After days in Baba Amr with little food or water, the journalists and activists had no choice except to leave
In the bitterly cold darkness of last Sunday morning, four western reporters and a group of activists protecting them made a decision they had twice tried to avoid – to flee Baba Amr.
Led by local people determined to see their guests to safety, but themselves resigned to staying behind, the group made for a passageway that was to be their only way out of one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods on earth.
The Briton, Paul Conroy, whose wounds were minor, was one of the first to climb into the 5 metre hole in the centre of the ravaged district. He was followed by Javier Espinosa, the veteran Middle East correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, and a number of activists, among them a young Syrian known simply as Abu Hanin.
Last came two French reporters, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, both of whom had been wounded in the shelling that claimed the lives of their colleagues, Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik only metres away four days earlier.
Bouvier’s wounds were by far the most serious. Her femur was shattered and the basic medical care available to her in Baba Amr could not ward off the main risk she faced in being moved – a blood clot. If that happened on the journey, it would probably be fatal.
However, by then it had become clear that staying behind meant certain death. For four days and nights, the group had been huddled in the hallway as Syrian rockets thundered down on buildings around them. They had no food and next to no water. One of the group had taken to eating tobacco leaves.
“The Syrians were firing at them from four different directions,” said one observer familiar with the evacuation. “They were trying to kill them.”
Somehow the regime’s gunners had zeroed in on the group’s location. However, not one rocket tube or tank turret had a direct angle of fire. To achieve that, the regime would have to whittle away the building in front of the refuge – a task it was attempting with vigour. “The building was crumbling by the hour,” the observer said. “They didn’t have a choice but to leave.”
The only passage out was no longer easy. For months the access route had been a lifeline to the neighbourhood. Even as the Syrian military formed a stranglehold around rebel-held parts of the country’s third city, it had still been used for a while as a sole supply line.
But that changed in the second week of February, when loyalist forces got wind, blowing up parts of the access point and stationing troops all around. The reporters and activists suspected Syrian forces would be waiting somewhere along the line. And they were.
Paul Conroy was towards the front of the group when the shooting started. He had been among the most reluctant to flee Baba Amr, partly because it meant leaving behind his slain colleague, the veteran Sunday Times correspondent, Marie Colvin. But also because two evacuation attempts suggested earlier would have meant leaving the badly wounded Bouvier’s fate to Syrian Red Crescent officials.
Attempts to negotiate a ceasefire and a humanitarian corridor had all failed. And at that point, there seemed little reason to trust that Damascus had Bouvier’s interests at heart.
Conroy moved forward, away from the fire. Espinosa was nearer to the firefight – and in trouble. In the frenetic minutes that followed, three of the group’s Syrian escorts are believed to have been hit by gunfire and died. Espinosa is understood to have given aid to some of the wounded before managing to move forward. He and Conroy were met separately down the access point by activists.
Bouvier, Daniels and their escorts, however, had no option but to turn back. By that point, the evacuation was in shambles. Getting separated had been a terrible outcome and half the group being forced to return to the living hell they had fled was even worse.
Conroy was taken to a small town, notionally in the control of the Free Syria Army, which spilt southwards towards lands that the opposition guerillas could more confidently control. Espinosa was soon able to follow a similar route, smuggled from point to point by activists and guerillas, none of whom could talk to each other via mobile phones (the regime had brought down the mobile network), or by radio (because of the risk of interception).
For Bouvier and Daniels, things looked grim. On Tuesday, however, the Homs activists managed to smuggle the pair out of Baba Amr and into another part of Homs. It was a remarkable feat, given how tightly controlled the neighbourhood had become.
From this point – Tuesday afternoon – details of the three separate journeys are sketchy. Conroy made it to Lebanon early on Tuesday morning, where he was met by the Sunday Times photographic editor and staff from the British embassy in Beirut.
News of his rescue led to fears the Syrian military would make extra efforts to hunt down the other three – all of whom had witnessed the final days of the regime’s assault on Homs, which on Thursday led to a long-expected ground invasion.
Espinosa made it to Lebanon on Wednesday. This morning he took to Twitter to pay tribute to the bravery of his hosts, in particular Abu Hanin, who ran Baba Amr’s media centre for at least the last six months, and the citizen journalists there who have chronicled the battle for the heartland of the Syrian uprising with a stream of uploaded videos. “I never saw ‘journalists’ so brave,” he said.
Late on Thursday, after the most fraught of the journeys, the wounded French reporters also made it to the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. French president Nicolas Sarkozy said he had spoken to Bouvier, yet to make her way to Beirut. Heavy snow on the mountain passes may delay the final part of her journey.
Minutes after the last of the group made it to safety, a reminder of what they were forced to leave behind was posted online. Doctors at the Baba Amr medical clinic, who had used valuable fuel to preserve the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik in the hope that they too could be evacuated, recorded a video of a simple burial.
A torch beam shone through the gloom to confirm Colvin’s identity before her shroud was covered with soil. It was the last act of a grim week in Homs that has forever changed the Syrian uprising and how it is reported.
from Martin Chulov