From Nima Elbagir, CNN
London (CNN) - From his London hospital room, journalist Paul Conroy recalled Sunday his harrowing journey to hell and back from Syria - speaking out against what he called its "murderous regime" in tribute to those, including his colleague Marie Colvin, killed in the chaos.
Few foreign journalists have been in the Middle Eastern nation in recent months, as Syria's government has stringently restricted access amid widespread violence that the United Nations estimates has left more than 7,500 people dead.
President Bashar al-Assad's government blames "armed terrorist groups" for the bloodshed. Yet senior U.N. official Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council last week that often over "100 civilians a day, including women and children" are being killed - most of them the victims of what activists and witnesses have described as brutal attacks by Syrian government forces.
Conroy spoke to CNN at length, days after surviving a bloody attack and surreptitiously escaping from the ravaged city of Homs to Lebanon and eventually back to his native Britain. After spending several days in Syria, both reporting and lying wounded in an embattled medical center, he had no doubts about who was responsible.
Part 2 of CNN's Interview with Paul Conroy:
"It's really hard when you've got people presenting you with bits of people saying, 'Why aren't you helping?' What can I tell them?" Conroy said. "It's not like we don't know what's happening anymore. We do know."
His colleague at Britain's Sunday Times' newspaper, Colvin, had been with him earlier in February when they sneaked into Homs, which has been a hub of the resistance movement and government crackdown.
Conroy called the experience - without government minders, into what had been a largely imagined situation until then - "an eye-opener (given) the level of butchery going on."
After what they'd seen already, Colvin couldn't stand to just head home, he said.
"Marie was on fire," Conroy said. "She couldn't let this go. Two days wasn't enough."
So they returned to Homs to find "the situation was going downhill, almost by the hour." They talked with CNN and the BBC, intent on doing whatever possible to get the news out.
Around 8:15 a.m. the next morning, February 22, the building they were in took a direct hit, filling the air with dust and smoke. Several more blows followed.
Conroy remembered feeling "massive pressure" and knowing he'd been hit. He later was found to be severely wounded in his stomach and leg.
"So I ran through where the door had been and, on the way out, more or less tripped over Marie's body and fell down next to her," he said. "Her head was covered in rubble, her legs were covered in rubble, and she was obviously dead."
Activists soon risked their lives and dragged Conroy outside, threw him in a car and took him to the field hospital - "ironically, what we'd been trying to get to for two days."
A room, fitted with mattresses, became home to Conroy and another wounded journalist, Edith Bouvier of France, for the next five days. He learned that, in addition to Colvin, another journalist, Remi Ochlik, also was killed, while colleague William Daniels had survived the attack.
Yet there was little peace. Conroy said. Every day, there was "the most savage and ferocious bombardment" imaginable - reporting even what he called an "Iranian drone flying around, looking for targets."
Then late one afternoon, ambulances descended on the hospital. The initial word was first that there was a cease-fire and that Red Cross representatives would be on hand soon to take him, Bouvier and others home.
But Conroy said Red Cross workers didn't show up, just civilian Red Crescent members "with no diplomatic presence."
A delegation member who was trusted by the Free Syrian Army - the armed opposition group, made up largely of Syrian military defectors, who had looked after the journalists - said that he heard Syrian state television planned to film the two being put on ambulances, then government forces would stage an attack that they'd later blame on the Free Syrian Army.
Conroy said he was confused, but determined to get out.
"When you see bodies of kids with sniper rounds through the head, what's a journalist who had two of their roommates killed (to think)?" he said. "I'd rather die on the ground than wait for some lunatic to come in and start (shooting)."
A short time later, after borrowing shoes and pants, Conroy said he got an injection from doctors - "I just said put anything in, because I knew it was going to be a very painful experience" - and got into a Free Syrian Army vehicle. He emerged on a street, then found "most of the buildings" that had been there a few days before were "gone."
Part 3 of CNN's Interview with Paul Conroy:
Conroy said a rope was tied around him, and he was lowered about five meters (16 feet) into a tunnel. There, he and a seriously wounded boy, roughly 10 years old, joined a driver on a small motorbike.
"We just drove off, into this night, in this tunnel," he said, adding that he learned Syrian forces shot up the same tunnel some 20 minutes later.
Yet he got out safely on the other end, being put on a stretcher and then placed in a "van full of dead and sick guys." The rest of his voyage consisted of "a series of motorbike rides (and) car journeys," at times past sporadic attacks and through battlefields.
Finally, Conroy said he was dropped off at a house, where three men were sitting watching television, with their machine guns nearby.
"And I thought, well, I better ask: Are we in Syria or Lebanon? They went, 'Lebanon,'" he said. "I just kind of sat down and had a toke of a ... cigarette...
"That's the first time that I felt I could actually allow myself to celebrate. I made it out. But I couldn't be delighted because nobody else was there with me. I was on my own."
