By Vivienne Walt ~ SYRIA
In a war zone, some buildings are obvious targets–command centers, weapons depots, enemy hideouts– and some are not, like schools, hospitals, media centers. But in the battle for Syria, where rules of war do not apply and where civilians are facing a savage massacre, the house that served as a makeshift press center in the rebel district of Bab Amr is ground zero.
Destroying that target would go a long way toward allowing the regime of Bashar Assad to flatten the entire enclave without the whole world watching.
And so, at 8:22 in the morning on Feb. 22, the rockets fell, three of them hitting near the house with a fourth on the way. “You have to get out!” someone yelled, and two journalists ran toward the front door to grab their shoes, which had been left there in accordance with local tradition. Another, French photographer William Daniels, who was on assignment for TIME, threw himself against a wall, bracing for the impact of the approaching rocket. It exploded directly outside the building, rattling the walls, filling the room with dust and debris but leaving him unharmed.
His friends were not as lucky. “William, William! I can’t move,” came a cry from the rubble. It was Edith Bouvier, 31, a reporter for the French daily Le Figaro and one of the five foreign journalists who, along with Daniels, 35, had sneaked across the border from Lebanon into Syria over the previous two days. Bouvier was bleeding heavily, her left femur badly broken. He pulled her out, then headed toward the door to find help.
That was when the Frenchman saw his friends. The front of the house and its doorway had taken the full force of the explosion. Freelance photographer Rmi Ochlik, 28, lay at the entrance. Daniels tapped him gently on the head three times: “Rmi. Rmi. Rmi?” Nothing.
“Edith,” Daniels gasped, “Rmi is not with us anymore.”
On the ground near Ochlik was Marie Colvin, 56, an American correspondent for the Sunday Times of Britain, who had worn a black eye patch ever since she lost an eye in the civil war in Sri Lanka. She was legendary for being the first reporter into any war zone–and the last one out. This would be her final battle. The explosion had killed them both instantly.
Elsewhere in the house, Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy was badly injured in the abdomen and leg. A Spanish reporter, Javier Espinosa, 47, was unscathed. The survivors, bleeding and shaken, huddled for 10 minutes with their Syrian hosts, in the most solid spot in the house: the bathroom. Then a car sped to the entrance to take them away.
The anti-Assad activists raced the foreigners to a makeshift clinic in the neighborhood. Bouvier needed an operation for two fractures in her femur, the doctor said, a procedure that could not be performed in Bab Amr. He gave her morphine to dull the pain, and eventually the nurses–activists with some first-aid training–taught Daniels how to administer injections. Meanwhile, the Syrian army was moving closer to Bab Amr, a tiny district in the city of Homs. “I kept having three thoughts,” Daniels recalls. “Save Edith’s leg. Get some of Rmi’s things home. Get out of there.”
A year ago, on March 6, a group of teenagers in the Syrian town of Dara’a scribbled graffiti on a wall: THE PEOPLE WANT THE REGIME TO FALL–a verbatim echo of the chant that had recently shaken Tunisia and Egypt and led to the demise of ingrown tyrannies. The boys were thrown into jail, an overreaction on the part of the Assad regime that only ensured that the Arab Spring would blow into Syria. Incensed local residents began staging huge and brave protests against the dynasty that has ruled the country since 1970. Demonstrations spread to other cities and were met with vicious reprisals: arrests, torture and killing. The crackdown encouraged a series of military mutinies and defections. Civil disobedience turned into armed struggle. Cities were besieged; the country slipped into war. The U.N. estimates that 7,500 people have been killed so far.
Syria has a particular tradition of keeping massacres private. In 1982 the city of Hama staged an uprising against the government, then ruled by the father of the current President. It was ruthlessly put down with hardly anyone to bear witness to what took place. The consensus is that at least 10,000 died, though some estimates are twice that. It has been hard to know the truth on the ground in Syria even in good times; in bad times it is impossible–and dangerous. Residents of Hama told a TIME reporter on a clandestine visit in August that they know where the bodies are buried but do not dare pray over the grave sites because the regime continues to watch and to punish. To Damascus, mourning–even generations after–is dissent.
But the Arab Spring proved that sunlight can be a revolutionary weapon; government brutality, when filmed and tweeted and posted on Facebook, shames the world into paying attention. Geopolitics also puts Syria in the spotlight: the country sits at the strategic nexus in the fight between the Shi’ite theocracy in Iran and the region’s Sunni powers, led by Saudi Arabia. The 21 other members of the Arab League have called on Assad to step down and pressed China and Russia to cut their ties with his regime. Syrian dissidents smuggled Daniels and his colleagues into Homs to make sure the story stayed in the headlines and to try to save the city from Hama’s fate. “These journalists are witnesses to this gigantic crime,” says Ricken Patel, director of Avaaz, a New York City–based organization that has helped journalists get into Homs. The Syrian dissidents are “really are grateful for their bravery.”
