While French courts look for answers into the death of reporter Gilles Jacquier in Homs, two Swiss journalists Sid Ahmed Hammouche and Patrick Vallélian, who were with him in Syria, tell the DCMF what exactly happened on January 13th.
Boom! A loud bang shook the Alawite district of New Akrama, close to the University of Homs. It is 3.20pm on Wednesday January 11th. Our black minivan is stopped by a demonstration of supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. We are sitting inside with France 2 cameraman Christophe Kenck, reporter Gilles Jacquier of the French current-affairs TV programme “Envoyé Spécial”, his wife the freelance photographer Caroline Poiron, and their fixer Mireille,
Ahead of us, about 40 young people, mostly men, very excited, are singing their love for the regime, waving placards in English and Arabic to welcome the Syrian army.
They tumbled on our car a few minutes earlier, out of nowhere, while we were parked next to a garden and a small amusement park full of children. We were then waiting for a Flemish television crew, also part of the trip.
For several months, the government in Damas has not been able to control parts of Homs that are now held by the Free Syrian Army.
Horror movie scenario
The nightmare begins. It looks like the script for a horror film that will cost the life of Gilles Jacquier, one of the most successful French journalists and a very experienced war reporter. After the explosion, civilians opened the doors of our vehicle, prompting us to go and see the point of impact. Christophe Kenck is hesitating, but Gilles and Mireille are already following the Belgians who have taken the lead.
We choose to stay behind to watch, and get further away from the van as it could be a target.
Around us, the condensed security forces have vanished in minutes.
Only an armed military has stayed with us, along with a Shabeeha, a pro-Bashar militia with his Kalashnikov, and a very animated young man wearing a white jumper. He pushes us to go to to a garden that leads to a school, about 60 metres to our right. He will be coming back to us again with the same request.
We decline while walking back carefully in an almost empty street. About 30 seconds later, another explosion occurs a few metres away from us and blows us. We dive to the ground without damage, but are feeling groggy.
We understand that this visit ,which has been organised for our group made of a dozen foreign journalists, turned into a trap.
We don’t wait any longer and turn back while our cameras are constantly rolling.
We see men moving on the rooftops - snipers? We’re not sure, so we stick to the skirts of the military who keep telling us to go back to the place of the first impact, where Gilles Jacquier is now located with his wife Caroline and the other journalists.
"It's nothing. These are sound bombs, "he said, smiling.
Strangely, the few security men who remained with us are calm, even though foreigners are in danger.
When the third and fourth explosions happen, we are even further back, at the crossroads. Soldiers have ordered our frightened driver to leave the area without us, and return to the hotel. We summon him to stay.
Suddenly, an ambulance and taxis carrying some victims pass before us loudly. A soldier shows us the way to the hospital. We find Christophe at the Al Nahda clinic, a charitable institution that treats the poor. "Gilles is dead," he says, crying before he falls into our arms.
It's chaos in this humble hospital. There are armed men of the intelligence service, policemen, soldiers, civilians. Blood is everywhere. Shouting. Many come to us saying, "Look at the effects of the shells of freedom."
We run up to the floor where Caroline is clinging to the body of Gilles, alone. He is lying on a bed, barely covered by a blanket. No blood, still warm, he could simply be asleep.
Two Syrian television crews (Al and Al Dounia Surya) point their camera on Gilles. Caroline refuses by threatening to take legal action if an image exits the room.
Our fear - that the Syrian media use the images of Gilles on his death bed for political purposes, explaining that he is the first French victim of terrorism in Syria.
We tell Syrian officials parading in front of us that the "case" is now handled by Paris and Damascus. The message is clear: no one touches Gilles’ body until the French authorities are here.
We avoid all the traps, one after the other, from the fake doctor to the fake nurse... But on several occasions, armed men are coming back to see us and offer to transport the body to Damascus or to perform an autopsy on the body in our presence, and with the permission of Gilles’ wife.
Many times we are asked to confirm that we have been attacked by terrorists.
Finally, when two observers of the Arab League get here just to "observe the death" they refuse to stay behind the door to protect us because they have to "eat at the hotel."
France’s ambassador, Eric Chevallier, reaches the hospital at around 9.30 pm with a security team to evacuate us in a heavy atmosphere.
We rush downstairs, under the protection of the French security. Outside, pro-Bashar demonstrators, some of which hold candles, are chanting anti-French and anti-terrorism slogans.
