How I escaped from Homs as Syrian forces closed inBy
I joined a motley procession of injured fighters and journalists fleeing the city – on the day 64 people died trying the same thing
The motley procession seemed like something out of the 17th-century Spain described by the writer Francisco de Quevedo. One injured man was in his underwear, with his legs, head and arms bandaged up, using his working hand to grasp his drip. He could barely walk. Then came a limping man, wounded in his foot, who hopped or was carried on a friend’s back. Another young man, his leg shattered by shrapnel, was transported on a blanket held by others.
Ahmed, his arm and leg lacerated by shrapnel from a rocket, leaned on Mohamed, who struggled onwards with a sniper’s bullet in his back. Journalists Paul Conroy and Edith Bouvier, both wounded, were part of the same strange troop, along with two other correspondents, including me.
Even the vehicles we travelled in seemed more ready for the scrapyard than this insane venture. The lorries were peppered with bullet holes and shrapnel. One jolted along on a flat tyre.
Fifty or more of us – many disabled by their wounds – were trying to break out of the besieged neighbourhood of Baba Amr, in Homs, fleeing the final attack unleashed by the Syrian regime. It was to be a risky night-time dash through Syrian army lines, which would prove just how desperate these people, abandoned to their luck, had become.
The journey started at 9pm. Lorries full of those trying to flee navigated the deserted, pitch-dark streets at high speed. We drove without headlights, trying not to alert snipers.
The people of Baba Amr have suffered so monstrously that for some of those who found a seat it seemed almost funny. They giggled at the sight of a journalist protecting their head with a laptop. “Silence! Please!” a militiaman ordered. One man was only too aware of the danger; he prayed continuously.
Only part of the journey could be travelled by vehicle. The rest was to be done on foot. Suddenly the sky lit up. Government troops must have heard the noise and begun to fire off flares.
“Get down! Get down! Snipers!”
The group began to splinter. Most went to hide in ruined buildings. The seriously injured could do no more than throw themselves to the ground. On this occasion, the flares lit up an area away from where we were. But it was a taste of the chaos to come.
“Mummy! Mummy!” Terrified children called out as they walked. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters tried to quieten them. But it was too late. The firing started as suddenly as the flares. Bullets ricocheted around us. A burst of gunfire forced us to hide in the scrub. Then a hail of bullets broke up the group.
We ran across fields. Bullets whistled past. I followed Mohamed and Ahmed, who seemed to have forgotten the shrapnel in his leg. He hopped and trotted at an incredible speed. Later he would joke about it: “How on earth could I run like that, when I can’t even walk?”
The three of us hid in a copse of trees, cowering there for more than hour as shots continued to ring out nearby.
Ahmed is a 23-year-old Palestinian, born in the refugee camp in Hama. He joined the uprising at the start, fighting with the FSA. He boasted of having destroyed 17 armoured vehicles before he was wounded. Now he hoped to get to Lebanon and find a hospital to treat him. Mohamed was his comrade from the same katiba, or unit. He also wanted to get to Lebanon.
“What shall we do? Which direction do we go?” The three of us were lost. After the firefight, the countryside fell back into silence. The absence of noise was almost as startling as the gunfire.
Sometimes life is ruled by logic. I could just recall that this was the route I had used to get into Baba Amr, so they asked me to lead them. Little by little the muddy paths began to seem familiar. We walked in single file, slowed down by fear and the others’ injuries. Mohamed had to prop himself on our shoulders.
Finally we made it to a cluster of houses. The rebellion is widespread in Homs. All Ahmed had to do was knock on a door and immediately a group of youths set about finding us somewhere to hide. Minutes later we were escaping again, four of us on a single motorbike.
The night belongs to the rebels. The motorbike was stopped by an FSA patrol that had blocked the road. They took charge of getting the three of us to a village far from Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
Baba Amr’s destiny has been decided. The rebellion there appears to have been quashed, but it will continue in many other places. South of Homs, in Qusair, the rebels boast that they control half of the town. People there walk in daylight whenever the bombardments die down. You can even buy falafel.
“They have 70 tanks and 5,000 soldiers surrounding the town, but they don’t dare go in,” said a member of the FSA’s Farouk Brigade – which controls the farming region around Homs and had been in charge of Baba Amr.
That did not mean, however, that one entered the town at less than a crazy speed. It was a wise strategy. A car hit earlier was still burning on the road.
There is no method to war. Nothing you have learned helps you predict who will live and who will join the statistics. On the day I escaped Homs, the rebels said some 64 other people had died trying the same thing. They claim they were women and children.
For Assem, a 36-year-old labourer who has joined the rebels, the defeat of Baba Amr – still not certain when we spoke – would not end the uprising.
“Bashar has not got the message. I, for example, loved him when he took over. I thought he would be different to his father,” he said. He pointed to a part of his little finger. “If he had just given us this little bit of freedom, we would have remained quiet. But whenever he slaughters someone from our families he simply increases our desire to kill him.”
from Javier Espinosa