Veteran war photographer, Paul Conroy, has written a compelling and direct book on his experiences in 2012 covering the conflict in Syria while working alongside American journalist, Marie Colvin. Weaving between the Syrian narratives, he also describes their adventures, the year before, in Libya during the final days of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and his brutal end.
Early on in Under the Wire, Conroy describes Colvin giving a speech in a church on Fleet Street, London, in which she argued ‘passionately’ for the need to send reporters to dangerous places. And Colvin had certainly been to several dangerous places; hot spots such as Kosovo, Libya and Chechnya. Her raison d’être, Conroy tells us, was to inform the world of injustice, and to use mass media to hold governments to account.
To bear witness
Roy Greenslade, writing Marie Colvin’s obituary in The Guardian, quoted her as saying, ‘My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm’. It was this, in February 2012, while reporting for the Sunday Times, that motivated their mission into Syria and to the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs. At the time, Homs was heavily under siege with the forces of President Assad relentlessly pounding the city on a daily basis.
Both Colvin and Conroy are adept at laughing off their fears, and we see them, frequently, in situations of utter terror yet still coming up with a quip. Conroy describes them being escorted through Libya when they came under attack. Having dodged the bullets, Colvin concludes, ‘I guess one way to find the front line is to drive straight into it’.
Colvin, we are told, was equally at ease with British aristocracy as she was with a Kurdish warlord or an Afghan taxi driver. She certainly must have made a striking figure with her steely determination and her ability to coax and charm the most hardened of men while all the time sporting her eye patch. (Colvin had lost her left eye in Sri Lanka in 2001).
The smoker and the technophobe
Conroy smokes his way through the book, and through the danger. After his terrific injuries in Homs, and while been seen to in a makeshift hospital, Conroy’s first reaction is to ask for another cigarette. Colvin, we soon learn, was a technophobe. Throughout, she constantly complains that her laptop or email or phone has broken. Conroy, patiently and with only a whiff of exasperation, usually fixes her technical problems with a mere switch of a button.
Everywhere our brave journalists meet the war wearied, the oppressed, the desperate, and men with AK47s. They are frequently transported round on trucks that, in Britain, wouldn’t stand a chance of passing their MOTs, often perilously close to snipers, mine fields and more AK47-touting, trigger-happy killers.
A particularly hair-raising chapter is Conroy’s description of their passage, via a three-kilometre dark tunnel, into Homs. Disorientated, unable to stand or stretch, unable to see, and with a lack of oxygen, he relates with great skill the tortuous walk into the ‘lion’s den’ of a city under siege. Conroy is, by profession, a photographer, not a writer, but his descriptions here are such that you feel his agony with every step.
The Media Centre
Days before her death, on 22 February 2012, Marie Colvin was interviewed by three major news agencies and was able to inform the world just what was happening in Homs: of unarmed civilians bombed, children dying in hospitals, the lack of medical supplies, and of homes destroyed – all under the name of President Assad. Here, on YouTube, is one of those reports, in which she justifies why TV audiences in the West should be confronted with the ‘horrific’ and ‘heart breaking’ image of a baby in Homs dying from shrapnel wounds.
Conroy and Colvin were sheltering in a house, their ‘media centre’, when they were joined by a group of French journalists, including 28-year-old, Rémi Ochlik, the ‘wonderful, smiling Rémi’, whom Conroy knew from their days together in Libya. On 22 February, the house came under attack from shells. Conroy describes the chaos, the panic and the searing pain of his own wounds, which, alarmingly, included a fist-sized hole right through his thigh. Fighting to escape, he comes across the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik. ‘Marie, the Martha Gellhorn of our generation, now lay motionless in the ruins of Baba Amr. Farewell, Chechen queen.’
The final part of the book, relates Conroy’s evacuation, with the aid of Syrian rebels, out of the city, the country, and across the border into Lebanon.
Paul Conroy’s book is a gruelling read but one that, for him, needed to be written, and one that, for us, needs to be read a fuller appreciation of modern conflict.