They repeat in unison what their president said on TV the day before – that his country is not facing a revolution but terrorist attacks.
We ride in armored vehicles towards Damascus.
An ambulance is transporting Gilles’ body. The next evening, we leave Syria on a flight chartered by France Televisions. We land in Paris at night with Gilles’s remains.
Back to square one, where we boarded on the Amman-Damascus Air France flight with the French crew.
Where the story started
We need to get through to Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a French-Lebanese-Palestinian-Syrian Christian nun who invited us and organised the press trip approved by the Syrian authorities and under their responsibility.
Mother Agnes is very comfortable in the middle of the Syrian security services and promises that we will be free of our movements, of our meetings and to cover the stories we want, in order "to rectify the propaganda lead by the Western media, the "Goebbels-Atlantic" propaganda in her own words.
Swept by icy cold air, the Syrian capital is rather peaceful. Security is still pervasive and the slightest manifestation lead by insurgents is repressed in a blood.
There is a lot of mistrust, and we need to be extra careful to meet our sources.
Imposed minder, failed promises
The “Envoyé Spécial” team wanted to stay in Damascus, while others wanted to leave the capital. Another problem: Mother Agnes has imposed a minder, Mireille, to accompany Gilles.
Officially, the young Lebanese woman was working as a translator. But sometimes, she acted like a little soldier serving the nun and the Syrians, preventing us from travelling to certain areas "for security reasons."
Then the nuns’ promises fall one after the other. We were supposed to be free. We discover that we have to stay in groups and must receive green lights of the Ministry of Information to get around but we can never meet their leaders.
Our typical Helvetic wariness will save us, as well as our distrust when we arrived at As Safir Hotel an hour and a half later, in Homs, and especially Sid Ahmed Hammouche’s anxiousness as he is reminded of scenes of the recent civil war in Algeria that he covered extensively.
As we come out of the minivan, we are greeted by about 40 soldiers, armed civilians and intelligence agents who stare at us.
"Which one is the team from French television?" one of them asks Sid Ahmed Hammouche. We will see many of these faces again later, on the scene.
The conditions in which Gilles Jacquier died are still mysterious.
Actually, nothing says that he was the victim of direct mortar fire as his body has remained untouched, with some visible round impacts on his heart. These impacts are inconsistent with death by grenade or mortar.
Were other weapons were used against Gilles Jacquier? Was he directly targeted? Should we see his death as a state murder? A blunder of the Free Syrian Army (the main opposition group which believes in an armed struggle) as they have spent most of their time defending their positions in these areas surrounded by the army? Or is it an attack lead by a small group of uncontrollable Salafists?
In any case, Damascus did not wait to hear the outcome of its investigation to condemn a terrorist attack. A thesis that is convenient for them to close the country to foreign media.
For us, it is clear that we fell into a trap.
Many questions are bustling around in our heads. French prosecutors are asking themselves the same ones and have opened an investigation for murder.
What happened to the men who were supposed to secure our convoy of foreign journalists in Homs? Why did the explosions suddenly target the neighbourhood where we had just arrived? Why was our minivan blocked by the security’s vehicles and by this pro-Bashar demonstration few minutes before Gilles died? How do you explain that people wearing civilian clothes were there, encouraging us to go where the explosions were about to take place?
In the footage shot by Belgian TV channel, one of the young men even announces the blast at the house before it occurs. Why did another one push us to go to school before the explosion? What is the role of Mother Agnes, who says she is now in danger?
There is one thing we are sure of, however, we did trust the Syrian authorities who said they would protect us and let us do our work as witnesses, even if we know the limits of controlled journalism.
We regret it bitterly; we mourn a brilliant colleague, and a friend who leaves a courageous woman and children behind.
Fear is read on faces
Nonetheless it was necessary, in our opinion, to go in that locked and paranoid Syria, run by a dictatorial regime to testify, to give voice also to the brave opponents who took risks meeting us. And to read the fear on the faces and read the messages of millions of Syrians who speak with their eyes.
Yes, in this country, eyes speak, as Gilles had noticed on our last evening in Damascus in a giant café. He was amused to see that the same day their president had promised democracy, amnesty and a better future, smokers of shisha, card and badgamon players remained walled in their forty-year old silence. They are very familiar with this vicious regime. They are exhausted by it.
By Sid Ahmed Hammouche and Patrick Vallélian.