London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Speaking from his hospital bed in London on Monday, Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy told Asharq al-Awsat that he wanted to do everything he could to tell the world about the catastrophe now taking place in Syria.
Conroy, who is recovering from severe shrapnel wounds to his legs and stomach, said he believed that the Syrian forces that were entering the Baba Amr area of Homs were engaged in a major slaughter. “I am 99 per cent sure that a massacre is now taking place,” he said. “There were hundreds of civilians sheltering in the bombed-out ruins of the district and I think it is unlikely that very many of them will survive. Now that the Free Syrian Army fighters [FSA] have withdrawn, the Syrians won’t stop killing.”
Conroy was wounded in a rocket attack that killed veteran Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, 56, and French photographer Remi Ochlik, 28, on 22 February. It was five days before Conroy could be got out of the besieged city, with the aid of FSA fighters. Other journalists trapped included the French reporter Edith Bouvier (who was badly injured) and photographer William Daniels, both of whom spent nine days in Homs before escaping at the end of last week. The Red Cross confirmed on Friday that the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik were finally handed over to the French ambassador and a Polish diplomat in Damascus by the Syrian authorities.
Conroy said he and Marie Colvin, along with a local guide, had visited Homs twice, having entered the country via Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. “We were taken across the border to Al Qusayr by people smugglers,” said Conroy. “From there, we were passed into the hands of the Free Syrian Army, who had agreed to get us into Homs.
“We were passed on from one group to another – for security reasons, they operate in small group of three or four. At no point did we feel any threat. Most of the guys were army defectors. These are not crazy gun-toters. They are very keen to make sure that weapons don’t fall into the hands of civilians. And anyone who wants to join the movement needs to show an ID card that proves they have had military training. I would say that more than 90 per cent of them are ex-military.
Mr Conroy explained that they were able to get into Homs by using a drainage tunnel. “We had to climb down a couple of metres and then walk along the tunnel for about three kilometres. We had to bend double to avoid hitting our head on the top of the tunnel.”
He said that the tunnel ended somewhere to the south of the Baba Amr district, which is itself to the south-west of the city centre, not far from the university.
“Even after we came out of the tunnel we had a journey of several kilometres at night before we were in Baba Amr. It was treacherous. The FSA put us in a car and we drove across open ground to get into the area. We were shot at as we drove, but nothing hit us.”
“You know immediately that you are in Baba Amr. It was very stark and had all the appearance of a ghost town. I saw complete and utter destruction all around me. I don’t think I saw a single intact building. Movement is almost impossible because of Army snipers, who will shoot at anything that moves. In the car we varied our speed, turned out the lights and made a dash across the intersections to minimise the chance of being hit.”
On this first journey into the city, movement wasn’t so difficult to begin with. The journalists headed to one particular building that was being used by other media who were already in the town, including CNN. Conroy explained that communications with the outside world was difficult. “None of our normal stuff worked,” he said. “Our Thuraya satellite phones worked only intermittently, so we were all using a microwave dish on the roof of the building. The FSA people said they thought it was untraceable, but none of us were very convinced. They were using the dish themselves to send out videos to news organisations and for people to upload onto YouTube.
“We hunkered down until the next morning but at 06.30 the shelling started again. It was very intense and lasted for the next five hours. They were using all kind of artillery. I could tell they were using a range of mortars, including the very large 220 mm ones, plus Katyusha rockets, 120 mm tank shells and 155 mm artillery. We were told that the Syrian army had set up lines about five kilometres outside the city. The mortars were being fired from much closer.”
“Eventually it stopped for a while and we were able to begin our job of reporting what was happening. That first stay lasted for two nights during which time we were able to file our story and pictures from within the city. ”
In an interview with the BBC broadcast on the day she died, Marie Colvin described watching a two-year-old boy who had been hit by shrapnel die in a makeshift clinic in Baba Amr. She said: “The doctor just said ‘I can’t do anything’. His little tummy just kept heaving until he died. That is happening over and over and over. ”
“No-one here can understand how the international community can let this happen, particularly when we have an example of Srebrenica – shelling of a city, lots of investigations by the United Nations after that massacre, lots of vows to never let it happen again.” She said the situation in Homs was “absolutely sickening”, adding “there’s just shells, rockets and tank fire pouring into civilian areas of this city, and it’s just unrelenting.”
An article she wrote for the Sunday Times that weekend noted that wounded civilians in the Baba Amr area of Homs were being treated by a vet because no doctors were available. In a chilling warning, Colvin said “the scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.”
Conroy says that he and Ms Colvin were told that a ground assault was expected and that they should get out of Homs: “So together with CNN, we made our way out of the city the same way we had come in. We moved out to a safe house outside the city and waited. After three or four days it was clear that the ground offensive had not taken place, so we decided to go back into the city.”
Mr Conroy said that he and Marie Colvin re-entered the city by the same route as previously. “We got back on Monday, 20th of February. The next day, Tuesday, we spent in the same house as before. It was the following morning, on the 22nd, that we were attacked and Marie and Remi were killed. I was hit by shrapnel in the legs.”
Now in very dangerous circumstances, Mr Conroy was desperate to get out of Baba Amr. He eventually got out five days later in a daring and tragic escape. “We heard that the tunnel we had used had been damaged by shelling and that the FSA was trying to repair it. It seems that the Syrian authorities had worked out how the tunnel was being used. As soon as we heard that the tunnel had been repaired we were able to make a move. I was very fortunate in being one of the first people to get into the tunnel. The other trapped journalists, including Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro and photographer William Daniels had to turn back.”
In fact, what happened was that bandages around Mr Conroy’s legs began to unravel as they got out of the car at the mouth of the tunnel. He was bleeding and one of the FSA fighters told him to get into the tunnel first. He explained to others that Mr Conroy could not walk and that he needed help. Slowly he was lowered down into the tunnel and put onto the back of a motorbike. The driver set off, with both the FSA fighter and Mr Conroy bending down to avoid hitting their head on the ceiling of the tunnel.
After about a mile they came across a wounded young boy being carried by a man. They put the boy on the back of the motorcycle and carried on as far as they could before damage to the tunnel meant they had to crawl for part of the distance. Eventually they made it to the other end of the tunnel where FSA fighters carried Mr Conroy to a series of safe houses before getting him safely across the border into Lebanon.
Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa of El Mundo was the other foreign reporter who managed to escape. He later told the BBC that he had almost been killed after Syrian soldiers opened fire on his party when they heard to cries of frightened children who were trying to get out of the city. Many people from the escape party were killed as the journalists tried to get out of Homs. “I know for sure that three people who were looking after me were killed,” said Mr Conroy. “More were killed trying to get the other journalists out.”
Asked what advice he would give to any journalists attempting to report on the events in Syria, Mr Conroy said the most important point was to gather as much information as possible. “It is vital that journalists upload as much information as possible with any video they obtain. We have seen a lot of material that is brilliant, but unusable because it is not clear where and when it was obtained.” He urged people to send their material to news organisations rather than simply uploading it onto sites such as YouTube. “Get it to the big news organisations. They can assess it, present it properly and verify it. Otherwise, you find that the al-Assad regime will attempt to discredit it, or even use the same clips to suggest the opposite meaning.”
He urged journalists attempting to enter Syria to trust the FSA fighters. “They know their stuff,” he said. “They are the people who are best able to protect journalists.” Mr Conroy added that even though he was still recovering from his wounds in hospital, he would do everything he could to keep these issues in the public eye.