Thursday, March 8, 2012

Out Of Syria's Carnage: A Survivor's Testimony Of Bab Amr's Last

By Vivienne Walt

En route to Homs, photographer William Daniels made this photograph of an Free Syria Army fighter manning a checkpoint on the highway near Al-Qsair, Syria, Feb. 21, 2012.
Late on Feb. 21 a message arrived at TIME's Photo department in New York. It was from French photographer William Daniels, saying he had smuggled himself into the epicenter of Syria's yearlong revolt — the besieged neighborhood of Bab Amr, in the city of Homs. Holed up with him were a few local activists, plus French reporter Édith Bouvier, French photographer Rémi Ochlik, Spanish reporter Javier Espinosa, as well as American war correspondent Marie Colvin and British photographer Paul Conroy, both of whom had arrived there the day before. They had all sneaked into the country with the help of Syrian activists who had smuggled them across the border, at immense risk to themselves, believing it was crucial for the West to know about the mounting disaster. The journey included a hair-raising stretch through 2.5 miles of tunnel running under the Syrian Army's firing positions. For a moment, the journalists felt the thrill of adventure, as Daniels himself now admits. They were in the middle of the biggest news story in the world. But the adventure would quickly turn to terror and, for those who made it out alive, those nine days in Syria could well haunt them for the rest of their lives.
At 8:22 a.m. the next morning, Feb. 22, the Syrian Army opened fire on the area where the journalists were staying. "The shelling began very close to us. One boom, then a second. On the third the Syrians with us shouted 'you have to get out!'" says Daniels, 35.
Colvin and Ochlik ran out the door of their two-room hideout to grab their shoes at the entrance so they could flee. In the chaos, Daniels made a different, split-second decision: to stand a foot to the right of the wooden doorway to the room, placing his body against the inside wall, a reflexive action that would save him. Espinosa, meanwhile, jumped to the right of the doorway. The night before, Daniels and Conroy had surveyed their quarters — a makeshift media center deemed convenient since it had internet access — and concluded that the simple wooden door would not withstand a blast. But when the blast occurred, Conroy found himself in the path of the doorway, along with Bouvier.
At that instant, a rocket exploded at the front of the building, killing Colvin and Ochlik instantly. The space was filled with dust. In the chaos, Daniels heard Bouvier scream, "William, William! I can't move!" Her left leg was crooked. He pulled her out by the shoulders. She was bleeding heavily. Carrying his colleague, Daniels staggered to the doorway. As he glanced down, he saw his friend Ochlik, just 28, lifeless on the floor. "Edith," he gasped to Bouvier, "Rémi is not with us anymore."
Bleeding and shaken, the journalists and Syrians in the house hid for 10 minutes in the bathroom, the safest spot in the house, until a car arrived to get them out. Frantic Syrian activists raced them to a makeshift clinic, where the doctor, a defector from President Bashar Assad's military, declared that Bouvier needed an operation on two fractures on the femur. It was a procedure impossible to undertake given the war conditions in the besieged Bab Amr district of Homs. Equally impossible was fleeing through the tunnel by which they'd come, since Bouvier could not walk and transporting her by car was too dangerous for her safety. Conroy, who was also injured in the abdomen, had a large leg wound, but could be carried easily. The doctor injected Bouvier with morphine, and helped the journalists find a new hideout: a room with one small window surrounded by three-story houses, and hidden from the street.
Traction was crucial to avoid blood clots in Bouvier's leg. "We had to keep finding things to weigh her leg down," Daniels says. "We took six bags of saline fluid and tied them to her foot." Two activists with first-aid training were assigned to care for Bouvier and Conroy in two 12-hour shifts, injecting Bouvier with pain killers and finally instructing Daniels about how to administer the injections.
They were trapped — Daniels, Bouvier, Espinosa, and Conroy. Confined to their sunless shelter, they sat listening, day after day, from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., to rockets and shells exploding outside, with a lull only around midday prayers. The closest Internet connection was a hazardous 10-minute walk through Bab Amr. But the journalists recorded a videotape, and handed it to activists to upload on YouTube. Broadcast across the world, it showed Daniels, Conroy and Bouvier appealing to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to evacuate them. They looked curiously upbeat. Bouvier's dark curls framed her broad smile. "We were happy just to have people come see us," Daniels explains. "Edith looked radiant because that is her personality, she smiles a lot and loves to talk to people."
Despite the appearance of calm, with each passing hour, their fate was growing more and more tenuous. The Syrian military was drawing nearer; the explosions growing louder. "There was a drone just in front of us overhead," Daniels says. "It made us crazy, we could hear it above, all the time, all the time. We wanted to kill this little mosquito and we were dreaming of using anti-mosquito spray."
