Paul Conroy – Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Photograph above: Paul Conroy talking to Julia Wheeler in the Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival

Paul Conroy’s hilarious. He’s talking about death and destruction in the war zones of the couple of last decades, so it shouldn’t be that funny really, but he has the Liverpool scally’s natural ability to tell stories, and he has some corkers.

He met Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin when they were holed up in a decrepit hotel on the border of Syria and Iraq with about 40 other members of the international press, all trying to get across the Tigris to report the war in Iraq. There was a boat operated by Syrian secret police which went over once a day. Once a day they all trooped to the office of the police, were offered tea, refused passage and they all trooped back again. After a few days Paul got fed up with this. He decided to build a boat, sent his driver off to buy inner tubes for lorry tyres and fashioned some sort of inflatable craft from tyres and ropes. They set off after dark. He’d given the driver money to bribe the border guards, but still, as he was pumping up his makeshift craft with a couple of others, they came under volley of fire. They were captured, had bags put over their heads, and were led to believe that they’d be shot. They thought they’d had it, until one of the guards asked him where he was from. “Liverpool”. “Ah Steven Gerrard” said the guard, excitedly. They started chatting about football, as you do. The bag came off. ‘“Any chance we could have the bags taken off us?” my two colleagues asked after about half an hour. “Nah, you’re all right.”’

They were let out, but when he got back to the hotel he was given the cold shoulder by the rest of the press pack, for making their chances of getting on the boat that nigh on impossible. So he drank alone at the other end of the bar, until Marie Colvin strode in, demanding “who’s the boat man and where is he?” “That would be me” he said. “I like your style” she replied. She bought him a whisky and it was the start of a beautiful relationship which took them to Libya, and ultimately to the war in Syria, where she was killed and he was injured.

Our job is to get the story out

Marie was famous for her fearless reporting from some of the worst situations in war zones – and for wearing a black eye patch because she’d lost an eye covering the civil war in Sri Lanka (she wore a diamante eye patch to parties). They shared a belief that it was their job to get the story out, no matter what. “She called me boatman till the day she died. It was very hard to hook her up with any other photographer. One found her scarier than the war. One she didn’t like because he was too ‘metrosexual’. He probably combed his hair or something”. How did Sunday Times deal with that? “She was a bit of a nightmare to manage”. While his exchanges with the Sunday Times picture desk in London were brief, she argued for hours with editors, persuading them that as she was on the ground, she knew best what the story was.

In Libya Paul took the famous photograph of Ghaddafi after he was killed. “We the got a call from London to say they wanted a picture of his unmarked grave. What part of ‘unmarked’ did they not get?”. Despite being given directions by her excellent contacts, it took them three days of wandering about before they found it because, he said, “Marie had a terrible sense of direction”.

Paul told the audience at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival that he was slightly shielded from the horrors they saw, being behind a camera lens: “You’re constantly seeing traumatic stuff, but the camera is a bit of a barrier. You’re concentrating on the light, on technical stuff. Whereas I was standing back, she was completely immersed in it, looking into their eyes as they told their story. If people are going to tell you their story you have a responsibility to tell it well”.

An incredible sense of humour

She dealt with the trauma she’d witnessed with humour. “She had an incredible sense of humour, but dark”. They both coped badly with being at home between trips. “People say ‘how was it?’ but what do you tell them? How much do you tell them? How much do they really want to know?” They couldn’t quite reconcile themselves to the fact that people around them were bothered about such things as car tax, so they got back to war zones as quickly as possible. They went to Syria once Arab Spring had spread across the region. “The Syrian army said any journalists found near Homs were to be executed and bodies thrown on the battlefield”. That was enough to put most foreign correspondents off. Marie and Paul found themselves a guide to take them in.

“We had to walk through minefield, sneaking past an army checkpoint 50 yards away. We could hear them talking. We were following the guide’s white trainers. I had hold of Marie because she had a tendency to veer off to the left as she just had the one eye”.

Journey into Homs

Their journey to Homs was made by motorbike and in the back of trucks. Finally they had to walk the last three kilometres through storm drain, bent double. “Coming out the other end into Homs was like walking into hell. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it”. There was a small, civilian neighbourhood being demolished by huge firepower. “There was no fighting, just slaughter. There were a few rifles against this massive artillery. At the field clinic there were bodies stacked up, blood everywhere”. Paul took pictures of Marie with hundreds of women and children, widows in a basement trying to find shelter from the almost constant bombardment. “That was probably the best piece she ever wrote. It was Mediaeval slaughter and her piece conveyed the horror”. The photograph in the basement was the last one he ever took of her, and one which he said greatly annoyed the Syrian government.

“The Free Syrian army was getting intelligence that Assad’s ground forces were coming”. They went back through the tunnel and filed their story. The army didn’t invade then, and the Sunday Times told them under no circumstances were they to go back in. So they switched off their phones and went back through the tunnel. “All the people who had helped us to get in the first time were dead”. They realised the situation had deteriorated so much that if they waited till Friday to make their despatch to the Sunday Times it would be too late, so Marie did a broadcast for the BBC by sat phone. She did three broadcasts in all, knowing that it would attract fire.

Their last night before she was killed “we were like kids at a sleepover”. She thought she was going deaf. He shone a torch into her ear and fished out the rubber cover off an earphone which had been wedged in her ear. They couldn’t sleep for giggling. “Every time one of us began to doze off, the other one started up again”. They got up later than planned next morning and left at 6.30am rather than 5.30am. As the rockets began landing on either side of them, he realised the operator was finding the target, as they were getting nearer. Marie was killed instantly with French photographer Remi Ochlik. Paul was injured. He would have bled out from a gaping hole in his leg, had he not made a tourniquet from an ethernet cable.

His book Under the Wire came out in 2018 and is now available in paperback.