The journey into Bab Amr was harrowing. The Westerners had been led in by activists through an old 2- mile (4 km) water pipeline. At 5 ft. 4 in. (160 cm) high, it did not have quite enough room for adults to stand. (Daniels is nearly 6 feet tall.) It also ran under the Syrian army’s firing positions. Abandoned by the regime, the tunnel was used by dissidents to transport supplies to the besieged residents of Bab Amr. Couriers crouched on motorbikes would carry medicine and food and perhaps weapons in and wounded Syrians out. But could it be used to transport injured journalists to safety as well? Daniels and Bouvier did not want to try, since the doctor had warned that she could die of a blood clot if she was not moved carefully.
The four survivors were ushered into a new hideout: a single room with one small window, surrounded by taller houses and hidden from the street. For the next four days, Daniels, Bouvier, Espinosa and Conroy were trapped there, listening to rockets and shells exploding from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and sometimes during the night. “Some days there were 300 bombs,” Daniels says. “You cannot imagine what it was like.” Noon prayers provided the only daytime lull. It was nearly impossible to communicate with the outside world. In fact, doing so was a huge risk. Phones could help the military pinpoint the journalists’ location. And then there was that sound. “A drone overhead,” Daniels recalls. “It made us crazy. We could hear it above, all the time, all the time.”
With the media center destroyed, the closest Internet connection to the new hideout was a hazardous 10- minute walk through Bab Amr, which was ringed with government snipers. The journalists recorded a video and handed it to activists who braved the route and uploaded it to YouTube. Seen throughout the world, the video showed Daniels, Conroy and Bouvier appealing to French authorities and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to evacuate them. Terrified that Assad’s forces would find them, they lied about their location, saying in the video that they were far from the hospital. And they appeared curiously upbeat in spite of their injuries. “Edith looked radiant,” says Daniels, “because that is her personality and because we were determined to let her family know that her morale was O.K.”
Their living conditions, however, were growing worse. The Syrian army had bombed rooftop water tanks, so the taps were running dry. The only light in the evenings came from candles and a gas lamp. Food grew scarce. One day, all the journalists had to eat was a bowl of rice each. The residents of Bab Amr, however, were heartbreakingly kind, offering the visitors candy and cigarettes, at one point even hunting down imported Winstons. They also supplied blankets and an oil heater for the bitterly cold nights. Two activists were assigned to care for Bouvier and Conroy in 12-hour shifts. Most residents of Bab Amr, says Daniels, “had someone in their family, [maybe] several people, who had been killed. We felt very bad saying ‘Please help us get out of here. We have lost our friends.’ We couldn’t say that, because they had lost everything.”
A two-hour truce on Friday, Feb. 24, allowed Daniels to shoot photos of the destruction and collect Ochlik’s things: a camera so battered it looked like a cauliflower, a computer, a ski cap, a passport–plus a couple of energy bars for the survivors to share. Also in Ochlik’s bag was a pocket-size black notebook in which he had written key Arabic-French translations for words including run and escape. Daniels and Espinosa were then driven over to the makeshift morgue in a nearby apartment where Ochlik and Colvin lay. The shrouds had been simply marked in Arabic: WOMAN and MAN. Daniels wrote out their names in block letters, so they could be identified in case the bodies were scattered in the turmoil.
As the cease-fire drew to a close, Daniels and Espinosa returned to the building where they were hiding and found five ambulances from the Syria Arab Red Crescent (SARC) parked outside. “We aren’t here for you,” one driver told the journalists. He offered to take them to the ICRC convoy, but SARC would first need to hand the group over to the regime forces, something the journalists believed could endanger them. “We are here to get wounded Syrians out. 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 head in Syria, Marianne Gasser. She told him, “We’re negotiating to go into Bab Amr. It should be fine.”
Minutes passed. On the radio, Gasser told Daniels, “Good news. One ambulance will stay, and I will come to you with two other ambulances.” But then one of the paramedics with Daniels suddenly said, “We have been ordered to leave now.”
That sent Daniels into a panic. “You can’t leave us! One ambulance is supposed to stay.” “We’ll pick you up later” was the response as the SARC drove off.
That night the government unleashed several rockets, seemingly aimed at the journalists’ hideout. Daniels suspects the presence of the ambulances tipped off the regime to the journalists’ whereabouts. The attack continued through the night and into the morning. “We were really scared,” says Daniels. Word had reached them from the French government that it was imperative that they leave Bab Amr. “We decided the very next ambulance that came, we had to go with them.”
But none came.
MAKING A BREAK FOR THE BORDER
“We were going crazy,” Daniels recalls. “we knew that security forces were closing in on Bab Amr. They were trying to enter close to our house. We knew from the sound of the tank shelling–the level was low, there were booms–that they were very close. We learned that the ambulance was supposed to come on Monday at noon. But they had not come Saturday or Sunday, so we no longer trusted them.”
