PARIS (Reuters) - Wounded French journalist Edith Bouvier feared her attempt to escape from Homs had ended inside a dark, 3-km tunnel that rebels were using to supply the besieged Baba Amro district when the Syrian army bombarded its exit.
Her leg broken by a shell which killed two foreign journalists days earlier, Bouvier was abandoned, taped to a makeshift stretcher, as rebels and dozens of wounded fled the reverberations of explosions and headed back to the shattered neighborhood.
“One of them placed his Kalashnikov on me. He put his hand on my head and said a prayer. It wasn’t very reassuring. Then he left,” Bouvier told Le Figaro newspaper, for which she was working in Syria.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. Was the exit blocked? Were Syrian soldiers going to enter? I wanted to run away before remembering that I was taped to a stretcher.”
Bouvier and French photographer William Daniels, who stayed with her throughout, were finally rescued by a rebel who drove down the 1.6-metre (5.3 feet) high tunnel on a motorbike and carried them back to Baba Amro.
Emerging into the light with her head bleeding, her shattered leg bandaged and wearing just underwear and socks after being forced to abandon her stretcher, Bouvier said she was greeted with shock by rebels when she asked for a cigarette.
“Do you want to end your days here?” the startled fighters asked her. “If that’s a long time in the future, sure. But not right now,” she told them.
Bouvier and Daniels arrived in Homs on February 21, joining a small group of war correspondents documenting the assault on the city by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, part of a nationwide repression that has killed more than 7,500 civilians according to the United Nations.
“When the bombs fell, they told us ‘that’s Bashar saying good morning’,” Bouvier recalls of her first day, as shelling drew ever closer to the house where journalists were staying.
Fearing for their lives, the reporters decided to leave the three-storey building, only to be caught by an exploding shell as they entered the street, wounding Bouvier and killing veteran U.S. war reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
Taken to a makeshift rebel hospital, Bouvier received a scan and was told her femur was broken. “They told me ‘you need an operation soon. You have to be evacuated.’ That’s when the great escape started.”
Recounting the story of her week-long ordeal, Bouvier paid tribute to the bravery of Syrian rebels who risked their lives to get her and Daniels to safety as the elite 4th division of the Syrian army, commanded by the president’s brother Maher al-Assad, pounded the city.
Rejecting the Syrian government’s claims that the rebels had tried to use the journalists as human shields, Bouvier said they were too afraid to leave with a Red Crescent convoy evacuating wounded civilians because of army sniper fire.
With the tunnel blocked and Baba Amro close to falling to the army, the two journalists, the objects of a manhunt after their faces were broadcast on Syrian television, decided to risk everything by slipping out of the city in a vehicle under cover of darkness.
“We were exhausted, physically and mentally. We had to get out of there,” Bouvier said. Details of their escape route were not published by the newspaper to protect those who aided them.
Moving from safe house to safe house, changing vehicles frequently and taking rocky mountain roads amid a snowstorm, it took the journalists and their rebel escort four days to travel the 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the Lebanese border. Everywhere strangers greeted them by name, welcoming them warmly.
“They really put themselves in danger for us. They did everything for us,” said Bouvier, who called her parents as soon as she crossed into Lebanon under cover of darkness. “I didn’t tell them where I was, just that I was safe and sound.”
Reporting By Daniel Flynn; Editing by Janet Lawrence