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.
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.