Chemical attacks Syria: updates from direct source on the ground in Damascus

Info direct from contacts in Damascus: Modamaya district 6am today: constant shelling with mortars, artillery and rockets armed with chemical warheads. Currently 12,000 trapped in neighbourhood with a deadline to flee by 7am tomorrow. Bombardment continues.

Ghouta al Sharia area: Artillery and chemical attacks. 700 confirmed dead as of 2pm today. Estimated 1300 as of 6pm and, at the rate they are finding bodies, it is estimated by contact on the ground that the death toll could rise up to 3000. Shelling continues to hamper recovery of bodies trapped under the rubble.

Multiple sources indicate the involvement of Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas in the attack although this is unconfirmed at the time of writing.

Extract from ‘Under the Wire’

Below is an extract of my book ‘Under the Wire’

The events below happen after we had travelled 3km underground in a storm drain approximately 4 ft high, little oxygen and the last remaining lifeline available to the besieged citizens of Homs. We were heading for Baba Amr, a Sunni neighborhood that was besieged by President Assad’s elite fourth division who were reigning down a ferocious and constant artillery barrage on a residential area.

CHAPTER FIVE
The singing rebels of Homs
15 February 2012, Homs, Syria

‘Welcome to Homs,’ Marie repeated tentatively. ‘God, I never thought I’d find those words reassuring.’
‘Marie, now comes the dangerous part,’ a rebel quipped from the dark, fetid tunnel below us.
It was hard to tell if he was joking or being serious. It didn’t really matter either way: his words had done little to ease the sense of apprehension that we all felt.
The two of us – Marie and myself – were squeezed into the corner of a tiny dilapidated room to avoid the frenzied activity around us. Rebels pulled people, food and ammunition crates from the man-sized hole that led out of the hellish tunnel below, cramming the room with even more bodies and crates. The dim light of a rebel’s torch revealed the detritus of war carpeting the floor around us: empty ammunition boxes smashed open in haste and thousands of spent AK47 cartridges. If this tunnel was such a well-kept secret, I puzzled, then what had all the fighting from this position been for? I never found out and to this day I am amazed the tunnel remained secret for so long.
Our translator Wa’el appeared from the tightly packed melee of armed rebels. He looked as bad we felt. Sweating profusely, pupils fully dilated and his eyes straining in the darkness, he looked deeply troubled.
‘Quickly, Paul. I need a smoke,’ he gasped. ‘Oh and I have J-P. He is outside getting some air. He seems a little better.’
I hadn’t even thought about smoking a cigarette since we entered the tunnel. I wondered whether I’d suffered mild brain damage because of the lack of oxygen. I lit up and handed one to Wa’el.
‘Do you know what happens now, Wa’el?’ I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I guess we wait until they clear the tunnel and we move together in a group to Baba Amr,’ he said, his voice tense.
Marie, who hated the sitting and waiting around as much as I did, took command. ‘Wa’el, it’s critical that we get to the media centre as soon as possible,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to get stuck drinking tea for hours. Try to find the commander and let’s get away from this fucking tunnel.’
Wa’el smiled. He had grown accustomed to Marie’s straightforward manner. He was now part of our team and he relished a challenge. He left the dark antechamber and disappeared into the night.
Marie and I huddled together for warmth. It was very cold outside and the sweat was starting to freeze on our bodies.
Marie turned to face me. ‘Paul,’ she said in her relaxed American drawl, a half-smile on her face, ‘we have done very weird stuff over the years but this, this has got to take the biscuit. I can’t think of anything else so bizarre and dangerous but now we’ve made it, it’s so much fun.’
I smiled back. I knew what she meant. Although we had only been out of the tunnel for five minutes, I could already see how we would tell the tale when we returned home. At the back of our minds we both knew that it would be something we’d laugh about for years to come.
We sat in silence waiting for Wa’el. The sound of machine-gun fire and the menacing rumble of distant explosions reached us through the cold air of our first night in Homs. J-P had slipped off into another world. He had hardly spoken since clambering out of the tunnel. We were worried about him. How would he cope with what was to come?
Wa’el came crashing through the doorway, breaking off the thought. ‘Quickly, get your bags. We must go now. We have a rebel convoy to take us to Baba Amr,’ he said urgently.
Within seconds we were ready. We regrouped outside in what appeared to be an agricultural area. Through the familiar small stone walls and furrowed fields we could just make out our surroundings but the dark shadows and high moon made it difficult to identify exactly where we were. Walking in single file, I led Marie by the hand as we set out across the stony, muddy ground, slipping or stumbling on unseen obstacles whenever the clouds obscured the moon.
‘I hear voices,’ I whispered.
‘What?’ replied Marie. ‘This isn’t the right time for a confession, Paul,’ she chuckled softly.
‘No, real voices, Marie, ahead and getting louder. Trust me, I ain’t losing the plot,’ I told her, finding it hard not to chuckle at her wonderful sense of the surreal.
The source of the voices became apparent as we continued in single file behind Wa’el. We soon arrived in a courtyard surrounded by three buildings where clusters of FSA fighters were working hard to load munitions on to trucks. It was a natural staging post. The walls around the courtyard were high enough to keep watch from and the position was discreet enough for large groups to gather without being spotted. It was obviously considered sufficiently safe to operate from, a place where supplies could be brought before being broken down and smuggled into Baba Amr.
