CAIRO - During a terrifying two minutes yesterday morning, 11 rockets slammed into a single apartment building in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, the city in Syria that has been besieged by government forces for 19 days.
When the barrage stopped, the surviving occupants stampeded down the building’s narrow concrete staircase, hoping to escape to the street. Then suddenly the bombardment resumed. More rockets splattered masonry and scattered shrapnel, blowing holes in walls and staircases and leaving a trail of the dead and the dying from the fifth floor on down.
At least 22 bodies, including that of 6-year-old Mohammad Yahia al-Wees, were recovered from the scene, according to accounts and videos compiled by activists. And amid the rubble on the stairwell of the ground floor, 10 yards from the door and possible safety, lay the bodies of two foreign journalists, Marie Colvin, a veteran war correspondent, and Remi Ochlik, a noted photojournalist. They were among the few outsiders able to reach Homs, taking great personal risks and defying a government determined to hide its repression from the world. In the end, they died trying to reveal what was happening there.
As hundreds of homemade videos pouring out of Homs have made clear, the bombardment of the apartment building was just one episode in the Syrian Army’s daily assault on the city. Heavy weaponry has been used to devastating effect against civilian neighborhoods that have virtually no defense.
One video distributed yesterday shows a group of men laid out on blankets, their wounds as visible as the anguish on the faces of onlookers. Another captures doctors lamenting their lack of supplies as they treat the wounded. Buildings are so pockmarked that they seem to be on the verge of collapse. The scenes are accompanied by eerie audio with cries of despair, explosions, and activists’ commentary about the scenes before them.
“This is the first YouTube war,’’ said Rami Jarrah, codirector of the Activists News Association, a Cairo-based group.
Colvin’s last article, published in The Sunday Times of London just days before her death, began by describing what the rebels called “a widow’s basement,’’ a cramped room under a factory where women and children huddled while the men went out to forage or fight - and often did not return.
“The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense,’’ Colvin wrote. “The inhabitants are living in terror.’’
Activists inside Syria described how the wounded had fewer places to go. Al Hikma Hospital was destroyed by shelling on the first days of the government siege of Homs, said Sami Ibrahim of the Syrian Network of Human Rights, contacted by Skype from Homs. Two field clinics hidden in homes were destroyed as well, he said.
With everyday life suspended, schools and businesses were said to be closed, and water and electricity were off more than on. People rarely ventured out unless absolutely necessary, activists said, and the bombardment made it too dangerous to hunt thoroughly for the dead.
The crackdown by the government of President Bashar Assad has succeeded in keeping most foreign journalists out of Syria since protests began March 15, but a raw version of events is still finding its way out. The United Nations said it had documented 5,400 deaths as of January, when it was no longer able to safely gather information. Unofficial tallies indicate that hundreds more have died in Homs over the past three weeks. While unconfirmed, the activists’ accounts are often the only window into events inside Syria.
Assad “shut off the Internet and cut us off from the world,’’ said Abu Jaffar, a Homs activist, who helped dig out bodies from the apartment building and then videotaped the effort and posted the results. “So he has made every Syrian into a journalist.’’