In President Bashar al-Assad's Syria, it is often said, "For every friend you have a hundred enemies" -- so intricate and ubiquitous is the web of informers and state security personnel that his regime has spun over the last 40 years.
In early February, Marie Colvin and I were assigned by The Sunday Times to cover the Syrian uprising. Our brief was to focus on the deteriorating situation in the besieged western city of Homs. The first obstacle we faced was simply gaining access to the country. During the Libyan war, the press had been welcomed and accommodated with a fervor that surprised many journalists. Syria offered no such comfort: Official visas were rarely issued and were often unwanted, due to heavy restrictions imposed on journalists by the state. We chose to enter illegally to gain access to Homs and other areas that we knew were prohibited by the regime.
The Syrian state, we had every reason to believe, would kill us if it could. In Beirut, Lebanese intelligence tipped us off to Syrian radio intercepts ordering that journalists who were caught in the Homs region without a visa were to be executed on the spot. Their bodies were to be arranged in such a way as to give the world the impression that they had been caught in the crossfire between rebel and government forces.
The hurdles began even before we entered Syria: As we approached the Syrian-Lebanese border, we had to traverse the strongholds of Hezbollah, which backs the Assad regime and created internal barriers to anyone who attempted to cross without their permission. Our illegal entry into Syria was facilitated by gunrunners working in liaison with rebels of the newly born Free Syrian Army (FSA). We had to cross minefields and pass within a hundred yards of Syrian army patrols even before our reporting work commenced.
Once inside Syria, it was immediately clear that no area was safe. There was no conventional front line, and no safe area to fall back on. The conflict was being fought all around us.
All movement was heavily restricted. Scouts had to check the roads ahead every 300 feet for regime patrols, and any movement was only possible with FSA escorts. This dependence made it difficult to cover both sides of the conflict -- and meant we needed to be extra cautious when verifying claims of torture and murder by Assad's forces.
Our route into the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, where rebel fighters were making a furious stand, was a roughly 2-mile-long storm drain -- the only lifeline open to residents for vital food, medicine, and ammunition supplies. It was also the only evacuation route for the hundreds of critically ill civilians wounded in the ferocious shelling campaign.
Once inside Baba Amr, the rules of war ceased to exist. The elite 4th division of the Syrian army, commanded by Bashar's brother Maher, waged a ruthless siege against the city. Assad's army made no pretense of targeting military positions -- there were none. In February, the fledgling FSA was a purely defensive group -- born of a need to protect civilians during demonstrations. As such, it had no capability to take the fight to the Syrian army. The sustained and systematic shelling of this tiny Sunni neighbourhood killed and injured thousands of defenseless civilians.
As journalists, we became targets in the regime's attempt to crush Homs by any and all means. On Feb. 22, journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were deliberately murdered in artillery strike that also wounded Edith Bouvier and me. The Syrian regime had come to view us -- the survivors of this attack -- as some of the only credible witnesses to the slaughter that it had unleashed on civilians in Baba Amr. It would do everything in its power to make sure we didn't get out of the country alive.
Front lines, such as they exist now, are fluid and unstable. This can be both a blessing and a curse for any journalist reporting from Syria. On more than one occasion, we spoke to military and security agents who continued to fight for the regime by day -- but at night would pay clandestine visits to safe houses, brief FSA commanders on their current operations, and return to fight for the regime the following day. As journalists, we relied heavily on those who provide our food, transport, and protection. Such dependency means you inevitably forfeit the ability to roam the battlefield.
And looming over all these challenges, of course, is the very real risk of death for the journalists covering the war, and those who choose to help them. This uniquely dangerous environment has forced journalists to change the methods we use to report on this conflict -- and altered the stories we can tell from the front line.
Paul Conroy is a photojournalist with the Sunday Times.