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

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William Daniels / Panos for TIME

Feb. 22, 2012. A member of the Free Syrian Army rides in the back of a truck inside Bab Amr.

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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.

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