Another early morning in Baba Amr, another late night here. My plan is to write a simple post from a few reports on the day’s events in Homs, the fifth consecutive day of shelling in Baba Amr. Keeping an eye on Skype and Twitter and my ears tuned in to Omar Shakir’s livestream broadcast, I begin, intending to finish quickly with the goal of sleeping earlier than the last four nights. Omar’s livestream is calm. The quiet moments before dawn are punctuated by chirping birds and soon after by the crowing rooster of Baba Amr, whose crows have now been heard across the world. I hear a booming noise in the distance every now and then. They have become part of Baba Amr’s everyday soundtrack, as normal as the calls of the rooster.
People tweet that it seems more peaceful, that the sounds of shelling are less intense. Then I notice Omar’s latest tweets, in Arabic with no hashtags, just cries of pure desperation. I sense this is Omar the person speaking not the citizen journalist. I know something was terribly wrong. A few moments later, we find out what it was. A different livestream camera had been targeted with a missile. People watched as the screen turned gray with smoke then black. The feed is dead. So are the five people who were manning the camera, including two women. I realize that Omar had been tweeting about witnessing the explosion of his friends, “A street strewn with limbs. People have become limbs. We have no one but you, God.”
Five dead quickly become twenty-nine and another fifty-five wounded. My fresh reports from an hour ago are now obsolete. Baba Amr is under attack. Again.
Missiles rip apart residential areas in Baba Amr. 9 February 2011.
As I read Omar’s tweets and watch his videos, Jaafar, an activist in Daraa, messages me on Skype, “I need you to connect me to someone from the media to speak to a doctor in Homs.” I tweet, many kind people retweet, and we wait. He sends me another message, “I want television coverage not an article.” I wasn’t about to start arguing or tell him that beggars can’t be choosers. But truth is, no one is contacting me. So I call him and tell him I want to speak to the people in Baba Amr myself. He says reluctantly, “For an article?” “Yes, Jaafar,” I say, holding my tongue, “For an article.” He says, “Okay.” Moments later we’re on the call.
I speak to Yousef (whose name has been changed for his protection), an activist in Baba Amr who was assisting the doctor. The doctor was at another makeshift field hospital taking care of the wounded. Yousef recounts this morning’s events.
“The shelling started at 5 a.m. There are four families buried under the rubble of their homes. The rockets tear through one side of a house and penetrate through the walls into the next. At night, the shelling is less frequent but the snipers are everywhere, targeting every moving object. If people leave their homes to get food or anything, the snipers are ready. Almost fifty percent of the homes in Baba Amr are destroyed. Four days before the shelling, Baba Amr was cut off from the rest of the city. Cut off from bread and food. There is no food. When the Red Crescent entered, the army took all their supplies before letting them in. And they didn’t allow them to take any wounded out. What did we get out of the Red Crescent without supplies?” As we speak I can hear the pounding explosions in the background. Planes are circling over Baba Amr, launching missiles into buildings filled with people.
Journalists are responding now. I connect each one to Jaafar. He’s like a media traffic controller, efficient and precise. I listen to him typing while he talks, ordering activists to be ready to speak, in English and Arabic. Each time I send him a name of someone who is interested in an interview, he messages me within one second, “television or newspaper?” He says, “I want people to listen to the explosions, to see with their eyes, not just read about it. Reading about it is not good enough.” I smile to myself and respond dutifully: newspaper, newspaper, radio. The radio interview makes him happier, and for some reason that makes me as well.
I listened in to the calls with the journalists. I could tell Yousef was getting frustrated. When they ask for the number of dead, Yousef repeats, “Twenty-nine. No, not in the last twenty-four hours, the last four hours.” Later, a reporter asks, “What is the condition of the hospital?” He answers, “There are no hospitals. We’ve made our homes into hospitals. We are treating our wounded in the mosque.” She asks again, “Where is the hospital?” He replies in a clipped tone, “It’s not a hospital. It’s a mosque.”
Tour of mosque turned field hospital in Bab Amr.
By the next interview, Yousef no longer sounds eager to talk about what is happening, his voice is heavy with despair, “We have nothing. We need a way to get out of Baba Amr. We need a way to get the children out to protect them, to protect our women and our elderly. They are dying. Our children are dying. What are the sins of these children? Nothing. Just that they are from Baba Amr.”
I was hoping my mission was complete when I transferred the radio contact. But before I log off, I get a message. An American news network, Jaafar would be delighted. Glancing at my watch, I send the contact. When I tell Jaafar, I notice he is distracted. He tells me there was a loud explosion during the radio interview. The building was hit. All communication was lost.
Jafaar’s voice sounds distraught. With connections severed from Homs, he didn’t know what was happening—an unbearable feeling for an activist working on communication nonstop for eleven months. “Where’s the media?” he keeps asking, over and over. He says, “You know we’ve lost twelve people in the villages around Daraa today. The army is preparing Daraa for its tanks and shells, but we stopped working on everything except Homs. Baba Amr is finished. In five more days it will be completely gone. Where is the media?” At this point I’m depressed as well and completely exhausted, and I say, “Jaafar, It’s not going to change anything. The media can’t stop the planes from dropping bombs, it can’t stop the army from walking into Baba Amr to finish what they started. The media can’t do anything.” He’s silent and I feel guilty. I had said exactly what he was thinking, but by saying the words aloud, I had rendered us both obsolete.
The TV reporter calls. I tell her there is no longer a doctor nor a connection with Homs. So she speaks only to Jaafar, while I translate his words. In her last question, she asks him, “Is there anything more you want add?” He replies in a low voice, half to her and half to himself, “I just want to know what happened to him.” Yousef had messaged him right after the explosion, “You will never hear from me again.” I know what Jaafar was thinking: dead or imprisoned, those are the only scenarios for our activists.
Before we hang up, I tell him to be safe. I tell him that I’ll call him tomorrow. I go to bed only a couple of hours before morning. My head is pounding. Fifty percent of a neighborhood is destroyed, Omar is surrounded by human limbs, Jaafar is disconnected from his friends, Yousef is missing, the people of Baba Amr are asking for safe passage for the women and children before the army enters to round up the men. They are asking for mercy from a merciless regime. The number of dead are in the seventies now. It will be higher when I wake up. People will be dying in my sleep.
Jaafar is right. What you just read will not save lives. It will not stop the attacks on Baba Amr or Idleb or Zabadani or Palmyra or Daraa. It will not change what happened this morning or what will happen tomorrow. It’s just a story of what happened, in a place called Syria, while you were sleeping.
A tweet from Omar Shakir this evening: You can shell us with rockets, you can bomb us from airplanes, you can slaughter our children, but you should know Bashar, since we began, our chant was death before humiliation.
Aftermath of shelling in Baba Amr, 9 February 2012
Wounded child in makeshift clinic in Baba Amr, 9 February 2012.
Mother of seven children killed by shelling in Baba Amr, 9 February 2012