Journalist recounts fleeing Syrian city under fire

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By RODRIGO ABD, Associated Press

ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) — Explosions illuminated the night as we ran, hoping to escape Syria after nearly three weeks of covering a conflict that the government seems determined to keep the world from seeing. Tank shells slammed into the city streets behind us, snipers' bullets whizzed by our heads and the rebels escorting us were nearly out of ammunition.

It seemed like a good time to get out of Syria.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Award-winning journalists Rodrigo Abd and Ahmed Bahaddou sneaked into Syria and spent nearly three weeks reporting from opposition-held territory. Abd, an Associated Press photographer, is based in Guatemala. Bahaddou is a video journalist on assignment for the AP, based in Turkey.

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With regime forces closing in on the rebel-held northern city of Idlib, Associated Press cameraman Ahmed Bahaddou and I set out Sunday for neighboring Turkey on a journey that would take us through a pitch-black passage and miles of muddy olive groves in the freezing cold.

We ran into delays and dangers with every step — from fighting between rebel and government forces to a missed connection with our guide.

We coordinated our escape with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force fighting to hold onto Idlib, but the situation was deteriorating quickly. The snipers, shelling and explosions were growing ever closer.

"We are all going to be killed!" a terrified Syrian activist told me, collapsing into tears. An FSA fighter said the government troops were sure to take the city back, because the rebels were running out of ammunition.

A rebel commander said he understood if his fighters wanted to run away and save themselves.

"Whoever wants to leave and not fight, lay your Kalashnikovs here," he said.

Nobody did.

Last week, troops had encircled Idlib, and tank shells starting pounding the city from dawn until evening. Rebels dashed through the streets, taking cover behind the corners of buildings as they clashed with the troops. Wounded fighters were piled into trucks bound for places where they could be treated. I saw a man carrying a young boy, the child's jacket soaked in blood. I later learned the boy was dead.

On Tuesday, just one day after we made it out, government forces recaptured Idlib, although activists reported some pockets of resistance remained. Still, it was a blow to the rebels.

The regime says it is fighting foreign terrorists and armed gangs, denying that the yearlong uprising is a popular revolt. But what we saw in Idlib was nothing like what the government is describing. The townspeople support the uprising; every family seemed to have a fighter in the streets, or knew somebody who was fighting.

The FSA rebels were Syrians, from Idlib. We did not see any foreigners doing battle.

The biggest challenge for the rebels was not their fervor to fight; they all seemed willing to die to oust the regime of President Bashar Assad. They were armed with little more than rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov machine guns and grenades.

The opposition's rallying cry in recent days has been an appeal for weapons. An influx of anti-tank missiles and other heavy arms could be a turning point in the conflict.

But as government forces moved in last week, all we could think of was Baba Amr — the neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs that endured nearly four weeks of government shelling. Hundreds of people were killed in the siege, and the humanitarian situation was catastrophic. Among the dead were two journalists, Marie Colvin, a veteran American-born war correspondent for Britain's Sunday Times, and Remi Ochlik, 28, a French photojournalist. Both were cut down when a shell struck nearby.

Idlib was believed to be the next target now that the government had recaptured Baba Amr. As the rebels gathered on street corners, families packed a few possessions and rushed to leave the city. Women and children hid in basements to escape the shelling.

"Of course I am afraid!" a Syrian woman cried in one of the shelters, where a dozen women and children hid Saturday. "Even the men are afraid."

By Saturday, many people fled Idlib to reach surrounding villages. Electricity was switched off most of the day, lasting only about three hours, in what was likely an attempt by the government to clear out the population.

Everybody was preparing for a siege, making our escape all the more complicated. We decided to spend the night among the wounded in Idlib, delaying our departure, because we were too scared to move. As we drove through the dark streets, the driver turned off the headlights so nobody would detect us — even though that meant we could not see anything either.

The thundering "BOOM! BOOM!" from tank shells was relentless.

When we woke up the next morning, the toll of the violence we had somehow escaped was apparent: Wounded people, including children and women, were crowded around in bloodstained clothes. Many had clearly been hit by snipers in the legs and arms. Many had gaping wounds from shrapnel and died in their beds.

There was no space in the morgue for more corpses, so families arranged to bury the dead immediately. Funerals were out of the question because of the danger of being outside.

When evening fell, we decided to leave the city. The idea was to run over an open area overlooked by snipers and tanks, but our guides suggested we go underneath it, through a passage. We had to walk to it, led by an FSA fighter who kept us waiting for a half-hour while battles raged in the streets. We moved carefully through a city devoid of any normal sounds of life — no cars honking, no one on the streets — just silence broken by gunfire and explosions.

The corridor was cramped and so dark that we could not see our hands in front of our faces. Crouching to fit inside it, we moved for about 40 meters (130 feet) until we reached the other end, which was mercifully outside the regime's cordon. It was only after we emerged that we realized our escort was carrying homemade grenades on his vest, unstable explosives that easily could have blown us to bits while we were inside.

The next leg of our journey took us to a massive field of deep mud. There was no way to cross on foot or even in a car. But our contact on the Turkish side of the border had arranged the perfect mode of transport to ferry us into the country: a bright, red tractor.

We clambered aboard and rolled through the mud for a half-hour before crossing an unmarked, largely porous border. Nobody stopped us or even noticed.

Reporting from Syria had been risky, but it was the only way to cover the story properly, without being at the mercy of government minders who try to control what you see and whom you meet.

In the past year, Syria has severely restricted the number of visas it issues to journalists, and those who do get in must take trips accompanied by government escorts.

On Saturday, the Syrian Information Ministry issued a warning that journalists such as Ahmed and me who entered the country illegally "are accompanying terrorists, promoting their crimes and fabricating baseless news."

The statement alluded to the deaths of Colvin and Ochlik, saying media companies are "legally and morally responsible for anything that may result from what could happen to these journalists due to their accompaniment of terrorists."

But for Ahmed and me, the trip was an opportunity to present an honest picture of a conflict that remains largely hidden from the world.

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