Soon he was in the home of Tom Fletcher, Britain's ambassador to Lebanon, and eventually back in his native England. Last Friday, both Bouvier and Daniels returned to France - with the opposition group Avaaz claiming it helped them escape.
Now, dressed in a hospital gown, Conroy is on another mission: to get the word out about what's really going on. That is the best way, he figures, to reflect the spirit and mission of Colvin and other journalists killed in Syria.
And he would return, he says, if only to challenge the Syrian government to an open debate about what they have done and what they'll do next. Conroy said he's convinced "this regime will continue to exterminate civilians. They will massacre them. They will not stop."
"If you are big enough to throw your army in to kill the women and children, then be big enough to have a conversation about it," he said. "If you've got nothing to hide, come and do it.
"I'd go back, absolutely."
Journalists tour the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan one year after the disaster.
Rescue crews are evacuating wounded and sick women and children from the besieged Syrian city of Homs, a spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross said Friday. When asked if international journalists wounded in the city would be brought out, Carla Haddad Mardini said the mission was "to evacuate all wounded and sick in urgent need of medical assistance without any exception."
Activists say residents of Homs have endured three weeks of daily shelling by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Scores of people have been killed. On Wednesday, the prominent Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed when Syrian forces attacked a temporary media center.
French photojournalist “Mani” experienced the battle in Homs firsthand. Watch for Nic Robertson's interview with “Mani” this weekend on CNN. But first, Channel Four's Jonathan Miller gives voice to “Mani’s” incredible images in this special report from a Syrian city under siege. Please note, there are graphic images in this piece that may disturb you.
Not all regions of Iraq have been impacted by sectarian violence. The oil hub of Basra is seeing a big boom in economic growth. Frederik Pleitgen takes us to Iraq's second largest city.
While in Basra, Frederik Pleitgen discovered that the sport of boxing can transcend language barriers... And it turns out Fred isn't bad in the ring!
Iran's hardliners have recently threatened to shut down the crucial oil hub, the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Military has pledged to keep it open. Fred Pleitgen has more from aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
By Traci Tamura, CNN Senior Producer
"Linsanity" has arrived on the West Coast of the United States. All of the excitement surrounding a California-grown rising NBA star, Jeremy Lin, has hit a fever pitch – especially within the Asian-American community. The ethnic pride to see the first Asian-American to break into the starting line-up of an NBA team is simply LINTASTIC to watch.
I was also born and raised in California, and have been playing basketball since elementary school. I played point guard in high school, but got my start playing for an Asian-American basketball team coached by my father years earlier. California is home to several thousand youngsters playing in Asian-American basketball leagues. These leagues have been around since the 1930s and are as popular as ever today. It gives the kids a sense of cultural community and camaraderie.
My own two daughters started playing on their year-round girls Asian-American basketball teams in first grade. The girls have spent a fair amount of time watching Mom run up and down the court playing basketball on weekends with girlfriends, most of whom are also mothers with kids playing on these teams.
The racial pride that has spread through Asian-American basketball players is almost beyond words. To actually have an Asian-American role model playing and winning games for an NBA team is groundbreaking. And to finally be able to see a face like their own playing in the big show, on prime time TV, guarding the likes of Kobe Bryant is unprecedented.
For some Asian-American kids, their dreams have just burst wide open with Jeremy Lin's explosion onto the NBA scene. They can now envision themselves actually playing in the NBA. Whether or not that's a real probability is not the point. The hope, inspiration and possibility are enough for them.
As my third grade son says, "Jeremy Lin, he's amazing." And he would love to be like Jeremy. But, not everyone has bought into "Linsanity" at my house. When I asked my basketball-playing fifth grade daughter what she thought of Jeremy Lin she said, "Who's that?" Can't win them all. But Jeremy is proving that Asian's got game ... something I always knew.
CNN's Natalie Allen went with an adventure-philanthropy group to explore Vietnam. She ended up building a new playground for the children of the Catalyst Foundation in the coastal town of Rach Gia. Children in this area were previously living and playing around a large trash dump. Families around the border of Cambodia and Vietnam frequently have to worry about the harsh reality that their children could be sold to the sex trafficking industry.
By Natalie Allen, CNN
Twelve-year-old Dieu wears a bright-green top sprinkled with yellow flowers as she squats in a pile of garbage with her mother.
The two talk and laugh while their hands work quickly, sorting plastic from the discarded food and waste.
A full bag will bring their family just pennies. But this is their life’s work. They live on a dump in Rach Gia, Vietnam, part of the Mekong Delta.
Dieu’s little sister, one of nine siblings, watches from the family’s two-room shack. One of her brothers sits on a nearby tombstone with his dog. The dump lies on an abandoned cemetery, and the above-ground tombs are the only places to sit that aren’t covered by trash.
Some 200 families live on this and one other dump in Rach Gia. They are three generations of Cambodians who fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. It’s the only home they have ever known.
What they eat and what they wear is often from what they find in the trash. For the longest time, the children didn't even know flip-flops were supposed to match.
