In Defiance of a Dictator

PAUL CONROY – at the London Bridge Hospital with Joss Stone, Thursday March 1 2012.

Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Sadly, those countries when uttered in succession instantly paint a picture of bombs, bullets and death. Paul Conroy is a war journalist who dedicated his work to finding the human stories amongst the chaos of warzones.

Paul was a friend and colleague of Marie Colvin, the famous eye-patch wearing War Correspondent for the Sunday Times who was tragically killed in Syria in 2012. She earned her name as being one of the boldest reporters, having lost her sight in one eye while covering the Civil War in Sri Lanka. Together they uncovered some of the most impactful stories of the last few decades.

I assumed Paul lived a quiet life now, reminiscing of his times spent in dangerous places. I was wrong. Paul got back from Syria yesterday and the first page of my crudely written interview questions were just made redundant. Here’s to winging it!

He was in Syria with friend and singer Joss Stone to help organise a concert for members of the Free Syrian Army. Onlookers at the gig watched Joss perform in an old community centre, their faces covered with scarves to hide their identities. Paul and Joss have been friends for many years after he was hired to film a Joss Stone concert in Uganda. Together, they planned a ‘total’ world tour visiting the most unlikely of locations and countries.

In more ways than one, Paul is a wanted man. Dictator Bashar al-Assad placed a one-million-dollar bounty on his head after he and Marie made a series of live broadcasts from an area of Homs being shelled by the Syrian Government in 2012.

Almost a decade later Paul admits there was some satisfaction in picturing one of President Assad’s henchman delivering the news that he had the gall to step foot in the country again, with a world famous singer at his side. “I wasn’t scared going back, I had enough good mates who are special forces around me and I trust them entirely.” He entered the country through a familiar route where he had first entered Syria many years before. It was the first time he had been back since losing his friend, Marie.

The path to journalism came after his time served in the armed forces. Paul joined the army at 16 but soon became disillusioned, describing himself as an “absolutely useless solider”. He became determined to leave but there was only one manner of exit available. He dedicated his time to getting thrown out, but his superiors soon clocked his strategy and adopted a leniency to his various offences.

Eventually, after some pretty dodgy behaviour, Paul was finally kicked out for planting marijuana in his locker. “The Army just didn’t agree with me anymore, I joined when I was 16 and I’d changed. As we grow up, we all change.”

Paul learned to use a camera, his military background meant he could handle himself in the thick of it, so he joined friends on an aid convoy to Kosovo and would cover just about every major conflict from there on.

The relationship between Paul and Marie Colvin has been well documented, both in the recently released movie: A Private War, and Paul’s book ‘Under the Wire’. Paul was a consulting producer for the movie and the portrayals of the pair by Rosamund Pike and Jamie Dornan are truly uncanny. In 2012, during the height of the siege in Homs, Syria, Marie Colvin broadcasted live interviews for Channel Four and Anderson Cooper on CNN in the US.

Whilst it would prove to be Marie’s final assignment there were glimmers of humour, even the darkest of situations. “She was a bit of a luddite when it came to technology and I’d lent her my set of earphones, I told her not to lose them.”

Marie needed headphones for the live broadcasts but didn’t have her own and was warned by Paul not to lose another pair. “We were sleeping in a back room under a load of carpets. Suddenly she said: “Paul I think I’m going deaf” – Paul does his best Marie Colvin impression. “So I got the phone torch out and looked in her ear; there it was, a rubber piece of the earphones I had lent her earlier, right in her ear. I pulled it out and held it up, – “What the f*** is that Paul!?” He replied, “For god’s sake Marie! You’re blind and now you’re deaf too”.

For Paul, the memory is reminiscent of a couple of kids at a sleepover. One would start giggling, setting off the other with fits of laughter as the war raged outside. But this glimpse of normality was short-lived. “Eventually we got to sleep, we woke up, and ten minutes later, she was dead.” Paul, Marie and French journalist Rémi Ochlik, were hit by a shell blast from Syrian Government forces. They were about to leave the bombarded district of
Baba Amr when they were hit. Marie was killed instantly, Paul severely injured with rocket shrapnel hitting his leg and hip. At the time they were hit, they were the only Western journalists left in the area. All the other journalists and news crews had fled with the government shelling.

Paul was almost certain that they were intentionally targeted. And he was right. The attack on him and Marie was recently ruled as a ‘deliberate act’ by a US Federal Judge, due to Marie being raised as a US citizen. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad ordered their killing to stop live broadcasts and put a gag on any coverage coming out.

One could be forgiven for becoming almost numb to the seemingly endless footage of flattened suburbs and sprawling tent cities of the refugee camps. The Syrian conflict has now raged for almost a decade. But what Paul and Marie exposed was the irrefutable claim that a dictator was mercilessly murdering his own people, shelling his own people indiscriminately, much like his father before him. If journalism is to be defined as the right to ‘bear
witness’, then which events could demand more urgent exposure.

