He watched his friend die, but Paul Conroy says war reporting is still worth the risk - The Libyan Report

He watched his friend die, but Paul Conroy says war reporting is still worth the risk

The documentary Under the Wire charts the final days of war reporter Marie Colvin, through the eyes of her photographer colleague Paul Conroy.

It's 16 years since Paul Conroy shared his first bottle of whisky with Marie Colvin.

Conroy is a freelance photographer; Colvin was a reporter for the UK Sunday Times. The second Gulf War was about to kick off and journalists were massing in northeastern Syria, failing to get permission to cross the Tigris river into Iraq in time for the imminent invasion.

Then Conroy hatched a cunning plan.

The river was only half a mile wide, so "I decided I was going to build meself a raft, right? So I gave me fixer a couple of hundred dollars and said, 'Get me four big lorry inner-tubes and some planks of wood and some rope', which he did. And then over a few days, I remember giggling away in my hotel room as I built this raft in the desert."

Supplied Paul Conroy: war photographer, yarn-spinner and committed chronicler of the horror he and Marie Colvin saw in Homs, Syria.

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He talked "a mate from CNN and a girl from the New York Times" into joining him, and at midnight they smuggled the deflated raft from hotel window to taxi before re-inflating it on the banks of the Tigris.

"Just as were about to set off, the army busted us. There was a bit of a kerfuffle and a few shots fired, and we were taken off for questioning."

The would-be raft-mates left Syria, and a few days later Conroy was back in the hotel bar drinking alone, shunned by the press pack.

"They were like, 'You've spoiled our war!' kind of thing, so I was Billy No-Mates in the corner."

Paul Conroy Marie Colvin on the job in 2011.

Then in walked Marie Colvin.

Conroy hadn't talked to her before, but knew who she was. Colvin was famed for her brilliant reporting, her disregard for danger, and the pirate-patch she'd worn since losing an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka.

"She stands there and she went, 'Who, and where, is the boatman?'

"And I kind of meekly put me hand up, and she walks across, sticks her hand out and says, 'Boatman, I like your style. Marie Colvin, Sunday Times. Can I buy you a whisky?"

She called him Boatman from that day on.

DAWN OF THE ARAB SPRING

That was 2003, but the pair weren't a working team until 2011, when the Arab Spring was sweeping across northern Africa toward the Middle East – an apparent domino-march of societies rejecting tyranny.

Paul Conroy It took Conroy a while to get the hang of taking action shots during war. The trick is to start taking photos while everyone else is still hitting the deck.

They reported from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya ("we were there when Gaddafi was killed and we got the pictures and the story"). Then from Syria – where, in 2012, Colvin was killed while reporting from the city of Homs. French photographer Rémi Ochlik also died and Conroy and another journalist were injured.

Seven years on, he's still telling the story he and Colvin were reporting to the world that day: of an authoritarian regime that crushes dissent by using battlefield weapons on its own civilians, and drops targeted shells on journalists who report the fact.

"I feel like that assignment never ended," says Conroy. "I came out, and I remember lying in hospital pretty mashed up and she was on me shoulder going, 'What the f... are you doing? Get up. They're still in there. This is still happening.'"

Paul Conroy One of Conroy's images from 2011, when he and Colvin were covering the Arab Spring in North Africa.

Conroy was a consultant to the Colvin biopic A Private War. He wrote a book, Under the Wire, about what happened in Homs. He's central to the 2018 documentary of the same name which premieres in New Zealand on Sky's Rialto channel on December 5.

That's why he's on the phone from his home in Devon, England, lying down, smoking a fag, and talking about Colvin, Muammar Gaddafi and his Tigris rafting adventures. Even if your job is to document human behaviour at its most vicious, it's still possible to have some fun along the way.

HOW TO GET BOOTED OUT OF THE ARMY

Conroy is 55. Raised in Liverpool, England, he joined the army at 16, training as an artillery forward observer. He quickly realised he hated it, but had signed up for five years.

Paul Conroy / Rex Features Things that go bang: Rebels run for cover as government jets bomb rebel positions in Libya, March 2011.

