A private struggle with a war reporter's war

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Photographer Paul Conroy was there when journalist Marie Colvin died in a mortar attack in Syria. Lisa Dupuy talked to him about his film - but became entangled in memories of a foreign story assignment during which she herself experienced violence.

— Lisa Dupuy: NRC story, ‘Waarom een oorlogsjournalist zijn of haar leven riskeert’, March 25 2019.

English version below:

The American journalist Marie Colvin was a hero to many, me included. For decades Colvin would roam the planet, reporting from conflicts and war zones in Libya, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka. In 2012 she died aged 56, while on assignment in Homs, when the Assad regime bombed the makeshift media center she was visiting.

Earlier this year, a federal court in Washington ruled that her death was a deliberate murder, an assassination ordered specifically by the regime. Colvin had been targeted “because of her occupation”, stated the judge. The Syrian regime was sentenced to a fine of more than 300 million dollars.

The feature film A Private War, which opens in the Netherlands on March 28, sheds light on Colvin’s life and career. Earlier the photographer Paul Conroy – who joined Colvin on her last assignment and survived the attack – released his documentary Under The Wire, which was based on the book he penned. Both films bring into focus one question: what makes journalists take the risks they do to report on conflict?

Marie Colvin wore the conviction that she must ‘bear witness’ as a coat of arms: the journalist should be the last observer to (possible) atrocities. Worse things happen if witnesses turn away, and without documentation there can be no hope of accountability. Her practice resulted in empathic stories – which in turn left their mark on the reporter herself. As colleagues, editors and readers praised her fearlessness, Colvin would reluctantly try to resettle in her friend circles in London and New York in-between reporting trips. In the In Extremis biography, Lindsey Hilsum describes how alcohol was sometimes necessary for Colvin to cope.

I, too, was taken with a certain romance regarding her work. I admired Colvin, whose reporting I discovered as a student in international relations, devouring her interviews with Yasser Arafat and Colonel Gaddafi. But now I am equally aware of the toll foreign assignments can take.

A year and a half ago, I myself – no longer a student but a freelance journalist - experienced an armed ambush during a trip to a national park in the Democratic Republic Congo. I was there with three colleagues and several park rangers, visiting a natural reserve in the country’s north-east, a region often plagued by violence and civil unrest. To help us get acquainted with the park and the complex social issues that surround it, rangers from the reserve took us to inspect an illegal gold mine that had recently been closed down. It sat squarely in the middle of the jungle, the reddish earth a stark contrast against the green. The rangers had set up an outpost there, a tent site where we were due to stay for a night or two.

But after the first night of camping, on a July day in 2017, we were attacked by at least a dozen unknown, armed assailants. It had probably been their objective to gain control of the mine. The attack was a complete surprise. One minute we were preparing lunch, the next we were taking fire.

As panic broke out, I joined a colleague in running and skidding out of the mine ditches. We hid in the bushes for a while, but did not seem safe from the bullets. Rangers made it clear we would have to leave the jungle, an hours-long track we had completed just a day prior in the opposite direction. We were reunited with our local producer and photographer, finally in safety, 24 hours later. Only then did the horror of the attack take shape: five people from the group had died in the attack, four of whom were park rangers, and one a civilian porter. In the emotional week that followed the assault we attended the rangers’ funeral and arranged for our return flight in a hurry.

Back home in Amsterdam I shook off the fear. I assured myself and loved ones that these events had been the result of bad luck only. We had carefully prepared the trip and did not take irresponsible risks. More than anything, I wanted to get back to work. I gave myself a stern talking to: a journalist doesn’t shy away from telling difficult stories.

And so it was for work that I spoke to Paul Conroy last September, to discuss the release of his documentary. I started the interview on Under The Wire and his efforts to gain attention for Marie Colvin’s last report. But the conversation shifted to a topic that has apparently weighed on me – my own experiences in DRC and the utility (for lack of a better translation) of war journalism.

Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy decided to team up for their assignments in Syria in 2012. Civil war had broken out in the country one year earlier, but details had remained relatively unknown, says Conroy. “The public had not seen much of what was happening on the ground. A lot had been said about the Arab Spring, of the geopolitical developments. But it was hard to get to the reality of that war, it was hard to reach. When Marie set out, she wanted to record the story of the people. That was our goal together, to give citizens a voice.”

It became clear why that voice had not travelled far as soon as they arrived in Homs, the rebels’ bastion. Conroy describes the impression the violence left on him in a bloodcurdling one-liner in the documentary: “This wasn’t war. It was slaughter.”