But there is a danger here far worse than filth or poverty.
Human traffickers prey on these poor people’s desperation. Children are bought and sold here, some for as little as $100. The parents sell because they are tricked into believing that the buyer has good intentions, that their children will have a promising job and a promising future. They so badly want to help their sons and daughters escape poverty.
Oftentimes, however, the children end up as sex slaves.
“The trafficker looks like your mom, (the trafficker) doesn't look like a bad guy," said Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker, who founded the Catalyst Foundation to help Dieu and other children in Vietnam's poorest communities.
The kids are sometimes stolen, too, when they make their long walk into town to sell lottery tickets.
“When we started, we knew of a house that was at the entrance of the dump, and we know girls were being taken in there by traffickers and being raped,” Ticarro-Parker said. "If they screamed, then they were let go. If they didn't scream, then they were taken. And the girls were as young as 4."
Lessons for survival
After leaving Dieu’s dump, I arrive at another one just as a sanitation truck leaves behind a fresh pile.
People scurry with picks and bags and start sorting. They work day and night alongside their children. At 1 a.m., when the last truck of the day arrives, they all don headlamps to work in the dark.
I follow a mother who carries her baby to the family’s shack. One could barely call it that; it is nothing more than tarps strung together for shelter. Bowls of discarded food are covered in flies. Clothes dry on barbed wire.
The mother lays her baby in a net strung up as a hammock. After rocking the baby to sleep, she heads back out to work in the dump.
Another parent offers me his baby when I arrive. He is cradling a little boy, months old, wearing a colorful striped hat. The father swats flies away from the child’s face. He mistakenly thinks I am here to buy his baby.
Ticarro-Parker’s family fled Vietnam when she was a child. She returned as an adult to give back to her homeland, bringing clothes to the poor. But when she stumbled onto the families of the Rach Gia dumps, she knew much more had to be done.
She went back home to Minnesota, started raising money and eventually opened a school for the children of the dump.
Lesson one: Arm the children with cell phones so they can call for help.
“It sounds weird, but we gave the prettiest girls the cell phones first,” Ticarro-Parker said. “They’re most at risk.”
Lesson two: Teach the children to read so that if they are taken, they can read city signs and call the school to let them know where they are.
That happened in 2008. Four girls were taken, but the traffickers were caught because the girls had a cell phone and knew how to read a road sign to give their location.
Lesson three: Teach the children to run if strangers approach.
That’s exactly what 13-year-old Hanh did when men, presumably traffickers, chased her and her brother as they walked home on the last day of school in 2010. She did what she was taught and ran. But while getting away, Hanh fell into a canal and drowned.
Ticarro-Parker fights back tears recalling the tragedy: “She died doing what we asked.”
Before she died, Hanh was interviewed for the school’s first brochure. Next to her picture is a quote of what hope meant to her: “Hope is my school.”
School is the only hope for these children, Ticarro-Parker says. It strengthens the entire community.
"When we started it was 99% illiteracy,” she said. “None of the parents (at the dumps) knew how to read and write, the children had never been to school.”
They are now down to 40% illiteracy.
“The children are understanding that they could be the generation that doesn't work in the dump,” Ticarro-Parker said.
The school also teaches parents the cold hard truth: what will really happen to their children if they sell them.
In 2006, before the school opened, more than 37 girls from the dumps were sold to traffickers by their parents, Ticarro-Parker said. In 2011, only four were sold.
'A catalyst for change'
Inside one of the school’s two classrooms, a boy writes in his notebook. He clutches a blue pen with fingers covered in dirt, black under all his fingernails. The children are dirty, but their maroon-and-white school uniforms are crisp. Across their backs reads, “be a catalyst for change.” And they all wear shoes that match.
Outside is the sound of a power saw. Volunteers are here to build a playground for the school, which was built on a rice paddy on the edge of the town.
It will be the first real playground these children have seen.
One Vietnamese woman helps the volunteers with sanding and toting wood. She is working to pay off a debt to the school. She sold her teenage daughter to traffickers – twice – and the school helped get her back both times. Now the woman works to pay off her debt.
When the playground opens, the children are waiting. They swarm. Up the climbing wall, down the slide, over the monkey bars, onto the swings. They have to be taught how to pump their legs and pull the ropes to make the swings move. They don’t have any idea how it works. They learn quickly, however, and are soon flying high.
Dieu, on the seesaw, screams with joy as a row of girls fall like dominoes onto the sand in hysterical laughter. Seeing their smiles and hearing their joy, it is hard to believe these children live on a garbage dump.
"Over the last year and a half, the boys and girls have been happy,” Ticarro-Parker said. “They want to be singers and teachers and doctors and architects. Suddenly they have a career in mind. …
“We're not going to eliminate trafficking. We are not going to change this whole culture of girls feeling unworthy of themselves. But we're going to change this group of girls. We're going to change 200 girls. It's going to happen, one girl at a time."