The first time British photographer Paul Conroy met Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was in Syria before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when she walked into a restaurant demanding to speak with the “boat man.”
The moniker was bestowed upon Conroy after he had tried to sneak into Iraq across the Tigris River using a boat he made out of inner tubes. The scheme proved unsuccessful. Conroy was detained and told to leave Syria after a couple of days. His colleagues in the media, it seemed, had also excommunicated him.
“It was kind of like, ‘You spoiled it for everyone — you and your boat,’” Conroy said.
Conroy recalled watching Colvin walk over to his corner of the restaurant after he had sheepishly identified himself, stretching out her hand to him and saying: “Boat man, I like your style. Can I buy you a whiskey?” “And I went, ‘Of course.’ And that was it,” Conroy said.
Conroy and Colvin were both inside the media center in the Syrian neighborhood of Baba Amr on Feb. 22, 2012, when Syrian government forces shelled the building, killing Colvin, 56, and French photographer Remi Ochlik, 28. The attack also injured Conroy and another reporter, Edith Bouvier from the French newspaper Le Figaro.
A civil lawsuit filed Saturday on behalf of Colvin’s family members alleges that Syrian forces tracked and killed Colvin to silence opposition voices against the regime, targeting her position in the opposition-held city of Homs by intercepting her broadcasts.
Yet even now, Conroy describes how Colvin would be upset to hear any story focused on the journalists. To her, it was all about the people, and despite knowing the risks of staying in the city of Homs, it was impossible to turn away from the events unfolding in front of them, Conroy said.
“Marie’s view was that if you wanted to show war and the true effects of war, the people are always left behind in these bad situations, in general the women and the children. The place was full of women and children. And there was no realistic way that Marie wasn’t going to be there for them,” he said. “She was the ultimate professional.”
Conroy spoke to The Washington Post about working with Colvin and the day of the attack in Baba Amr:
The lawsuit states that the Syrian military had tracked and deliberately killed Marie [Colvin]. What evidence do you have that supports that? What were you seeing at the time?
We’d been warned when we were going into Syria there were a lot of regime spies. … So we were always careful how much we used the satellite phones, how much we used communications.
In Baba Amr, what we saw when we got there was artillery units surrounded the city; the full division had surrounded the city. And it was a pretty random bombardment. It was constant. It was 18 hours a day. But it didn’t seem that targeted. … They were throwing as much heavy artillery and rockets into the place, killing anyone. …
I was an ex-artilleryman in the British artillery for six years, so I was kind of well-tuned in the fire patterns and methods of artillery fire. Nothing I’d seen to that point indicated that they were targeting anything in particular. The idea seemed to be doing as much damage, and it was random.
However, on the morning the attack started, the first two things I noticed were two shells landed maybe 100 to 150 yards [away]. Two rockets landed 150 yards on either side of the media center, closely followed approximately 30 seconds later by two more shells, which landed even closer.
And at that point, that’s when I first realized that the next rockets to land were about to hit the media center because what they were in fact doing was working the shells in. So they’d fire two, it would be observed from a drone. They would then adjust the fire pattern to tighten on the target, which were the next two rounds we heard. No more than 30 seconds after that there were direct hits on the media center on the small wing of it, on the roof to the left.
In many ways, it was perfect artillery work. That was my major response, even before they hit us, was that these were professional gunners who knew exactly what they were doing. There was nothing random about that attack.
Once they located the target, they continued to put shells into it, which means they were observing. They knew they had the coordinates. Then the shelling stopped. As soon as people were seen outside the building, I crawled out into the rubble, and then the shelling started again, directly targeting the street right outside the media center. It was far too orchestrated, far too sophisticated, to be anything other than a deliberate attack.
As you were trying to escape, what were the other things you were seeing on the ground? What was the situation like after the fact?
It went from bad to worse. We were sent to a field hospital that was barely functioning. They didn’t have enough basic resources — iodine, bandages to treat the injured. Obviously, Marie, Remi were beyond help. From that point on, it just degraded. The artillery bombardments increased in intensity, and that’s saying a lot, given the level they were at prior to the attack.
We were visited at a certain point by the Syrian Red Crescent. We had been expecting the Red Cross to come in. We were told that if we had gotten into their ambulances that we would be executed, and our bodies thrown onto the battlefield as if we were killed in crossfire. But, you know, we were given a warning by a very senior member of the party who came in with the Red Crescent.
And all throughout our escape, there was a lot of indications that [Syrian forces] knew where we were and where we were headed to. They knew the way out. And it was touch and go for everybody for the whole escape. It was five, six days, seven days, I think, before I actually got out. And all through that period, I thought that we were very specifically being hunted.
You previously described the situation in Homs as an “indiscriminate massacre” and a “systematic slaughter.” What were some of the things you were seeing before this attack?
First of all, it’s important to realize that Homs is a city. It’s one of Syria’s main cities. But the area that was being targeted, it was actually a very small neighborhood.
Now there was nothing that could be described as a military barracks, a headquarters. There were no legitimate military targets in that neighborhood. But there were, in fact, about 20,000 to 28,000 people trapped in what by then was rubble when we arrived. There wasn’t a building that remained untouched.
