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Syrians who fled to Lebanon tell of the shelling attack on Homs

March 8, 2012 |  2:42 pm

Syrian refugees in Tripoli, Lebanon

REPORTING FROM TRIPOLI, LEBANON -- The activist said he was inside the makeshift media center in the western Syrian city of Homs when it was hit by a shelling attack that killed American journalist Marie Colvin, French photographer Remy Ochlik and several Syrian activists.

When shelling came close to the media center the morning of Feb. 22, the group inside decided to try to escape in pairs, Bassil Fouad said. Colvin, 56, and Ochlik, 28, were to be the second pair fleeing the site, Fouad said.

"Marie and Remy were leaving and were inside opening the house door," Fouad said, when there was an explosion. "I was inside and the house was full of dust, doors were broken and I heard shouting from people in the house. When the dust settled, we saw Marie and Remy and we couldn't distinguish between the two bodies."

Fouad, 30, and another activist, Omar Shakir, 21, recently fled to Lebanon, joining a number of others who left the Baba Amr district of Homs to escape the violence.

Fouad said in an interview that he left Syria a few days after the attack on the media center in part by relying on a more than mile-long sewer tunnel -- slightly less than 5 feet in diameter -- that was also used to smuggle essential materials into the besieged neighborhood. He arrived in Lebanon about a day later. 

During its months-long occupation by opposition activists and armed rebels, Baba Amr served as a kind of autonomous community, Shakir said. Different branches of a consulting council, or shura, were responsible for various tasks, including providing security, traffic police and street cleaning, he said.

The media center was part of an ambitious opposition effort that eventually sent out scores of videos of life under siege in the district. Many ran on international news channels and often represented the only news coming out of the embattled rebel enclave.

At the start of the media operation, Shakir said, the amateur videographers had only cellphone cameras.  But  donations from relatives and others abroad enabled the group to buy more advanced gear, including high-definition cameras, new laptops and a satellite connection, he said. While filming, activists were taught to focus tight on their subjects to avoid giving the government any landmarks that might pinpoint their positions.

Opposition activists have alleged that Syrian authorities targeted the media center. Authorities denied targeting journalists.  

During weeks of shelling, the opposition says, most residents fled the neighborhood, which once had a population of about100,000. Recent government video of the district has shown a panorama of destruction, with few buildings seemingly untouched by gunfire and shelling.

Today, with Babr Amr back under government control -- troops overran the district on March 1 -- Shakir said he and his friends are trying to keep information trickling out of Homs using what he calls a "trusted secret group sharing news" that remains in Baba Amr.

ALSO:

Syrian rebels in Idlib bide their time

Syrian Christians worry about life after Bashar Assad

Syrian rebels, government trade blame for Homs killings

-- Alexandra Sandels

Photo: Syrian refugees prepare their documents before receiving aid from a charity in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on March 6, 2012. Many Syrians have crossed into Lebanon in recent days fleeing the violence in the flash point of Homs, according to U.N. and local officials. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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