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."