The regime was closing in on Bab Amr, determined to crush what had become a stronghold of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Daniels had determined he would not abandon Bouvier. He says he was consumed instead by the fear that she would lose her leg. "I kept having three thoughts: Save Edith's leg. Get some of Rémi's things home. Get out of there," he says.
There was no easy way to get out of there. And living conditions were growing worse. The Syrian Army had bombed rooftop water tanks, so the taps ran dry after a few days. The only light was from candles and a gas lamp. Locals supplied blankets an oil heater for the bitter cold. Food was running low; one day, all they ate was a bowl of rice. The residents of Bab Amr were heartbreakingly kind, plying the journalists with candies and cigarettes, even hunting down imported Winstons for their guests. When a two-hour truce on Feb. 24 allowed Daniels and Espinosa a chance to retrieve a few possessions from their first bombed-out hideout, Daniels grabbed the energy bars from his dead friend Rémi Ochlik's bag. Then he picked up Ochlik's wallet, computer, passport and bomb-blasted camera, which "looked like a cauliflower," Daniels says. "Javier and I worried maybe it would upset his family too much. But I knew I had to bring things of Rémi's for them and his girlfriend."
It was during that ceasefire that Daniels finally shot photos of Bab Amr's devastation, and was taken to see Colvin and Ochlik's bodies in a makeshift morgue which residents had set up in a nearby apartment. The shrouds were marked in Arabic 'woman' and 'man.' So Daniels wrote their names in block letters, fearing the bodies would be lost in the turmoil. Three days later, hospital workers buried the corpses, having run out of fuel to continue the refrigeration process.
By the time Daniels returned to Bouvier after the brief ceasefire, five ambulances from the government-run Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) were parked outside their hideout. "We aren't here for you, we are here to get wounded Syrians," an ambulance worker told Daniels. "The ICRC is just outside Bab Amr, 500 meters away. You can talk to them."
Daniels borrowed the ambulance's radio set and raised the ICRC representative to Syria, Marianne Gasser. "You have to get us out!" he **SAID into the crackling handset. "Don't worry, we're negotiating to go into Bab Amr, and it should be fine," she told him.
Minutes passed. The Syrian ambulances offered to take Daniels and the others out of Bab Amr, but they would have to meet security forces first — a likely path to arrest. On the radio, Gasser assured Daniels that one ambulance would stay with them while another returned soon with an ICRC representative. Then, suddenly, one of the Syrian paramedics said, "We all have been ordered to leave now."
"You can't leave us!" Daniels pleaded desperately.
"We'll pick you up later. We have to leave now," he said, driving off. Soon after, government forces unleashed several rockets, seeming to aim directly at the journalists' hideout. "Here a rocket, here a rocket, here a rocket," Daniels says, marking crosses on a hand-drawn map as he retells the story. The journalists had been uncovered, and now, they were sitting ducks. Both in the blast which killed Colvin and Ochlik and now, Daniels believes the Syrian Army deliberately targeted them. The blasts continued for hours through the night and well into the morning. "We were really scared," he says, drawing a breath as he relives the terror. Despite the risk of capture or worse, he says, they received word from French authorities to leave as soon as possible. "We decided the very next ambulance that came we had to go with them."
But none came.
By the morning of Sunday Feb. 26, the Syrian Army had reached the edge of Bab Amr, and was poised to smash through the cordon. Time was running out. The four colleagues made a decision: they would escape the way they came, through the 2.5-mile tunnel. They taped Bouvier to a stretcher, and four Syrians took turns carrying her in twos. But the tunnel, a water pipeline, was only 5'4" feet high, so they had to crouch as they walked, dragging the heavy load. They fell further and further behind Conroy and Espinosa, who were ahead of them with several Syrian activists. Several people rode on motorbikes, which the opposition used to transport supplies into the besieged area and to take wounded people out. Suddenly there were explosions: The Army had attacked the tunnel's far end. People fled, screaming.
In the darkness, Daniels found himself alone with Bouvier, breathless and terrified. Finally,a rebel fighter approached, mumbled "no problem, no problem," then placed his Kalashnikov rifle across Bouvier's slender body, and ran. At first, Daniels and Bouvier thought he had left to bring help. But he had fled.