The Assad regime did not appreciate the coverage by Western journalists. The press centre in Homs, where rebels received reporters and connected to the outside world, was traced via wireless and telephone signals. On February 23 2012 the building came under a precision attack, as it was racketed until it had been completely destroyed. Colvin, Conroy and colleagues tried to get away, but the reporter died, aged 56. So did the French photographer Rémi Ochlik (28). Paul Conroy and a colleague were injured but managed to make it out.

Feeling as though I cannot escape the question that I’ve been confronted with often - by myself and others - in the last year, I ask Conroy: why are you really going? In our conversation the photographer repeats a statement from the film: “To tell the world what is happening, as is my job.”

The answer is fair and straightforward, but I must wonder if it is complete. We both, and many other journalists, found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time - strangely enough, while being at the exact right place and time. We had come to cover danger, to report on these volatile circumstances. This realization has been part of my answer: I got what I had wanted to know from Congo. It’s just that I had come a lot closer than I could have prepared for, or – in my private capacity as a person – would have chosen to experience.

As Conroy relates of the nightmarish moments in the Syrian media centra and his tunnel escape, I remember what an MSF-dispatched psychologist told me in a post-assignment debrief. “Your ‘resilient self’ is bruised. All the feelings and all the things are just affecting you a bit more now. It’s a temporary reaction.” It’s exactly what happened: in my first weeks home I dealt with loneliness and a heavy guilt. I felt like a worthless journalist – the one with five deaths to her name. Complete strangers’ stories of suffering and hardship hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn’t a state of mind that seemed very sustainable. And perhaps, as a journalist, I should regain a sense of distance to some of these narratives.

We had come to cover danger, to report on these volatile circumstances. This realization has been part of my answer: I got what I had wanted to know from Congo. It’s just that I had come a lot closer than I could have prepared for, or – in my private capacity as a person – would have chosen to experience.

These feelings have now lost their edge. They have solidified into a story that I have told others and myself, the contours of which are so familiar that I can choose to avoid sad re-livings. At least: I thought I could. We’re a half-hour into the phone interview when I must give in and stammer to the Scotsman – so much more experienced – that I recognize some of myself in him. There’s a shorty silence on the other end of the line. Then a genuine- sounding response: “That was in the Congo? I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. I see you can understand quite wel the things I am talking about.”

The relief I feel is of a painful sort. It’s as though I finally get to speak to a journalist that I admire in a conversation between like-minded people - who do not wish upon each other, or anybody else, other the source of that recognition. Conroy apologizes for not recognizing my name. The attack in the nature park reached the international press agencies. “So many confusing stories were circulating. It must have been terrible to be in that situation.”

I offer the next dilemma: when journalists become part of the news, there is a discomfort. Conroy decided to make use of that attention. “It was like, ‘Fine, point your camera in my face for a change, but I will tell you the real story’. After all, they tried to take that from us, by killing Marie.”

In the years between the American journalist’s death and the recent homages to her work, the conflict in Syria has grossly escalated and become more complicated. On the international political level, Conroy has noticed “something of a détente”. It irks him, clearly. “The overall impression now in the diplomacy seems to be that what Syria needs is some sort of ‘peace at all costs’, but I don’t think that’s what the Syrian people deserve. They deserve justice now. Not a kind of slow, soft rehabilitation for this regime - look at what it has done to its own citizens.”

In addition to his book and documentary, the photographer also contributed to the film A Private War. He wants to reach the widest possible audience, taking as much of their attention as he can get. “In times of fake news and social media, it is important to explain the work of foreign journalists. We travel to difficult areas to show viewers and readers what is happening there. And really, whether audiences pick up the book, or see either of the films, or go to a screening night: every single one of them that sees more of it, that’s the goal for me.”

The public usually asks him one cautious question about this: does he regret anything? “And sure”, he says; “it is a horrible thing that I have lost two amazing people. But I don’t regret our reports in Homs.” Conroy chuckles. “When I see the documentary, I am reminded of one of my best friends, of better times we experiences and the hard work we have done.”

As the conflict has shifted and drifted in and out of the public’s mind, the photographer still feels connected to Syria: “I really do feel this continuing link now to the people, and the inhabitants of Homs especially, because of what’s happened. Some of the guys who were there with me will occasionally reach out, as well.”

I dread working on the Conroy story for the newspaper for months after the actual interview. This resistance is only broken when I hear about the ruling against the Assad regime in the civil case brought by the Colvin family. The outcome is celebrated: the verdict does not return Marie Colvin or Rémi Ochlik to their colleagues, but their former newsrooms take the opportunity to write about them, their lives and work.

This is the first time that a government is so unequivocally held responsible in such a case. I look through my social media, sharing the first article I come across on Twitter. “This is big”, is my brief commentary. Finally, I set about typing out my notes for the rest of this article.

When I see the documentary, I am reminded of one of my best friends, of better times we experiences and the hard work we have done.
— Paul Conroy