French journalists who escaped Syria during siege return home

PARIS — The long and treacherous journey home ended Friday for two French journalists trapped for nine days in a besieged Syrian city — an experience one called a “non-stop nightmare.”

PARIS — The long and treacherous journey home ended Friday for two French journalists trapped for nine days in a besieged Syrian city — an experience one called a “non-stop nightmare.”

After landing outside Paris where the French president and loved ones awaited them, one was carried from the plane on a stretcher, while the other smiled joyfully and punched his fist in the air.

Edith Bouvier of the daily Le Figaro, and William Daniels, an award-winning photographer, had sneaked into Syria illegally to try to get an eyewitness view of the government crackdown in the country, where thousands have been killed since a popular uprising began a year ago.

They soon found themselves trapped inside the besieged Baba Amr district of Homs, a target of heavy Syrian military shelling.

On Feb. 22, shelling killed French photographer Remi Ochlik and American reporter Marie Colvin.

It also wounded Bouvier and British photographer Paul Conroy.

Nine days later, Bouvier and Daniels arrived in France after being smuggled through tunnels and snow out of Syria and into Lebanon.

Bouvier, who suffered a fractured leg, wrapped an arm around friends waiting on the tarmac at Villacoublay military airport when she finally emerged, carried by medics, from the French government aircraft that fetch the pair from Beirut. Daniels, who had stayed with her as other colleagues trapped in Homs escaped, smiled, shouted “Wow” and punched the air.

“Nine days of a non-stop nightmare,” was how Daniels, who is in his 30s, described the situation in Baba Amr to a handful of reporters at the airport.

He said on Europe-1 radio that on some days 300 shells fell on the district and “several dozen were aimed at us. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

But the folks there “treated us like kings,” he said, adding, “These people are heroes being massacred.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Bouvier’s courage and the “almost chivalrous spirit of her partner in misfortune, William Daniels, who never abandoned Edith Bouvier even though he was unhurt and had other possibilities of getting out.”

Sarkozy criticized Syrian authorities, saying they “will have to answer to international legal authorities for their crimes. The crimes they committed will not go unpunished.”

Sarkozy said earlier Friday that France was closing its embassy in Damascus, following Britain and the United States among Western nations.

After she emerged from the aircraft, a red ambulance whisked Bouvier to a hospital to treat fractures to her leg received in the Feb. 22 attack.

A senior Lebanese security official said earlier that Bouvier and Daniels were smuggled across the Lebanese-Syrian border into the northeastern part of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Bouvier was then taken to the Hotel-Dieu de France hospital in Beirut.

Le Figaro newspaper, in an article Friday morning, described a journey with rebels through secret tunnels then a wintry downpour of snow. Bouvier was on a stretcher during the trip.

The Lebanese security official, speaking Friday on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the convoy of ambulances and police vehicles who met the group in Lebanon drove through the mountains in a snowstorm to bring Bouvier to Beirut.

The army doctor who accompanied the pair to Paris from Beirut said Bouvier, 31, was a strong woman. “Some other people might have collapsed” from the experience, Eves Morgand told BFM-TV.

Meanwhile, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation Friday for murder in the death of Ochlik and attempted murder in Bouvier’s case. France can investigate crimes abroad when its citizens are victims.

On Friday evening, Red Cross spokesman Bijan Farnoudi told The Associated Press that the organization had been handed the remains of Ochlik and Colvin and would take them to Damascus.

Later, Polish Ambassador Michal Murkocinski and French Ambassador Eric Chevalier identified their bodies at a Damascus morgue, according to Poland’s Foreign Ministry. Polish diplomats, in consultation with the U.S. — whose interests in Syria are represented by Poland — are engaged in efforts to transport Colvin’s body to the U.S. as soon as possible, the ministry said.

On Thursday, videos released by activists in Syria said Colvin and Ochlik were buried in Baba Amr. But the Syrian government said the bodies had been disinterred and would repatriate them.

Conroy, the injured Sunday Times photographer, said in an interview Friday with Sky News that the Syrian onslaught was “absolutely indiscriminate.”

“There are rooms full of people waiting to die,” he said, adding that the people live without power, water and scarce food supplies in “bombed out wrecks.” Conroy, who had shrapnel removed from his leg, called on the international community to “do something.”

“In years to come we’re going to sit and we’re going to go, ’How did we let this happen under our nose?”’ he said. “Once the cameras are gone, as they are now, God knows what’s happening.”

A video posted online by activists soon after the Feb. 22 attack showed Bouvier lying on a hospital gurney with a white cast stretching from her left ankle to her thigh. In another video, Bouvier said her leg was broken in two places and that she needed an operation that local medics couldn’t perform. Daniels stood at her side and pleaded for help.

“It is difficult here. We don’t have electricity. We don’t have much to eat. The bombs continue to fall,” Daniels said.

Also stuck in the rebel-held neighbourhood, which has been under a tight government siege and daily shelling for nearly four weeks, was Javier Espinosa of Spain. He, too, was smuggled into Lebanon this week.

“The people just hide during the day — just waiting not to be hit because it was a matter of luck,” he said in an interview with BBC. “There was no logic. They were shelling randomly, randomly from one corner to the other corner in the neighbourhood.”

He said people would go out only after dark.

“They went outside at night and tried to pick up the pieces of houses that were demolished and get some food and try to get some supplies for people inside that could not move,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has prevented most reporters from working in the country, leading some to make illegal crossings from Lebanon and Turkey.

On Thursday, rebel forces said they were pulling out of Baba Amr, and a Syrian government official said the army had moved in. Activists say hundreds have been killed in Homs.

———

Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut. Frank Jordans in Geneva and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, also contributed to this report.

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