And Marie and I — I think, between us there is 40 to 50 years of reporting from war zones — we’d not long before spent two months in Misurata when [Libyan dictator Moammar] Gaddafi had that under siege. Within a day, we both agreed that this was by far the worst artillery siege. It wasn’t just artillery. There was no food allowed in, no medicine, no water. Everything was gone.
It was essentially a small neighborhood full of civilians. And from 7 a.m. in the morning, the attacks would start. And we’re talking about attacks on schools, buildings, hospitals. Any civilian infrastructure you can imagine was destroyed.
I used the term “systematic slaughter,” and I didn’t use it glibly. It was the only way I could describe what I was seeing. This was a defenseless population of civilians who were caught in a bigger scheme, and they were systematically — it appeared to me, and I’ll stand by it — that these people were being systematically slaughtered. …
They were trapped in a ring of steel while a professional, well-trained army rained down battlefield weapons on them. These weapons were designed to take out tank convoys and infantry units. They certainly weren’t meant to be used in very close-knit civilian areas.
So we saw a certain amount of death that you can’t imagine. We saw women, children, old pensioners. The bodies of many were stacked high, and the doctors could do nothing. They didn’t have the materials. Doctors were, in fact, one of the main targets in this bombardment. So I’ve seen nothing like it, before or after. That was a slaughterhouse.
What compelled you to stay when you knew most of the journalists were leaving?
People have mentioned: ‘Why did you stay?’ The reason [Marie and I] worked so well was she was never going to pull out when women or children were there. Through a career, that is what she has been known for. She’s gotten herself into some tricky spots because of it, but you can’t condemn someone for that. The way she chose to report war was to go to the very sharp end of the stick. …
In reality, Marie’s view was that if you wanted to show war and the true effects of war, the people are always left behind in these bad situations, in general the women and the children. The place was full of women and children. And there was no realistic way that Marie wasn’t going to be there for them. She was the ultimate professional.
These were events where we were watching people being murdered daily. That’s not something you can turn back from that easily. Of course, we knew the risks.
In my heart, the best thing that can come of this is, yes, it is good to see this regime [held accountable]. Marie would kill me if she could see me here raging on about us and her and what happened. We were to report on the civilians who were being slaughtered. And I know that she would certainly say, okay, enough about us and me. We went there to report on these civilians, and she died reporting on the story she believed so much in. And, I think, now is a good chance for the world to kind of refocus the prism back on this regime.
ISIS has kind of overshadowed a lot of the events that took place beforehand. And now the world should really take a good, long, hard look at this regime and ask — because ISIS stole the show for many years in Syria — is it really right to start looking at doing business with this regime and looking at them as part of the peace process?
I think once these charges are made public and you see the evidence, then the answer would be, categorically, no, we shouldn’t be dealing with these people. We should hold them accountable.
What were some of the other experiences journalists were having at the time?
I was just on the phone with Stuart Ramsay from Sky News, who was one of the people in and out of Syria during that period. We spoke with Stu when he came out, the afternoon he came out and we were going in. We had a meeting with him. He said it had just been horrendous. He found that his name was on the list that the U.N. uncovered. His name and his photograph had been circulated in the Homs area.
The local Syrian journalists were under phenomenal pressure. There was a chap in al-Qusayr — he was caught with a camera. [His body was delivered to] his family … in the morning with his eyes gouged out. We arrived a few days after, and we were given the photographic evidence: This is what happens to people who ask questions in Syria at this point in time.
Local journalists, Syrian journalists, risked death every day just by making a phone call. Just making a phone call in Syria at that point in time was dangerous. Foreign journalists were classed as enemies of the state. We had satellite transmitters that were jammed. We couldn’t use them; we couldn’t get information out. They were using high-tech Russian surveillance equipment to keep an eye on journalists. There was a whole network of spies and informants.
What are some of the outcomes you hope come about as a result of the lawsuit? What are some of your expectations?
I would like to actually challenge the Syrian government to face these [charges]. If, as they say, they were fighting terrorists, to come forward and answer the charges. There’s a long list of names of people they could actually present. And if they’ve done nothing wrong, come forward. I suspect that won’t happen — some might call me slightly cynical.
For me, what I would like to see happen is the focus be put back on this regime. Ask the world to sit and look when we’re desperately seeking answers to Syria. Five years this has been going on. When I was there, 8,000 people were dead. It’s getting to over half a million now.
So the international community needs to look and ask, in their desperate search to bring an end to this: Are they really happy to sit down and do business with these people, as an alternative to ISIS? I hope the answer is no.
But just to refocus the world and remind the world that it isn’t ISIS who caused 95 percent of these deaths. It is the Syrian regime’s response to what was not even an armed uprising. These were civilian, peaceful protests. There was no armed uprising initially. There was no revolution. These were people in the streets waving with flags and calling for slightly more democracy. …
These people have blood on their hands, and hopefully it’s a reminder to the world of just what these people were capable of — shelling innocent women and children, civilians, for long periods of time in the hope that they can keep them quiet.