In 2012 war correspondent Marie Colvin decided to sneak into Syria after her visa application to cover the conflict had been denied. In what would become her last assignment, she smuggled herself and her photographer Paul Conroy into Homs to report from the Syrian army’s siege. Through archive footage, reconstructed shots and talking heads interviews, the documentary Under the Wire, based on Conroy’s book, describes the days before and after the bomb attack that killed Colvin.
Colvin had courage like none other
During Dokufest in Kosovo, Modern Times Review sits down to talk with Conroy. He’s eager to share his story, especially if it helps keep Colvin’s memory alive. A former soldier himself, Conroy points out that Colvin had courage like none other. Together they went to places nobody else dared to enter. «In Tripoli we were with the rebels who stormed in and got the palace. We had been sleeping under a tree, to be sure to get the story. When we went to the hotel after nine days, we found the world press there, all scrubbed and washed. We were so dirty we couldn’t even get a room.»
Conroy and Colvin, who were among the first international journalists in Homs, witnessed the early days of the conflict. Conroy has no doubt about the Syrian regime’s intentions. «There was no revolution or uprising, it was just people in the streets, protesting about the five kids who were executed because of graffiti. I’m under no illusion; Assad was killing his own people.» He and Colvin found and interviewed one of the first soldiers to open fire on the crowd. «They were all conscripted soldiers, not professionals, and they had orders to open fire. Syrian secret police were behind them, killing the soldiers who tried to avoid shooting the protesters. That’s how they got them to attack.»
«Marie was dead, the rest of us were hurt, we couldn’t even run.» – Paul Conroy
With an improvised media centre as their base, Conroy and Colvin set out to cover how the siege of the city affected the civilians: widows hiding in a basement without seeing the sun since the conflict started; doctors who worked all hours in the makeshift medical clinic trying to save lives. But someone didn’t want this news to come out, and before long the media centre was under attack. The journalists realised they were running out of time. «We called BBC, CNN and Channel 4; we had to maximize. Marie didn’t particularly like doing live broadcasting, but did it when it was necessary. We couldn’t wait, we thought we might not live,» explains Conroy. One day later the media centre got bombed. The attack killed Colvin and left Conroy badly hurt. «The real horror started after the shell landed. Marie was dead, the rest of us were hurt, we couldn’t even run. For five days we were lying there, knowing they were trying to kill us.» The film depicts how Conroy, bleeding from his ripped-open leg, finally manages to escape through an underground tunnel, on the back of a motorbike.
The distraction of «fake news»
It would take six months in hospital and six months of rehabilitation before Conroy could walk again. In the meantime, both the UN as well as then British prime minister David Cameron and the MI6 had come to him for advice. «I laid it out for them. Assad needed to make a brutal repression of his people to look like a revolution organised by outside terrorists. He knew the jihadists were coming. And the West was too afraid to upset Assad, so when ISIS came along they were happy – they had someone to bomb. As if ISIS was the problem. ISIS was just the world’s greatest side show.»
The war in Syria has been marred by accusations of fake news. Depending on the interests at stake, the reports we get can be completely incoherent. According to Conroy, this suits the warlords perfectly: «The people in power thrive in the shadows. Nothing irritates them more than someone trying to shine a light into their dark world. The broad sweeps of ‘fake news’ seem very timely – just think of what they can get away with under the banner of fake news.»
«In Syria, local and foreign journalists have their names written down on a list with an order – kill them.» – Paul Conroy
Journalism today is under threat, as illustrated by Conroy’s story. Due to certain people not wanting the truth to come out, journalists have become a target. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has claimed that journalists are worse than terrorists. Conroy is sure Assad would agree. «In Syria, local and foreign journalists have their names written down on a list with an order – kill them. Our names were on that list.»
The fourth estate
How are we supposed to navigate in a world where we can’t trust that the press, the fourth estate, is telling us the truth? Is journalism a dying art? Conroy believes it is still an honourable profession. «No one is motivated by the money – you’re not getting rich. The day before Marie died, she asked me, if you weren’t getting paid, would you still be here? I said, of course I would. And I didn’t even have to ask her. Journalists are out there risking their lives, for the right reasons.»
The war correspondent’s job is to be a witness, and to tell the world the truth. YouTube videos and social media can increase access to information, but they can’t replace professional, critical journalism. Marie Colvin died doing her job, sacrificing everything to get the truth out. Conroy is not going to let that sacrifice be in vain. «I was there; I saw it. Do you think this ever ends? It’s my life now. I have no choice but to fight the rewriting of history. In the midst of war and chaos, the only thing people ask from us is exactly that – tell the world.»
(Under the Wire premiered in the UK on September 7th. An American-made feature film based on the same story, called A Private War, will be released in November.)