He spins an entertaining yarn, complete with dialogue, about his repeated attempts to get kicked out, culminating in hiding a lump of hash in his own locker and slipping a note under the Commander's door to dob himself in. He was, eventually, ejected.

By the late 1990s, he was a movie sound-engineer who dabbled in photography and video-making. Meanwhile, the Balkans was in flames, and a friend who was taking an aid convoy to the Kosovo border invited Conroy along to document it.

Meeting the refugees streaming out of Kosovo was a revelation.

Paul Conroy / Rex Features A four-year-old is treated for shrapnel wounds in Libya, 2011. Conroy and Colvin both wanted to tell the story of war through the experience of those most affected by it: children and women.

"In the army I'd learned the mechanics of war. But this was the first time I was seeing the end results of it. And the thing I noticed was that it was women and the kids who were coming out – the ones with the least options."

When the convoy returned to England, Conroy didn't. He crossed the border with the Kosovo Liberation Army and stayed for months, as the Serbian forces began their ethnic cleansing. Back home he sold photos, made a film from his footage, and realised he was now a freelance war journalist.

It took a while to get the hang of it.

"The first few firefights I got into I remember thinking, 'Wow, great shots!', because there's a lot of guys with guns, lots of stuff going bang."

Arthur Edwards/WPA Pool Marie Colvin. The patch covers the eye that was struck by shrapnel in Sri Lanka in 2001.

Checking the photos later, though, he'd realise he'd missed the movement and emotion he thought he'd seen. The trick, which took ages to master, was to resist the sensible urge to hit the deck after an explosion, and start taking photos immediately.

"That's when I started to see results."

Also, those seemingly wasted years in the army learning about battlefield weapons finally proved useful – even life-saving.

"Places like Libya. When I was with the rebels crossing the desert, Gaddafi's lot would open up on us, and you'd start to see the fire patterns – two shells would land either side. And I'd be off."

Paul Conroy Conroy's mission to tell the world about what was happening in Syria in 2012 continues to this day.

He could see the gunners weren't being inaccurate: they were "walking in", bracketing the target with ever closer pairs of shots.

"The rebels would be like, 'Hey Paul, you're running away!' And I'd be, 'Absolutely. Yeah!' Then two minutes later they'd come running down the road cause they'd seen another two shells, this time 50 metres closer."

In 2011, he was signed up by the Sunday Times to work with Colvin. In Under the Wire, former foreign editor Sean Ryan says one previous snapper was rejected by Colvin because he was a "metrosexual" (by which, Conroy explains, she meant that "he washed, and combed his hair"). Another photographer quit saying he found Colvin scarier than the wars they were covering. She was, clearly, something special.

A Private War portrays Colvin as talented and driven, but also struggling with PTSD and alcoholism. Conroy says although that might have been accurate, it's not the version of Colvin he saw.

Paul Conroy Reporting with Colvin from Syria meant visiting underresourced field hospitals, and basements full of traumatised civilians.

Sure, "we got pissed and we had a few lines of coke or whatever," but 'it was just regular partying". Out in the field, where it really mattered, he and Colvin kept their heads straight. And professionally, the pair just clicked, perhaps because they shared similar goals.

"Me and Marie got one chance a week to bring war and conflict home and make it understandable by people. The way we figured you do it is this: everyone's got kids, everyone's got grandkids or grandparents. You can tell the story of war through their eyes."

There's a narrative that war these days is smart and clinical, with smart bombs going down chimneys, but the reality, says Conroy, is nothing like that.

JAVIER ESPINOSA/CENTRE FOR JUSTICE & ACCOUNTABILITY Photographer Javier Espinosa captured this image in Baba Amr moments after he escaped the bombing that killed Marie Colvin.

"The majority of bombs and bullets are dumb and tend to land in the wrong place on the wrong people. That's the real war photography, because you have to make people feel it."

REAL-LIFE THRILLER WITH A TRAGIC ENDING

The days leading up to Colvin's death in Syria in 2012 are detailed in jaw-dropping detail in Under the Wire. Apart from sparing reconstructions, most of what we see is real footage – at times blurry, shaky or even pitch-black – taken by Conroy and others at the time.