By the evening of Sunday, Feb. 26, the four colleagues made a decision: they would escape the way they came, through the tunnel. They taped Bouvier to a stretcher and four Syrians took turns carrying her, two at a time, with Daniels beside them. They had to crouch as they walked through the pipe, and they fell farther
and farther behind Conroy and Espinosa, who were with several Syrian activists, some of them on motorbikes. (Conroy’s injuries did not require him to lie flat and made him easier to transport.) Suddenly there were explosions at the tunnel’s end. The army was onto them. People fled, screaming.
Daniels found himself alone in the dark with Bouvier; both were breathless and terrified. A rebel fighter approached, mumbling, “No problem, no problem,” and placed a Kalashnikov rifle across Bouvier’s slender body, warning them to cover their faces from a possible gas attack. Then he ran off. The gun ($1,600 on the black market) was a gift for them to defend themselves.
Fighting to remain calm, Daniels began trying to drag the stretcher, but he couldn’t move it. He weighed the option of carrying Bouvier over his shoulder but quickly realized it would be impossible. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “We were alone. I didn’t know what to do. She was saying, ‘We have to move. We have to move.’ And I was saying, ‘Wait, let me think.’ I thought, O.K., if this is the time for us to die, it’s O.K. But I did not want us to suffer–getting shot and bleeding to death for hours.”
Then Daniels heard a buzzing noise. It was a far-off motorbike and it was headed their way, its headlight dim but welcome. Daniels ran toward it, shouting for help, and the driver stopped. They sat Bouvier on the bike, jamming the rifle between her and the driver, with Daniels perched behind. Bumping through the darkness, toppling over a number of times, they headed not away from Bab Amr but back to what little shelter it offered.
Conroy managed to make it to the Lebanese border. A couple of days later, Espinosa too got across. But perhaps 13 Syrian activists died in the attack on the tunnel. The hopes of Bouvier’s and Daniels’ friends and relatives in France were crushed when French President Nicolas Sarkozy retracted a statement that the two French journalists had also made their way to safety.
Back in the hideout, a Syrian activist laid out a last-ditch escape plan for the next day, Feb. 27. They would disguise Bouvier in Islamic dress and try another route, which the activist admitted was even more dangerous. “Yesterday,” he said, “my friend was killed on that road.” The French journalists had no choice. Bouvier’s leg was deteriorating, and everyone expected the Syrian army to launch an attack at dawn.
“We’ll try it,” they said. They were bundled into a car with fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of army defectors battling Assad’s forces. In a series of vehicles, they drove through terrain held by government forces. “I cannot give details because the route was absolutely secret,” Daniels says. “But it was very, very dangerous. We were very, very scared.”
When they finally stopped at a safe house, they were overwhelmed by food and warmth. Everyone wanted to have a photo taken with Bouvier, who had become famous since the YouTube video. “She was like an icon of the revolution,” Daniels says, laughing. After two nights, the FSA escorts took them to a second safe house before smuggling them across into Lebanon on March 1. In all, the escape route was 25 miles (40 km) long but had taken almost four days to travel. Bouvier and Daniels turned on their mobile phones and sent ecstatic messages to friends. “We are out,” Daniels texted photo editor Patrick Witty at TIME. “And Edith is safe!”
Flown back to France, the two were greeted at the airport by Sarkozy, who praised “the knightly spirit of … William Daniels, who at no point abandoned his colleague, even though he was not injured and could have escaped.” The tribute left Daniels uneasy. He did not want to be portrayed as a hero.
One other anxiety has been relieved. Three days after Daniels wrote Ochlik’s and Colvin’s names on their body bags, medical workers buried their corpses because there was no longer fuel for refrigerating the morgue. SARC exhumed the bodies when regime forces finally seized control of Bab Amr on March 3. Colvin’s remains were repatriated to New York, Ochlik’s to Paris, where they were cremated on March 6, the one-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising.
But something troubles Daniels. He says repeatedly that he is deeply uncomfortable that the ordeal of Western journalists has gripped the world’s attention while hundreds of residents in Bab Amr have been killed. The people they left behind may well have been slaughtered by the Syrian army. With the supply and escape tunnel reportedly destroyed, the odor of death pervades the district. The carnage continues in other parts of Syria. The violence Assad has unleashed “will get worse before it gets better,” General James Mattis, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “He will continue to employ heavier and heavier weapons on his people.”
“The real story is not us,” Daniels says. “It’s the Syrian people.” It is, unfortunately, a story that cannot yet be told in full. Even the names of the activists who died in the rescue must remain secret. The very revelation of their identities is likely to put others in danger in a Syria where mourning the dead may itself be punishable by death.
Read this story on TIME Magazine.