British photographer Paul Conroy was on assignment for The Sunday Times with Marie Colvin when she and Rémi Ochlik were killed by Syrian government shelling a year ago Friday (Feb. 22) in Homs. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria was the deadliest place for newsgatherers to work last year, with 28 reporters killed there in 2012. Here, Paul talks to Syria Live.
What happened in Baba Amr on February 22 last year?
“Marie’s interviews about the situation in Baba Amr were broadcast the night before on CNN, Channel 4 and other TV networks. We finished at midnight and the following morning got up at 7 a.m. to go to field hospital to report from there.
The shelling on the media centre we were staying at started at about 7:30 am. Two missiles hit and then two more struck the roof of the media house. Several more fell close by outside.
I had bent down to pick up my camera when the next two shells hit. They [Marie and Rémi] were perhaps a metre from the blast. I was about four metres away.
A door was blasted off and struck my translator and Edith Bouvier, a French journalist, injuring them both. I thought I was OK until I looked down at my leg and was able to pass my hand in one side of my leg and out the other.
I have no doubt the [Syrian] government deliberately targeted the house. Foreign press had used it in the days and weeks before as a media centre and knew broadcasts were coming out.
I’ve no doubt the three interviews Marie did [the previous night] brought attention on her and angered the government in Damascus.
How important were the Syrian activists in getting you out of Homs?
I was stuck for five days in the room and we were cared for by local medics. We came in through a tunnel that had been blown up and blocked after we got in to Baba Amr. It was a combination of FSA [Free Syrian Army] and activists who got us out in the end.
What kind of person was Marie? Had you worked with her before Homs?
Most recently we spent two months together in Misrata [Libya] so I knew her quite well. She was a fantastic person, tenacious and always looking for more from a story. She kept pushing, always wanting to find one more person to interview. She was especially driven by covering the effects of war on civilians. She had a very strong passion for civilians stuck in conflict.
Last year was the deadliest on record for journalists. What are journalists doing wrong? Are we seeing too many inexperienced journalists jumping into wars like Syria? What’s your take on this?
There’s been a sea change in how the press operates, but there’s also been a major change in how journalists covering conflict are viewed. I remember working in Kosovo [in 1999] how it was different. At that time we could go from one side of the front to the other to talk to Serbian soldiers as they stood at their checkpoints – there was nothing to fear from them. Today in Syria or in Libya you could never do that – go talk to government soldiers.
In today’s conflicts, vehicles with the word ‘TV’ written on them are more likely to get shot at than to give you protection. People, governments are targeting and killing journalists.
The Sunday Times in London has stopped taking freelance contributions from Syria. What do you think of this?
Because of what happened to us and because of the nature of the conflict in Syria it is obvious that covering this conflict is massively dangerous.
The Sunday Times has stopped taking freelance copy because they’ve experienced the trauma directly and know the pitfalls. I understand their position – I think other [media outlets] have followed suit.
The risks involved of going into Syria as a freelancer are so incredibly large. As a staffer you’re backed by a company; you’re in constant contact with editors; you’re often looking for a particular story or picture. They [the Sunday Times] were not gung ho in looking to get us to the frontline – they were cautious. There have been a lot of freelancers going into Syria and getting abducted and killed. They don’t have the backing of a newspaper; often they don’t have a specific story in mind.
Do you plan to go back to Syria?
Yes, I do, and my aim for Syria would not be to report or work, but to find out who was responsible, to establish a line of command to the people who called the shots for targeting the media centre in Baba Amr that day.