Four pickup trucks were waiting outside the courtyard. We were directed to mount up in the second vehicle. Armed FSA rebels climbed in with us. We soon found ourselves cocooned by men arming their weapons, primed for the next phase of the journey into Baba Amr. The other three vehicles in the convoy were all packed with rebel fighters. An unseen signal was given and the first vehicle started to crawl away from the courtyard with the other vehicles following close behind.
This is how I had imagined it would happen: the silence followed by the whispered orders and the sense that we were deep behind enemy lines. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Without warning, the rebels broke out into song. Their loud, brazen voices from the four vehicles pierced the night. I tried to figure out what was going on. Why, I thought, after all the silence and whispers, all the ducking and diving, is now a good time to start making one hell of a racket?
‘Paul, why the fuck are they singing?’ Marie asked, half amused, half terrified, unable to make her mind up if this was a good or a bad sign. ‘We’re supposed to be sneaking in. What the hell’s going on?’
I had no idea. If we had tried a similar stunt in my army days we would have been hung, drawn and quartered. I couldn’t think of a single possible explanation. I turned to Wa’el and looked at him questioningly.
‘They are happy that you are here. They are celebrating your arrival,’ he explained, with a shrug of the shoulders and a half-smile.
The convoy proceeded into the blackness of the night. When the moon occasionally broke through the clouds, its ghostly light revealed a scarred and battered landscape. There was no sign of human life in the villages we passed through. Nothing moved, apart from the odd stray dog that broke cover and sprinted from the shadows as our musical convoy sped by.
That’s when it happened. Leaving one of the deserted villages we first saw and then heard the flaming tail of a rocket-propelled grenade streaking towards our convoy. The round seemed to take forever to reach us, seemingly suspended in slow motion as it flew over our heads and exploded harmlessly a hundred metres to our left. Next came the bullets, screaming like demonic banshees as they passed through our convoy.
The natural reaction when under fire is to make yourself small. We crouched tightly in the back of the pickup truck with our heads pushed down between our knees, curled-up balls of fear unable to respond to the incoming fire in any other way. The fear was amplified by the troubling thought that our lives depended entirely on the reactions of people whose faces we had never seen. But the rebels reacted to the fire in a puzzling way: they sang even louder and with more gusto than before. At no point did they return fire. They simply continued singing their hearts out.
‘Takbir [God is the greatest],’ shouted an unseen rebel.
‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar [God is great],’ responded the FSA rebels in all four trucks.
Body armour is better, I thought to myself from my shrunken position as bullets whistled past our speeding convoy. Marie had sunk into a state of bemused silence. Each time the moon illuminated us I caught a glimpse of her slightly baffled face. She returned my gaze with a simple shrug of her shoulders before hunkering back down into the foetal position.
The small arms fire eventually ceased and we uncurled ourselves from our protective forms. Ahead, perhaps a mile in the distance, we saw the orange glow of buildings whose hazy outlines broke the monotonous gloom and oppressive darkness of the horizon. We were heading in the direction of the buildings and I rather hoped it was a rebel-held position.
The convoy drew closer and I could feel the excitement of the FSA soldiers mounting. A sense of relief flooded through me as I realised that we had taken another major step forward in our journey. We pulled up outside a cluster of apartment buildings. Lights blazed on all five floors. We weren’t in Baba Amr yet. If we had been, these apartment blocks would have been blazing in a different way.
Dismounting, we stood and absorbed the scene in front of us. Everywhere FSA soldiers scurried, carrying crates of ammunition, heavy weapons, sacks of flour and large boxes of tinned food. The atmosphere here was more relaxed than any of us had expected. Clearly the FSA felt they had a degree of control over the area. We stood smoking in a tight huddle. Around us, in the orange glow of the street lighting, FSA rebels continued their chores. Occasional bursts of heavy machine-gun fire passed overhead but the fighters ignored them. We watched as the trucks were eventually emptied. Small children peered out of darkened doorways. Even from a distance I could identify the hollowed look of fear on their faces. It was the unmistakable mark left on those suffering from immense trauma.
We were all acutely aware that we had to keep moving that evening. It was critical that we made Baba Amr under the cover of darkness. A daylight entry was a no go.
Marie pulled me to one side and whispered, ‘Paul, we must make it in tonight, it’s Wednesday and we have to file by Saturday at the latest, best by Friday. We really can’t afford to get stuck here tonight. I know it’s nice to feel safe for a while but whatever happens we push for the move to Baba Amr. Are you cool with that?’
I nodded in agreement. Time was against us. We had enough material from the trip in to file a story already, but both of us were aware that reaching Baba Amr would bring our piece to life. I agreed fully with Marie’s point of view.

Thank you all

A year ago today, at the peak of the Syrian governments ferocious bombardment of Baba Amr, we lost two brave and committed journalists, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, both murdered by the Syrian regime along with thousands of innocent civilians.

 

Marie, an old friend and colleague who I met in Syria ten years ago while attempting to enter Iraq illegally, had, for over a quarter of a century, given a voice to the innocent victims of war. I was privileged enough to work with her through the Libyan and Syrian campaigns spending two months in Misrata during the height of the siege there. Together we shared the heartache, humour and tragedy of frontline reporting. Marie’s ethos – to bear witness – was an inspiration to all who knew her and to those who read her passionate reports from the frontlines of some of the worlds most troubled spots.

 

Marie will be in my heart for as long as I walk this troubled earth. To all her friends, family and admirers of her work, I’m so sorry I never brought her home to you.

 

Remi was a fellow photographer and in Libya we dodged and ducked through  major battles. He was a rising star whose light was snuffed out many years too soon. His passion and desire to capture the brutality of war cost him his life bringing heartache and pain to his family and friends. Remi we will never forget you. 

 

Alongside Edith Bouvier, I was injured in the attack that took our friends, and together with William Daniels and Javier Espinosa, we sat for five days in Baba Amr, unsure of our fate eventually escaping with the help of local activists and FSA rebels.

 

It would be foolhardy to try and attempt to thank everyone individually who has helped me over the last year and to miss a single name would be mortifying. I will just say a simple thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who carried me, treated me and showed the beautiful face of human compassion when I needed it most.

 

Thank you all.  

 

With everlasting gratitude,

Paul Conroy

Syria – What now?

Imagine for a moment the plight of a Syrian refugee who, having fled his home after a raid from the local Shabiha – a paramilitary force loyal to President Bashar al Assad – now sits freezing in the snow on the Syrian-Turkish border. His only shelter is a plastic tent he shares with the remnants of his family who made the perilous dash to freedom with him. Consider the hushed silence that ensues when they learn of the unfolding situation in Mali: the international condemnation, the airstrikes and the forces on the ground. I don’t know the Arabic expletives that fly around the camp, but I can imagine their English translations. It’s a pretty safe bet that these refugees feel a little short changed considering the world’s response to events in Syria over the previous two years.

It’s a complex scenario. The ‘Arab spring’ took Arab watchers and government intelligence agencies by surprise. Who could have imagined the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller would trigger such an implausible series of events. After a little fence sitting to see which way the wind blew, the international community hopped off the fence and stood firmly behind the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions.

Next came Libya and it wasn’t too long before French airstrikes halted the impending massacre in the eastern city of Benghazi. After a brutal ground offensive, the Libyan rebels, with great assistance from the West, triumphed over Gaddafi’s regime. The West’s airpower, the millions of dollars funneled by the CIA into training camps in the Zintan mountains and the covert Special Forces units acting as the eyes on the ground for coalition bombing runs, had the desired effect.

Of course there were vested interests, but Syrians could be forgiven for believing that the West supported the Arab spring, and by intervening in Libya, had given a symbolic thumbs up to the toppling of long-reigning dictators.

When the Syrians took to the streets the chants were for reform. There were no calls for regime change, no chants of “down with Assad”. Peaceful demonstration was the order of the day.

But, as in the case of Gaddafi, Assad’s reaction was swift and brutal. Troops opened fire and the slaughter commenced. The world’s television screens flickered to the mobile phone footage of citizens and activists caught up in the slaughter. All similarity with Libya ends there.

Why?

Syria is geographically challenged. It finds itself in the centre of a region rocked by war, instability and internal suppression for generations. Whereas Gaddafi had long since burned many of his bridges, Assad and the Syrian ruling elite still have powerful and obliging friends in Russia and Iran – Vladimir Putin and president Ahmadinejad

When I spoke with David Cameron last March on what, if anything, could be done in regards to Syria, we both concluded that Russia was the key. Putin not only supplied the Assad regime with its vast arsenals of weapons and munitions, but Syria also hosts Russia’s only naval base outside of the former Soviet Union. Russia stands to lose a lot if Syria falls. As a result, they have vetoed any attempts by the UN Security Council to pressurise or, more importantly, topple Assad.

Vladimir Putin’s greatest fear is possibly the key to his intransigence on the Syrian crisis. He understands only too well that the Arab spring could, very quickly, become a Russian spring. Russian elections must be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism: the brutal and systematic repression of opposition parties and journalists is key to Putin’s hold on power. For Russia to back any UN sanctioned resolution that could lead to regime change in Syria, would be the equivalent to a turkey voting for Christmas. Putin has played a wise game, allowing street protests to take place only to pick off its organisers one-by- one afterwards. He has learned much from the Arab dictator’s mistakes.

Syria also had the misfortune to rebel during critical election years elsewhere in the world, most notably in America and France. Obama safely ducked out of the Libyan campaign after America’s early but short-lived commitment, handing over the reigns to European powers. It would have been electoral suicide to attempt any form of military or humanitarian intervention in Syria while he slugged it out with Romney at home. For a presidential candidate to commit to any action in Syria while trying to reassure the American populace that he was ‘bringing the boys back home’ from other parts of the world, was not an option. However, these considerations did not preclude the continued use of other modes of warfare, namely the president’s heavy reliance on drone strikes, which continued unabated during the electoral cycle. Drones are part of a perfectly ‘safe war’ when it comes to American lives and one that can be conducted out of sight of voters.

France – Syria’s former colonial master – was also struggling with election issues. Sarkozy was fighting to cling onto power and, in doing so, could not risk offering any practical, tangible assistance, which would have helped stop the slaughter in Syria.

And of course there was the Russian election. Not exactly one that caused the world to await the results with bated breath but, as mentioned earlier, one in which Russia had its own specific agenda when it came to Syria.

Assad has one last ace in his pack. The Iranians have no interest in seeing a Sunni majority seize power in such a strategically important country as Syria. Iran is in the business of building its strength and influence in the region, not watching it being nibbled away by the loss of an important ally. Consequently, Iran stepped up its efforts in Syria, both with advanced military hardware such as drones but also by placing boots on the ground. In areas in and around Homs, many eyewitnesses told me of Farsi-speaking officers dressed in Syrian uniforms, helping to conduct operations.

