July 16th, 2012

Photojournalist Describes Wreckage in Tremseh, Syria

© AFP/photos by D. Leal Olivas

Spanish photographer Daniel Leal Olivas, who reached the Syrian village of Tremseh on Friday July 13, reports that he saw what looked to be the effects of shells fired by tanks in the village. That would contradict the Syrian government’s claims that the Syrian Army did not use heavy weapons, a violation of a UN agreement. Olivas, speaking to PDN by Skype from the Istanbul airport on July 16, also said mourning villagers begged him and his companion not to leave them.  How many people were killed in Tremseh, what kinds of weapons were used and whether the Syrian government was pursuing opposition fighters or targeting civilians remains uncertain, according to reports from the BBC, The New York Times and other news organizations, as the Syrian government and anti-government activists have made claims and counter claims about what happened.

Olivas, a news photographer, has made two month-long trips to Syria this year; his first, in April, was his first time photographing in a war zone. In the past two days, he has given interviews to Al Jazeera and to National Public Radio about what he saw in Tremseh on Friday night. “I’m not a military guy,” he told PDN, then added that “being in Syria for two months, you know what weapons they used.” In Tremseh he took photos, many of which he transmitted to Agence France Press, showing burned out homes, holes blasted through walls, and boys holding up shells that Olivas says would have been fired by a tank – presumably on Thursday. He also photographed bloody hand prints on walls. He told Al Jazeera (quoted in The Guardian’s Middle East blog), “All the tank tracks were in the ground, very fresh. Everyone was in the town very nervous, trying to show us what happened in the town.” Olivas told PDN, “Those people who came running to us, screaming what they did in Tremseh, they were either great actors or they were really freaked out. What I saw in their eyes, I felt that they weren’t lying,”

Olivas says, “I went to Syria to help Syria.” He found places to stay and got help moving around the country from locals, in particular from one person he describes as “my good friend and amazing activist.”  Olivas was in Kafranbel on Thursday when he and the friend saw a report on Al Jazeera Arabic that 200 people had been killed in Tremseh. Olivas was eager to go; his friend said, “Only God can reach there.” On Friday, however, his friend made calls and researched a route. They passed several checkpoints, Olivas says, and “ finally got there with the last minutes of light,” around 7:30pm. UN observers “arrive[d] pretty much at the same time.”

He says that the observers left after less than 20 minutes. “It was getting dark, it was so dangerous to be in that area.”  He left soon after, and says he saw no other journalists.

Olivas says before he left Syria he transmitted images to the agency AFP using a pseudonym for protection. The credits on the AFP images were changed once he was safely in Turkey. Olivas’s images and captions from Tremseh can be found on the AFP Image Forum page.