trickle in from beyond the border. Mostly he listens to music.

One song in particular has been in his head since last May. He sings it as he shuffles a deck. The song is from a YouTube video of Free Syrian Army brigade commander Hassan al-Jazar, whose last name means “the carrot.” Jazar led one of the most secular FSA brigades in the city—Shuhada Badr, or Martyrs of the Full Moon. Known as the stoner brigade, Shuhada Badr became hometown-famous for a shaky YouTube video showing a dozen or so fighters puffing and passing a joint while singing in Arabic, “We are the Carrots, we are the Carrots/Hassan al-Jazar raised us.”

Jazar was a notably corrupt leader who robbed, accepted bribes and was rumored to be behind several daylight kidnappings. But the Carrots were the real face of the Syrian conflict. Some of the small assembly of 400 Carrots were at the top of their medical-school class; there were also college dropouts, clerks, actors, rock musicians. They were young men who trolled for foreign women online and liked smoking hash, according to Omar, 23, an Aleppo fighter who had friends in Jazar’s brigade. “They were the true Syrians,” he says, chain-smoking on a carpet in Reyhanli.

That was before fighters from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) arrived. An outgrowth of Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS brought military precision and militant Islamic beliefs to the battle. At first welcomed by revolutionaries as skilled reinforcements, ISIS spread “like a virus,” says Juma al-Qassim, a media representative for the Free Syrian Army.

ISIS quickly cordoned off a large swath of northern Syria, turning it into a caliphate complete with sharia courts that regularly handed down death sentences. ISIS forces set up a system of tightly controlled highway checkpoints stemming from Aleppo to nearly all the major liberated cities and their outlying villages. These checkpoints turned entire communities into jihadist islands presided over by ISIS emirs—judges who were either indoctrinated native Syrians or appointed by cronies.

The presence of ISIS quickly wore on native Syrians. ISIS gunmen routinely attacked shopkeepers, forcing them to hand over cartons of cigarettes to be burned in the street because the ISIS brand of Islam deems smoking haram—forbidden—and a distraction from religious practices. For the residents of Idlib, where nonsmokers are practically as rare as unicorns, it was a cultural slap in the face.

All this weighs on Ahmed. “I have to do something. I’m sick of running, man. Maybe I’ll fight for a while, then I don’t know,” he says.

Last November ISIS executed Jazar, the Carrots’ commander, after nearly a month in captivity in Aleppo. His and the corpses of several of his closest men were tossed into a landfill on the outskirts of town. Ahmed has watched Jazar’s execution from two angles on YouTube. Jazar kneels, second from the right in a line of prisoners, surrounded by black-masked onlookers. The executioner reads a list of offenses before shooting him in the back of the head.

“He kept calling Jazar ‘brother,’ over and over,” Ahmed says.

Some of the Carrots who didn’t die with Jazar were hunted down. Most are in hiding or have taken up with other brigades. The Carrots’ anthem disappeared, replaced by songs no longer the product of silly, hopeful young men sounding out freedom over a toke. That part of the war is over.

Now Ahmed watches a YouTube version of the ISIS anthem “Where Are Our Days?”—a solemn dirge that ominously marches along: “Alawites be patient/We are coming to slaughter you.” In the video, a young boy sits on a soldier’s shoulders and sings while gesturing with a knife as though cutting the throat of an infidel.

“No one sings revolution songs anymore,” Omar says. “Now we sing for jihad.”

SONGS OF JIHAD

When I meet him, Yousef and six other FSA soldiers are cramming into a tiny sedan, en route to Gaziantep’s strobe-lit casinos to buy prostitutes. But you’d never know it. The men look like pious sectarians, wearing beards over traditional Islamic garb. They are native Syrians, yet they worry that questioning at an ISIS checkpoint could lead to detainment, a sharia trial and execution. Before driving away, the men explain the best way to pass unhindered: traditional clothing, an AK-47 on the shoulder and the shahada—“There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger”—on the lips.

“Every day there are Syrians executed in Aleppo. Foreigners executing us,” says Yousef, shaking his head.

Checkpoint-speckled arteries separate the “state of Aleppo,” as the ISIS-controlled territory is referred to, from the rest of Syria. The black flag of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, which ISIS adopted as its symbol, flies against the gray sky. “They control who comes in, who goes out, everything. It’s their land,” says Mohammed, a refugee, over coffee at the Hotel Alice café in Reyhanli.

