Photojournalist recalls shellfire attack that killed colleagues

 

EYEWITNESS:PAUL CONROY isn’t a fan of crawling through cramped tunnels. “Potholing should be banned,” the British photojournalist joked at the Cleraun Media Conference in Dublin on Saturday. When you have to bend double as Syrian rebels smuggle you into a combat zone through an increasingly airless 3km storm drain it helps to have a dark sense of humour.

The storm drain, 4ft high, was the route he took with his colleague, Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, last February on their way to Baba Amr, a district in the Syrian city of Homs.

Conroy was badly wounded in Baba Amr in a shellfire attack that killed Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik.

Conroy thought the shelling had stopped and was reaching for his camera when the final shell landed. He reached down to find there was a big hole in his left leg.

“I just felt like someone had hit me with a hammer.”

He tied his wound with an cable. “That’s when I went looking for Marie. I fell over her in the rubble. I knew instantly that she was dead.”

A fraught escape from Syria on the back of a motorbike and multiple operations later, Conroy is now recovering.

He uses a crutch and is on morphine, but owes his life to the Syrian field hospital that treated him – there was no anaesthetic, just the odd cigarette.

“I didn’t get out for six days, which was a bit hairy, because they had our location and they were trying to bomb us,” Conroy recalled.

Journalists used to be seen as set apart from combatants – in the Balkans in the 1990s he had been able to cross from one side to another, staying both independent and safe. It’s not like that anymore, which poses ethical challenges as well as immediate dangers. Journalists are targets.”

The night before Colvin died they had decided she should do live Skype reports for CNN and BBC World in case this was their last opportunity.

“Really, that was the beginning of our end, the live transmissions, because Marie was so powerful and she summed up the brutality of what was happening,” he said. “We must have irritated someone in Damascus.”

After he returned home he discovered there had been a $1 million bounty on his head just for being in Syria. “I thought I was only worth 85 quid.”