When it comes to intervention in foreign lands, Britain’s hands have been tied for many years, ever since Tony Blair committed to a war in Iraq and the search for the illusive weapons of mass destruction. The combined efforts of Tony Blair, John Scarlett and Alistair Campbell, resulted in the manufacture of a misleading document, which formed the basis for the war in Iraq that will taint British foreign policy for many years to come. To get involved in another foreign adventure, with a coalition government already starting to fray at the seams, makes any serious intervention in Syria out of the question.

The UN’s brainwave – to send in Kofi Annan – was as patronising to the Syrians as it was useless in its attempt to halt the bloodshed. Annan, whose reputation was already in question over corruption allegations, produced a peace plan that relied on the Syrian people laying down their weapons and trusting the very man who had ordered their slaughter in the first place. It provided cover for the international community to hide behind. “We can do nothing while Mr Annan is talking peace,” a common retort when governments were questioned on their apathetic approach to Syria. Eventually the penny dropped with poor Kofi and he was soon back home.

Nature abhors a vacuum, a scientific saying applicable to the Syrian conflict. Filling the vacuum created by worldwide inactivity, foreign fighters or jihadists soon arrived in the country. Let’s not rush to blame the Syrians here. Imagine if your hometown had been under siege for nearly two years and, despite your desperate pleas for help, no one came to your assistance. How would you then react if someone did eventually come to your aid, fought back against regime and offered you the first, viable, chance of seeing out the year alive? Personally, I think I would rather thank him than ask as to whether he was a moderate liberal, or Osama Bin Laden’s love child. If it meant the difference between life and death for my family, I would accept their contribution without question. Political and religious affiliations could be discussed at a much later date; staying alive would be my prefered option in such a scenario.

However, the arrival of foreign fighters in Syria gives rise to another excuse – we can’t arm the jihadists. But it’s now too late: they are there already, fully armed, and we are not.

Obama, meanwhile, has been busy with his crayon set, drawing red lines in the sand, rubbing them out as soon as they are crossed and then quickly redrawing another.

I spent hours at the height of the siege in Baba Amr, trying to explain to the shell-shocked residents why exactly there was no intervention on their behalf, why we did nothing whilst it was being played out in front of the world’s eyes. Maybe now it’s time someone went back and had a word with the freezing Syrian refugee in his plastic shelter and explained, exactly why we have sat on our hands and done little but talk for the last two years while the massacres continue. Oh, and while he is there, perhaps he could also explain why the Malians are doing okay thanks to an international intervention.

A word of advice to whoever goes to speak to this refugee: take a flask because it’s freezing out there and be careful not to trip over any red lines at night.

Massacre about to occur in Jobar. Don’t say we had no warning

Just received this from a personal and trusted source

Personal note: This is a similar attack to what took place last year on besieged Baba Amr where Marie and Remi were also killed. During that time, March and April 2012, our village Jobar was stormed on land and people executed. Today, the same scenario of Baba Amr is repeated on Jobar that is held by the Free Syrian Army. So far confirmed personally, my fathers cousin Sa’da Al-Akraa and her disabled daughter Rajaa’ Al-Akraa have been executed. Sa’das elderly husband Abu Abdulhameed Al-Akraa and a couple of other men and women have been abducted, likely to be used as human shields to enter on land. We have lost touch with all family relations inside the village of Jobar, which lies right next to Baba Amr. Kafr Aya is an area housing thousands of displaced civilians from Baba Amr and Jobar and now has been shelled with a new massacre taking place. This is an urgent call for help, but little is expected to be done to save the remaining people besieged now.