The Koran prophesies that the union of Syria with Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon preempts a bloody war between Muslims and nonbelievers. “They believe it is written; that’s why they come,” says Mohammed.

After ISIS occupied his village, Mohammed stopped shaving and in public began to use a miswak—a small twig for cleaning teeth—which, according to Islamic stories, the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon his soul) recommends.

Mohammed also keeps two jihadist songs on his cell phone: “They Made a Promise,” which features the chorus “The Assad fighters made a promise/Then we came and killed them all”; and “Time to Be Mujahideen,” with the chorus “We wished for years for the time we could be mujahideen/Hooray for militant Islamic actions in Palestine, the Philippines, Chechnya and America.” He plays them in the car to help ease his way through ISIS checkpoints.

“You have to look like them, act like them,” he says.

Mohammed and Yousef have never met, but they have much in common. Both men were raised in small Syrian villages in the north. Both still have family in those villages who now struggle to find food. During the protests that sparked the revolution, both remember singing “Jaana, Jaana, Jaana,” a slow, hypnotic revolution song. Jaana means “paradise,” and the chorus soars, “Paradise, paradise, paradise, our country is paradise.” Both men have forgotten the rest of the lyrics. THE LAST SONG

Some nights, when the war came close, members of the Fresh FM family slept at the radio station, pressed along the concrete wall next to Salloum.

The war was getting close to my guide and me as well. On December 4, Yasser Faisal al-Jumaili, an Iraqi freelance journalist from Fallujah, was shot dead at an ISIS checkpoint in Idlib less than 60 kilometers from the Turkish border. FSA fighters who broke the news to us speculated that it was related to his Western dress. They also indicated that we could be next.

My editor advised me to get out and wired money for a plane ticket. I just had to make it safely out of Syria and into Turkey. So days later, we passed through an ISIS checkpoint, stowed in the back of a gutted ambulance. The air dipped below freezing as we waited for hours at the border crossing into Turkey. Next to us, two Syrian women cradled sick infants. Tiny bare blue feet stuck out of each woman’s colorful bundle. They sang soft lullabies, though their cracked lips were strained by the cold. Our ride out of Syria showed up that night. Theirs did not.

On December 28 the war caught up with Fresh FM while Salloum was in Turkey. Shortly before midnight, 25 armed militants in ski masks stormed the building and forced their way into the radio station. They held six people at gunpoint, including Juneid, Hamaadi and Bayoosh, and demanded that radio staffers hand over any foreign journalists staying in the compound. By this time, there were none. Angered, the militants shouted sectarian insults at their six bound hostages: unholy, infidel, enemy of God, kafir.

“When they called them kafir, we knew they were ISIS,” Salloum says.

The intruders ransacked Fresh FM, taking everything from computers, generators and broadcast equipment to coffee, tea and candy. They emptied staffers’ pockets, scrounging for lighters. Then they loaded the hostages into trucks and drove them out of Kafranbel to what many assumed would be their death.

I hope someone is listening.

The Syrian people answered Salloum. After news of the raid spread, demonstrations exploded on Kafranbel’s streets. Protest signs blasted ISIS, as well as the Assad government. Local Syrians were now united behind two goals: to oust Bashar al-Assad and to oust the sectarian agenda of Al Qaeda.

On January 3 native rebel groups across Syria unleashed an organized offensive against ISIS, eventually seizing its headquarters in Aleppo. Many cited the raid on Fresh FM as a reason for the attack.

These days, the roads in Idlib are relatively free of checkpoints. It’s a calm drive for Salloum from Reyhanli, past the Byzantine ruins, up above the valley walls to Kafranbel, even though he knows the war isn’t over. Planes still roar overhead, and peril still lurks around every corner—especially for those who have introduced themselves on the radio. In late January unknown assailants gunned down Fresh FM co-founder Fares near his home. Of the approximately 60 AK-47 rounds fired at him, one landed in Fares’s abdomen, another in his shoulder. Neighbors heard the gunfire and carried Fares to the hospital.

In February Salloum tells me over Skype that though Fares has not fully recovered, he will make it. So will the radio station. Fairuz, Enrique Iglesias and Nasser Deeb are back on the air, filling the space between news reports. Salloum is back in Kafranbel, meeting with his radio family, tweaking broadcast copy and chain-smoking.

He runs one hand through his graying hair and sighs. “You have to be patient to work in a place that will explode.”


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