It's been several weeks since the fatal shelling in Syria killed journalist Marie Colvin and her colleague Remi Ochlik. For photographer Paul Conroy, the wounds are still fresh.
He was there that day, too — at the rebel stronghold in Homs, which had been under daily bombardment by government forces. The journalists were under cover in a makeshift press center when it came under fire. Conroy recalls:
"I reached for my camera thinking the attack was over. As I bent down, there was an almighty explosion. I felt a huge blow to my leg where the shrapnel had gone through. And as I went looking for Marie, I fell, tripped on some rubble — and laying in the rubble of what had been formerly the entrance were the bodies of my colleagues. Marie was dead."
Conroy was smuggled out of Syria with the help of rebels, some of whom died in that journey. Since then, he has been recovering in a London hospital and this week, he moved into a London hotel.
Though he laments the loss of life, he emphasizes that isn't the point. "I would love dearly to have my friend and colleague back," he says, "but no, I have no regrets."
"The fact that we go in there ... to highlight the plight of these people — you know, then when one of us dies or is injured, the light is shone on us — it's not the reason I go in. It's not the reason anyone does this job."
He's alluding to the civilian death toll in Syria, which has been climbing as recently as Friday.
Conroy says he has stayed in touch with those who helped smuggle him out. "Last night I reestablished communication with the people who actually got me out of Bab Amr. We talked about the cease-fire," he says. "To them, it's a standing joke."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Over the course of the past year, the fog of civil war inside of Syria has made the truth difficult to see. But sometimes - often, for tragic reasons - a few days and weeks stand out. One of those times occurred when Marie Colvin, of the Sunday Times of London, was killed during an attack by government forces on the rebel hideout in which she and her colleague, The Times photographer Paul Conroy, had taken shelter. Paul Conroy was also seriously injured in the attack, and was eventually smuggled out by international aid agencies.
He's been recovering in a London hospital since then, and this week moved into a London hotel. We want to caution our listeners that some of this conversation could be graphic. Paul, thanks for being with us.
PAUL CONROY: Oh, thanks for having me.
SIMON: First, how are you?
CONROY: I'm not too bad. The leg's now starting to heal. It was a straight-through shrapnel wound. I've had eight major operations on it but now, it's slowly starting to come back together.
SIMON: You, of course, were in an area of Syria in which very few Western journalists have seen and for a while, you lived right at the heart of the rebel center in Homs - which was under daily bombardment by government forces. What did you see? What was it like at the heart of Homs during this time?
CONROY: So what we saw was the effects of a very well-trained professional military army unleashing, you know, very, very high-tech bombardments of artillery - Katyusha rockets, 220-millimeter mortars - on a civilian population, and the effect of that is actually quite devastating. They were ferocious and deadly attacks.
SIMON: Can I press you to describe a little bit, exactly of some of what you saw and documented?
CONROY: We managed to get to a field hospital, which was in fact a residential apartment that had been very loosely converted to a hospital. We witnessed people coming in with limbs blown off and stomachs blown open; children gasping for breath while they were being treated. The hospital would be shelled from the outside. Medieval would be my best summary of the conditions they were working in.
SIMON: Can I ask you to go back to the day that Marie Colvin died?
CONROY: Yeah. It was a day as any other. It started 6:30, the shelling. About five to 8, I think, we took a direct hit on one of the walls. We then took another direct hit within a minute. A minute later, we took the direct hit - I think it hit the floor above us. At that point, I reached for my camera, thinking that the attack was over. As I bent down, there was just an almighty explosion. I felt a huge blow to my leg where the shrapnel had gone through, and managed to get a tourniquet on. And as I went looking for Marie, I fell, tripped on some rubble - and laying in the rubble, what had been formerly the entrance of the house where were the bodies of my colleagues. Marie was dead.
SIMON: Have you ever regretted going in?
CONROY: I would love dearly to have my friend and colleague back but no, I have no regrets other than the loss of life - Marie's loss of life and also, you know, the people who helped us after the event, getting it out; lives were also sacrificed there. But do I regret doing a job that I think's important? No.
SIMON: And how do you respond to people that have some reservations about the fact that one Western journalist died? There's a tension when civilians die. It just seems to be maybe a daily toll, but it doesn't get as much attention.
CONROY: Yeah. I mean, it makes me feel awful. I mean, the fact that we go in there and we do what we do to highlight the plight of these people, you know; then when one of us dies or is injured, the light is shone on us. I think it's not the reason I go in. It's not the reason anybody does this job.
SIMON: Can you tell us how you were smuggled out of Baba Amr?
CONROY: Yeah. One night about 6 p.m., one of the Free Syrian Army came in and literally said, pack now; we're leaving. We were taken outside, put into pickup trucks - at which point, they started shelling again; a lot of sniper fire coming in. We were driven about five, six kilometers to the entrance at the tunnel. I was then put on a motorbike, strangely enough.
It was a storm drain, but if the driver of the motorbike got on the motorbike and lay his head on the tank, and I laid my head on his back, then there was actually enough room to drive a motorbike through the storm drain - which we did, about three kilometers. And from there, I was basically dragged about two kilometers cross country - over walls, through fields. And then over the next two days, I was slowly - slowly but surely smuggled across Syria, and out at the Lebanese border.
SIMON: Paul, have you followed events in Syria in the region, the United Nations peace deal since you've been recovering?
CONROY: Yeah. Yeah. In fact last night, I re-established communication with the people who actually got me out of Baba Amr. We talked about the cease-fire and to be honest, they were talking about, what? What cease-fire? I mean, to them, it's a standing joke.
SIMON: Paul Conroy, war photographer, joining us from London. Thanks so much, Paul.
CONROY: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.