Under the Wire: In conversation with Paul Conroy

Without a doubt, said Conroy, the media centre was a deliberate target. Reading an excerpt from his book, he described the room as:

“. . . the headquarters of a hunted and starving band of outlaws, bound together by their desire to survive . . . targets of a murderous regime. They were the media and this was their temporary home.”

Hilsum asked him about the role of a “camera as shield”. While fighting his way out of the city and after field surgery to his injured leg, he continued to film footage of his fellow wounded:

“I had a flip cam; all my other cameras had been blown up. I felt a bit useless . . . but I thought I might be able to get something out of what’s happened.”

He added that during the attack his laptop was demolished and few images from his camera were recovered after it was found and returned. Conroy then explained how he escaped through a secret tunnel with the help of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Commentators have subsequently expressed opinions that this help has made his views biased in favour of the rebel group. On this, Conroy said:

“Anyone who says I was a cheerleader for the FSA has got to suck it up really – they saved my life. I actually saw, because of those guys, what was happening.”

“That is why we went, that is why Marie died, that is why Remi died . . . Syrian activists who stood on rooftops and were blown to pieces . . . and everyone else who has died out there, and suffered and been maimed and wounded. There is no reason the world shouldn’t know this.”

With the death toll now estimated at 80,000 by the UN, there is little hope of a conclusive resolution anytime soon. The Syrian conflict threatens to destabilise the region further, against a backdrop of cynicism towards diplomatic efforts.

Audience members asked about the implications of a lack of international support, which may have caused more radical groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) to gain power. It is a reflection of how much the situation has changed since his time in Baba Amr, Conroy said, when the lone “jihadist” who showed up was kidnapped and escorted to Lebanon by the FSA.

Now, JAN has become a “definite presence” in the country:

“The Jihadists are a powerful fighting force and if you look at the situation, for years now Syrians have sat there and nobody has lifted a finger.”

Conroy has worked in combat zones around the world – the Balkans, Iraq, Congo, Rwanda, Libya and Syria – as well as spending seven years with the Royal Artillery as a soldier. His friendship with Marie Colvin goes back to 2003, when he made an ill-fated attempt to raft himself into Iraq to cover the final assault on Baghdad. Colvin, well known for not working well with photographers, was rather impressed by his efforts and the two struck up a friendship over their shared loves of sailing and whiskey. The two worked together in Libya in 2011 before being paired to cover Homs.

In spite of this adventurous background and the risks he has taken, one of his most serious injuries came a little over a month ago in Exeter. When walking down the High Street he was hit with a projectile after walking away from an altercation with a man. He now has a titanium plate holding up part of his face.

Hilsum told the audience she was shocked at the time to get a message saying he might lose an eye.

Conroy said: “I could not honestly have worn a patch could I?”

On the same day as this event, the Frontline Club published its white paper, Newsgathering Safety and the Welfare of Freelancers.


You can watch the event or listen to the podcast below: