Rescue Squad: How Syrian Activists Saved Journalists Trapped in Homs

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In a video uploaded on YouTube on Feb. 23, 2012, the French photographer William Daniels, left, who was on assignment for TIME, and the seriously injured French journalist Edith Bouvier, of Le Figaro, plead for urgent medical attention and evacuation

The Bab Amr district of Homs had already been descending into hell when the Syrian army apparently homed in on satellite phones being used by foreign journalists there and sent mortars their way, killing the American reporter Marie Colvin and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik on Feb. 22. It would take eight days before all their surviving colleagues were finally able to escape, even as Bab Amr lay shattered and grieving, its remaining residents — 4,000 people or so — exhausted by the weeks of bombardment, suffering from hunger and the gnawing cold. As of Thursday, Bab Amr was abandoned too by the elements of the Free Syrian Army who were using it to launch attacks on the regime of President Bashir Assad. The rebels had run out of ammunition. Syrian activists said on Thursday they had been forced to bury Colvin and Ochlik, after struggling for days to keep their bodies refrigerated with dwindling fuel supplies.

As Bab Amr was given over to the mercy of the Syrian army on Thursday, the French photographer William Daniels, on assignment for TIME, and the seriously injured French reporter Edith Bouvier, were led out of Syria in a perilous maneuver involving dozens of Syrian volunteers who were working with opposition activists — an operation that has focused attention on a New York City–based organization called Avaaz. Four days earlier, Colvin's British colleague, photographer Paul Conroy, managed to escape into Lebanon through similar means. Javier Espinosa, a Spanish photographer trapped in Bab Amr, crossed the border into safety on Wednesday. Late Thursday night, Daniels sent text messages to TIME confirming he was in Lebanon and out of danger. "We are out," he wrote. "And Edith is safe."

Having smuggled themselves into Syria illicitly, the foreign journalists were trapped once the city became encircled by Assad's forces. French diplomats failed to persuade Assad to allow an international evacuation team to extract the injured journalists. As the battle reached a crescendo this week, it was clear the journalists would have to make a run for it — or risk dying in the regime's final offensive on the town. It has been a far from bloodless rescue. The Sunday operation that took Conroy out involved 35 Syrian volunteers, but the group was ambushed on its way out and 13 of the activists were killed, according to Avaaz. Conroy, Bouvier, Espinosa and Daniels were all part of the attempt, but in the chaos that ensued after the government forces attacked, the group split in two. Conroy was the only Western journalist to make it to Lebanon that day.

It has cost the Syrians dearly to try protect Western journalists. And yet, Avaaz's director Ricken Patel told TIME in New York City that the Syrian activists, whom his organization supports with equipment and supplies, had expressed deep gratitude to the journalists for daring to travel to Homs. "They really are grateful for their bravery because these journalists are witnesses to this gigantic crime, of the shelling of Babr Amr," Patel said, estimating that about 20 Syrians in total had died during the evacuations operations of the journalists. Over tea, Patel told me that about 50 Syrian activists working with Avaaz had volunteered to help evacuate the Western journalists.

The role of Avaaz in the Syrian uprising is startling and controversial. The activist organization, headquartered off Manhattan's Union Square and run by the 35-year-old Canadian, was founded in 2007 to campaign on issues of corruption, poverty and climate change. It raised money and mobilized people through a mammoth online network that it says stretches across the world. Though based in New York City, its largest contingents are in Brazil and France, according to its officials. Its mission statement says it aims "to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want."

Then came Syria. As Avaaz activists grew alarmed by the near daily killings of civilians, the organization raised $1 million among members to begin smuggling quantities of medical equipment, video cameras and video-editing equipment into Homs and other beleaguered towns, using networks of unpaid Syrian activists on the ground. In recent weeks, it has also organized with Syrian activists to smuggle in 34 foreign journalists.

Avaaz had also smuggled similar equipment into Myanmar in 2007 and '08. But Syria's lethal firepower and closed borders presented far more dangerous challenges. Patel insists that Avaaz's Syria campaign has worked well, pointing out the rich stream of video footage coming out the beleaguered country. "Whether we are the right people, when the crackdown came, no one was doing the communications support we were doing, getting satellite and video equipment into the country and training people," he says. "If you speak to the BBC and al-Jazeera, it was fantastically successful." As for the sacrifices and deaths of Syrians in Avaaz's operation, Patel says, "I feel humbled by their staggering bravery."