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.
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.
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.
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.