Finding hell in Syria’s Qusayr

By James Palmer
August 29, 2014
palmer_12.JPG

Click picture for a gallery of James Palmer’s photographs

In the summer of 2012, I spent three weeks in the besieged Syrian town of Qusayr working as a freelance photographer and writer with a group of young anti-Assad activists in a second-floor apartment next door to a field hospital. Regardless of whether I was working or sleeping, I raced downstairs to shoot photos whenever I thought heard casualties arrive.

The shelling victims often arrived from the countryside plastered in earth and crumpled along the backs of pickup trucks. They were often working in a field when the shell hit and the layers of dirt on them were often so thick you could barely see their faces. One day I saw a small girl who appeared less than 10 draped with soil and speckled with blood. She refused the nurses’ pleas to lie down and kept sitting upright to view the grey, motionless body of the man on the table next to her who appeared drained of his last drop of blood. After every glance she cast upon the corpse, she turned back toward me and screamed louder.

Despite such cries, the most haunting sound in Qusayr was the chopping whirl of the propellers atop a Syrian military helicopter gunship. They echoed over the town nearly every morning after sunrise during my stay.

But this was just surveillance. The bombs didn’t drop until later in the day.

When the helicopters returned in the afternoon, I positioned myself in the doorway leading to the roof of my apartment building. The pilot seemed to taunt those of us below as he menacingly steered the machine lower toward the ground. I sometimes wondered in these moments what would happen if he dropped candy rather than a bomb. But that reverie was shattered as the soaring pitch of a whistle knifed through the air. The sound turned into a crackling sizzle as it finished its plunging descent. At that point there was no use in ducking. I could only hope that I moved fast enough to capture the impact with my lens.

One morning, I was caught outside when a helicopter started firing on the town. Within moments I was in the bedroom of a private house standing next to an elderly woman with a deeply lined face. As the sound of lead crashed outside in the streets, she held a baby up to my face, presumably to kiss. So I did. I figured it couldn’t do any harm.

At night, tank shells buzzed across the skies. But sleeping wasn’t a problem: If you could hear the fins on the shells swiftly spinning overhead, you realized you were safe — if not, it would be too late to worry about it.

Shortly before I left Qusayr the rebel group who controlled the town overran a Syrian army post in former public health complex. A few days later I was inside the main hospital snapping photos as dozens of fighters were lugging kegs of explosives and wiring them along its corridors and stairs. This, as small fires burned all the floors and mortars crashed indiscriminately around us. I thought at the time that being there was, without question, the worst decision I ever made professionally. The risks far outweighed the significance of the coverage.

My instincts and luck were reliable in Qusayr, as far as safety and reporting stories were concerned. But they failed me miserably on the business end.

While I lined up clients before departing for Syria, I believed I would get more once I was on the ground with stories to pitch.

But that never happened. Nobody wanted to take me on with the liabilities I presented. And without British and American troops on the ground, nobody seemed to care much.

 

PHOTO: The Free Syrian Army detonates the last of two planned explosions inside a former Syrian military base, September 03, 2012, in al-Qusayr, Syria. REUTERS/Courtesy James Palmer 

760 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in penning this blog. I really hope to check out the same high-grade content by you in the future as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has encouraged me to get my own website now

I have recently started a web site, the info you provide on this web site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work.

I simply desired to thank you very much once more. I am not sure what I might have done without the entire hints discussed by you about this subject matter. It was a real daunting situation for me, but looking at a new expert fashion you processed the issue forced me to jump for contentment. I am just happier for the service and believe you find out what an amazing job you happen to be undertaking teaching the mediocre ones through the use of a blog. Most likely you haven’t encountered any of us.

Thank you a bunch for sharing this with all of us you really realize what you are talking approximately! Bookmarked. Please also consult with my web site =). We will have a link alternate agreement among us!

It’s remarkable to pay a visit this web page and reading the views of all friends about this post, while I am also zealous of getting knowledge.|

Unquestionably believe that which you said. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the internet the easiest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get irked while people consider worries that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the whole thing without having side effect , people can take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

A person necessarily lend a hand to make severely posts I’d state. This is the very first time I frequented your website page and thus far? I surprised with the analysis you made to create this particular publish extraordinary. Great task!|

Everything is very open with a very clear description of the challenges. It was really informative. Your website is extremely helpful. Many thanks for sharing!|

Ahaa, its nice conversation on the topic of this piece of writing here at this weblog, I have read all that, so at this time me also commenting at this place.|

Everything is very open with a really clear explanation of the issues. It was definitely informative. Your website is useful. Many thanks for sharing!|

Posted by seo agency | Report as abusive

I just could not go away your web site prior to suggesting that I really loved the standard information an individual supply to your guests? Is gonna be back incessantly in order to check up on new posts|

I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Exceptionally well written!

Just want to say your article is as amazing. The clarity in your post is just cool and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the rewarding work.|

Thankfulness to my father who stated to me on the topic of this weblog, this web site is really awesome.|

I am in fact pleased to read this weblog posts which carries plenty of helpful data, thanks for providing these data.|

Good article. I am facing many of these issues as well..

This is the perfect blog for everyone who hopes to find out about this topic. You understand so much its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually would want to…HaHa). You definitely put a brand new spin on a subject that has been written about for a long time. Excellent stuff, just excellent!

Yes! Finally something about %keyword1%.|

We are a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your site offered us with helpful info to work on. You’ve performed an impressive activity and our entire neighborhood might be thankful to you.|

Generally I do not read article on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very compelled me to take a look at and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thank you, quite nice post.|