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Syrian Revolution General Commission report:

Full-scale attack against Jobar, Sultaneyyeh, and Kufrayah village [southern part of Homs] – 20/1/2013
At least 17 martyred up until now – tens wounded by the continuous savage bombardment

The regime’s forces extensively bombarded the districts of Jobar, Sultaneyyeh, and Kufrayah village using MEG23s, rocket launchers, artillery, and mortars. The northern part of Homs is being subjected to the heaviest attacks yet, and these aforementioned 3 areas are the ones being mainly targeted as the regime’s forces attempt to invade the area, noting that Kufrayah and Jobar districts are packed with refugees and civilians. A massacre was committed in these few morning hours as 8 martyrs fell up until now and more than 80 civilians wounded, amongst them 30 in very critical conditions [most of them children and women]. The regime’s forces have also killed a woman named Sa’deh Al Akraa and her retarded daughter Raja’a on the outskirts of Jobar district; her husband, Abu Abdul Hameed Al Akraa, an elderly man, got kidnapped by the regime’s forces along with other men and was taken to an unknown location to the nearby orchards.

A plane similar to a civilian warplane flew on a very low altitude, noting that it has 4 engines and leaves no traces of smoke behind it.

Concerning the situation on ground, the regime’s forces are spread on Al Tahweeleh road in every 4 meters and they set up barriers, attempting to completely suffocate and surround the area in order to invade it. 3 tanks were stationed in front of the barrier near a school there, reinforced by a bus loaded with Shabiha (thugs) and an armoured Shilka (anti-aircraft vehicle). The regime’s forces have also spread in nearby Tal Al Shour area and snipers stationed themselves on the rooftops of high buildings, try to keep an eye on the soldiers on ground in order to protect them from any attack and observe the ground from above. 16 buses fully-loaded with shabiha (thugs) and regime’s forces parked on the junction of Al Nuqairah all the way to Baher Al Nujoom area. 2 pick-up cars carrying rocket launchers and 4 armoured vehicles loaded with arms and Shabiha (thugs) headed to Bab Amr district on Al Jeser road. 3 rocket launchers were also spotted near the water reservoir in Al Hadeedeh village, extensively bombarding the districts of Jobar and Al Sultaneyyeh and the village of Kufrayah.

The medical cadre, headed by Doctor Muhammad Al Muhammad, and the media office in the area, sent urgent SOS calls to the Arab and international community and to all human rights organizations to immediately condemn these attacks being waged by the regime and to pressure it to halt this savagery against innocent civilians. Do note that this attack is a repetition of a similar attack carried out against Bab Amr district in February last year; thus, there are true fears that the regime’s forces will renew these massacres by slaughtering civilians, noting that the area is packed with displaced civilians. The makeshift hospital’s ability to deal with all those severely wounded civilians is nearly impossible since it is small, does not bear with the severity of the injuries due to the lack of needed medical aid/equipment, and do not bear with the huge number of the casualties being rushed in.

SOS call sent by Dr. Muhammad Al Muhammad from the makeshift hospital inside Al Sultaneyyeh district:

“In the name of God we begin,
Tens of rocket and shells currently are hammering the districts of Jobar and Sultaneyyeh as a massive military campaign has been plotted by the regime’s forces, who have been planning for this since weeks whilst the eastern and western worlds and many of our own people have let us down. We are warning the world that massive massacres shall be committed against us in Jobar, Sultaneyyeh, and Kufrayah as there are up to 35,000 civilians and displaced civilians inside.
-Dr Muhammad Al Muhammad.

–Kufrayah village: massacre:

–Jobar: SOS calls from makeshift hospital:

http://youtu.be/mrrN4XYlISU (Dr Muhammad sending SOS calls)
http://youtu.be/aFeQhfMY6U0 (Dr Muhammad sending SOS calls)

–Jobar: bombardment:

http://youtu.be/XPFUNEX9Lpw (MEG bombardment)

–Kufrayah: bombardment:


Rose Alhomsi
Independent Syrian activist. Also working with:
The Syrian Revolution General Commission: http://www.srgcommission.org/
Homs Free Congregation – Homs news: https://www.facebook.com/Homs.Free.Congregation
Hand in Hand for Syria – Charity: http://www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk/
Syrian Martyrs Stories: http://syrian-martyrs.com
Skype: rose.freedom.2011
Email: rose.alhomsi@gmail.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/tweets4peace
Blog: http://rosealhomsi.wordpress.com