Conroy narrates, leading us through his and Colvin's seemingly insane decision to go into the besieged Homs suburb of Baba Amr, when most journalists were fleeing in the opposite direction.

STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS A man holds an order of service at a service for Marie Colvin in London, May 2012.

The result is breathlessly immersive, putting us right there as Conroy and Colvin are smuggled in through a three-kilometre drainage tunnel, as they visit the "widow's basement" full of traumatised locals, as they watch a baby die for lack of basic resources. You see them leave Baba Amr because of rumours of a ground invasion and then – astonishingly – head back in a second time when the rumours prove false.

It's like watching an action thriller, except you know the bodies are real, and the leading character won't make it. And you're constantly asking yourself: was it really worth it? The Syrian government was pounding the neighbourhood in 18-hour bombardments. It was also actively trying to locate and target Western journalists – indeed a US court this year determined Colvin's death was a deliberate assassination. Were these acceptable risks for journalists to take?

Conroy's had seven years to think about this, and he thinks yes.

AVIRON PICTURES/YouTube Rosamund Pike stars in A Private War.

"We couldn't tell people what was happening from inside Homs if we were outside. So the decision was made – if we want to tell this properly we have to break the siege the wrong way and go in."

When they fled once and the invasion didn't happen, "both Marie and I realised that we'd f...ed up. The newspaper said,'You're not to go back in'. But there were 28,000 people still in there. And as Marie once said to me, 'If they can't run, why should we? And I kind of went along with that."

This wasn't about being an adrenaline junkie, says Conroy – "I hate getting shot at." Rather, he and Colvin had a serious goal: if they could tell this story of slaughter as powerfully as possible, the pressure of the world leaning on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad might actually stop it.

"When everyone around you is dying it's like, 'We've got this far. We have to try and get a result on this.' I think we did right thing. I think we had to try."

Yet even without Colvin and Conroy's reporting, news from Homs was available online, because civilians inside the city were reporting on it from their own phones and cameras.

So does it still make sense that people in faraway war zones must await salvation from plucky Western journalists who swoop in with fixers and translators and expense accounts and crazy tales about homemade rafts? Surely all the world needs to do is listen to the people on the ground, who are already telling us what's happening to them.

Conroy takes the point, but reckons there's still a place for the old-school "war correspondent".

"There was a wave about eight years ago with the Arab Spring, where it was like, 'Yeah, you're all useless. What's the point of you lot any more?'"

A few years on the internet is awash with footage and images, yet "you've got regimes like the Syrians picking up stuff that is actually shot by rebels, putting their own subtitles or their own graphics on it, and all of a sudden the water is as clear as mud."

Professional reporting still matters, says Conroy, because it sifts fact from appearance. Reporting isn't just a case of taking a video of a tank blowing up a building and putting it online.

"With me and Marie, it was, 'Who was in the tank? What was he shooting at? Why? Where was the unit from? Why were they in the area? Where are the bodies buried? …

"Instagram and YouTube have proved themselves to be not brilliant sources for news because they can get washed up into one great big jumbled mush. If people really want indepth, detailed, accurate reporting – they know where to get it."

Since Baba Amr, Conroy hasn't been to war, but he's still had some adventures. He's a friend of English singer Joss Stone, who is on a mission to perform in literally every country in the world.

To that end, he's been with her to Yemen and Iran, and earlier this year they even sneaked across the border into Syria, "and we did a gig for the people fighting Isis."

They had to take care, because Conroy says there's a $1 million bounty on his head in Syria, "but we managed to get in and do the gig before Assad's lot caught us, and get out.

"There's a little part of me that revelled in the fact that someone had to wake Bashar Al-Assad up and say, 'Boss, guess who's back? And he's doing a f...ing gig!'"

He still misses the colleague and friend he lost to Assad's forces.

"There are days when I wake up and I look at what's happening in the world, and I just imagine the phone ringing and it's like, 'Paul. We're going to f...ing Yemen', you know? That's exactly what I imagine, you know – where would we be now?"

  • Under The Wire premieres Thursday 5 December, 8.30pm, on Rialto Channel, SKY Channel 39. All screening dates and times are available on rialtochannel.co.nz source