But legacy of the Iraq war had a profound effect on the West’s appetite for overseas intervention. What action could anyone hope for? What would Prime Minister Paul Conroy do if he were in No. 10? “It’s funny you ask me that. David Cameron called me whilst I was in my hospital bed about Syria. I advised him to do what was done in Iraq to protect the Kurds – put a no-fly zone in place – I said, it doesn’t have the political impact of boots on the ground but it can protect people from the Assad Government.”

Paul warned David Cameron of the potential dangers ahead. If the Syrian Government fell an inevitable power vacuum would take hold of the country, much like what has since happened in Iraq with ISIS. The history books are unlikely to judge the international community favourably on Syria. With so many killed and displaced, few conflicts have raged so savagely, and with such paralysis from the international community.
Having been embedded in the conflict, Paul is afforded the nuance of war that can so easily be ignored. As the armchair politicians of the world offer simple answers, it’s the shades of grey that demonstrate the reality of the situation on the ground in Syria.

“I knew guys that joined ‘Al-Nusra’ (an affiliate of Al-Qaida). To begin with there was no religious element to the Syrian conflict. We had a guy join the Free Syrian Army who was giving it the whole Jihadi rhetoric, they booted him straight out.

‘If you’re a Syrian, and the only person standing between you and one of President Assad’s tanks is the Jihadists, then they’re going to accept the Jihadists. That’s what I told David Cameron, it could offer fertile breeding ground to Jihadist extremists, if the UK removed the Syrian Government.”

This advent of the Arab Spring was a glimmer of hope for flourishing democracies in the Middle East. The hope was short lived. Much like Syria, it was religious extremism after the fall of the dictator, this time Colonel Gaddafi. ”I was in Libya for 3 months for the siege, there was no Islamic flavour to it, all the fundamental stuff came later, as soon as Colonel Gaddafi was taken out. We (NATO) had unrealistic expectations in Libya, we expected it all to be over and there to be a functioning country after Colonel Gaddafi was removed, you have to be realistic. It just doesn’t work like that.”

The onset of digital technology has shaken journalism to its core. With mobile phones and ‘citizen journalists’, the power of broadcast is no longer the domain of so few. As such, who really needs a war reporter in 2019? Why do the people of Iraq or Syria need a Western reporter to document it all?

Paul sniggers. “What do you think pilots think of citizen pilots? Citizen journalists tend to have an agenda, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that but it’s no substitute for well researched and verified journalism. The desire for good journalism is still there. The BBC do it very well, we’re very lucky in this country to have high journalistic standards. I dread the day when all we have is Russia Today or algorithms deciding our news.”

Journalists across the world hold Marie and Paul in the highest esteem. In 2003 as Coalition forces first arrived in Iraq, Paul and Marie headed North to Fallujah. Acting on information obtained from local sources, they hired a local digger and driver. What they uncovered was a mass grave of murdered Kuwaitis from the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein decided that Kuwait was his to invade in 1991. This site was where he would bury 600 people, he had them lined up and shot. It was journalist Patrick Cockburn who described Iraq as being littered with the ghosts of previous tragedies. In this case it was Paul and Marie that found the cemetery, uncovering a crime that was still unknown to the outside world.

But just how does a Western journalist uncover such a heinous story, where would you even start? “I often describe working in the field as like peeling an onion with every layer eventually leading to a story.” When it comes to the future of war journalism, Paul is optimistic. “If you really have that passion, there is no substitute for research, and the research these days (with the internet) is so easy, there’s so much information out there. If you know what you’re looking for, you can find it.”

Household names such as Marie Colvin, John Simpson and Kate Aide seem to be less prominent today, and, whilst the platforms of journalism stand, I am assured that there’s still a firm place for the proper war reporter. As for advice for budding war reporters: “It’s all research. There’s nothing worse than getting to a country in conflict and not knowing what’s what. Every bit of research you can do will reward you ten-fold in the field. I don’t know any other way of doing things, just research and get up and go.”

Apart from the odd dash to Syria, Paul’s no longer on the frontline. Originally from Liverpool, he moved to Devon around twenty years ago. After visiting a friend in Totnes he was won over by the county. Honouring the namesake of our newspaper The Moorlander, Paul won’t escape the essential question of his favourite spot on Dartmoor. “Favourite spot? Ummm I love going to Spitchwick, I’ve been going up there for nearly thirty years, from all night parties to camping with the kids.” Paul assures me that he takes nothing but photos and leaves nothing but footprints.

Paul Conroy’s book Under the Wire is available on Amazon.co.uk or from Waterstones. A Private War, starring Jamie Dornan and Rosamund Pike, will be coming to Blu-ray and streaming services later in the year.

Ross Bryant

Author: Ross Bryant

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