In the desperate darkness, Bouvier pleaded to her friend, "We have to move from here." In his mind, Daniels thought she was simply too heavy. Fighting to remain calm, he tried dragging the stretcher, but couldn't move it. Then he heard the buzz of a motorbike, and saw a dim headlight. He ran towards it, shouting for help. He and the driver cut Bouvier loose from the stretcher and placed her on the motorbike, Daniels behind her. They bumped through the darkness, back into the siege of Bab Amr, toppling over several times and once knocking Bouvier's head hard on the tunnel roof.
Back in their one-room hideout, the activists warned them that the army would launch an offense at dawn. Worse, the conditon of Bouvier's leg was deteriorating. This time the doctor said an operation was essential to save her foot, which had been bound tightly for days by the jerry-rigged traction. He inserted a metal pin through her knee. The two colleagues lay fitfully through the night, listening to explosions close by.
Meanwhile, Conroy managed to make it to the Lebanese border. Espinosa, like Conroy, fled from the tunnel during their escape and made it to Lebanon days later. But perhaps 13 Syrian activists were killed in the attack in the tunnel.
Back in their hideout, Daniels and Bouvier were out of options. At sunrise on Feb. 27, a Syrian activist laid out another escape plan for them: Disguise Bouvier in Islamic dress and try the most hazardous back route out of Bab Amr, one in which survival was far from sure. "He said, 'yesterday my friend was killed on that road.'" Daniels and Bouvier agreed to try nonetheless. Bundled into a car by combatants from the Free Syrian Army, they drove them through treacherous terrain held by government forces. "I cannot give the details but it was very, very dangerous," Daniels says. "We were very, very scared."
When they finally stopped at a safe house, they were overwhelmed by the smell of food cooking on the stove. They bathed and were given fresh clothes, Everyone wanted their photo taken with Bouvier, who'd gained fame in Syria because of the YouTube video. "She was like the icon of the revolution," Daniels laughs. It was the first good moment in five days." After two days, their FSA escorts told them it was safe to continue, and they slept the following night in a second safe house, before finally crossing into Lebanon along a smuggling track late on Thursday, having waited their final hours in Syria for a snowstorm to end. It had taken them four days to traverse just 25 miles. They were then driven by ambulance to a French hospital in Beirut. On the way, they turned on their mobile phones and sent ecstatic messages to friends. "It was over!" Daniels says, dropping his head in his hands and weeping as if the totality of the experience was only now sinking in.
The following evening — nine days after the blast killed Colvin and Ochlik — Daniels and Bouvier touched down at Paris's military airfield of Villacoublay, in a French government Falcon jet. Speaking to reporters on the tarmac, President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Bouvier, and "the knightly spirit of her companion William Daniels, who at no point abandoned his colleague, even though he was not injured and could have escaped."
Minutes later, Daniels bounded out of the plane, grinning and pumping his fist in the air, in a green bomber jacket and black ski cap, followed by Bouvier on a stretcher, this time carried by French paramedics. Daniels had not heard Sarkozy's words — he learned of them from text messages from friends. He was already thinking about how to deliver Ochlik's battered camera and to his girlfriend. In another coda, Red Crescent officials recovered the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik from Baba Amr and repatriated them to the U.S. and France for burial.
But Daniels remains troubled. Until Bab Amr, the most dangerous assignment he'd live through was the Libyan revolution last year. There, a mortar exploded 100 feet from where he was walking with his friend and colleague, Rémi Ochlik. Trapped for days in Bab Amr after Ochlik's death, Daniels says he vowed to himself that this would be his last war. "I was sitting there, with Rémi dead, Marie Dead, and Paul and Edith wounded," he says. "I felt, if I get out of here, I am done with this." And then, after a pause, he admits he might change his mind.
Above all, Daniels remains most troubled that the ghastly suffering they witnessed might be getting lost amid the story of six western journalists. He says he feels deeply uncomfortable that their ordeal has gripped world attention while hundreds of Homs residents had been killed in the four-week siege. The people they'd left behind could well have been slaughtered by the advancing Syrian Army. Each person Daniels met in Bab Amr had lost loved ones — their unremembered names joining the close to 8,000 people who have died so far in the conflict in Syria. And while the people of Bab Amr treated the journalists with extraordinary care, Daniels and Espinosa had seen 150 locals huddling in a single basement, with minimal food and water, struggling to survive the siege. "The real story is not us, it's the Syrian people," Daniels says. "You must write that. What we experienced was 10% of what these people experienced in Bab Amr." They might never know what retribution those who cared for them in Bab Amr or helped them out of Syria, might suffer. As for the Syrian activists who died in the chaotic process of rescuing the western journalists, no one is likely to know their names for a long time. The very revelation of their identities is likely to put their loved ones who remain in Syria at risk.
-This report was published in Time Magazine’s blog on 08/03/2012

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