Finding hell in Syria’s Qusayr

By James Palmer
August 29, 2014

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 


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