'There was nothing random about that attack'

By Julie Vitkovskaya

A photo of journalist Marie Colvin who was killed in Syria while she was reporting from there, is seen on the wall of the Newseum in Washington. Photo / AP
A photo of journalist Marie Colvin who was killed in Syria while she was reporting from there, is seen on the wall of the Newseum in Washington. Photo / AP

The first time British photographer Paul Conroy met Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was in Syria before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when she walked into a restaurant demanding to speak with the "boat man".

The moniker was bestowed upon Conroy after he had tried to sneak into Iraq across the Tigris River using a boat he made out of inner tubes. The scheme proved unsuccessful. Conroy was detained and told to leave Syria after a couple of days. His colleagues in the media, it seemed, had also excommunicated him.

"It was kind of like, 'You spoiled it for everyone - you and your boat,'" Conroy said.

Conroy recalled watching Colvin walk over to his corner of the restaurant after he had sheepishly identified himself, stretching out her hand to him and saying: "Boat man, I like your style. Can I buy you a whisky?" "And I went, 'Of course.' And that was it," Conroy said.

Conroy and Colvin were both inside the media centre in the Syrian neighbourhood of Baba Amr on February 22, 2012, when Syrian Government forces shelled the building, killing Colvin, 56, and French photographer Remi Ochlik, 28. The attack also injured Conroy and another reporter, Edith Bouvier from the French newspaper Le Figaro.

A civil lawsuit filed today on behalf of Colvin's family members alleges that Syrian forces tracked and killed Colvin to silence opposition voices against the regime, targeting her position in the opposition-held city of Homs by intercepting her broadcasts.

Yet even now, Conroy describes how Colvin would be upset to hear any story focused on the journalists. To her, it was all about the people, and despite knowing the risks of staying in the city of Homs, it was impossible to turn away from the events unfolding in front of them, Conroy said.

"Marie's view was that if you wanted to show war and the true effects of war, the people are always left behind in these bad situations, in general the women and the children. The place was full of women and children. And there was no realistic way that Marie wasn't going to be there for them," he said. "She was the ultimate professional."

Conroy spoke to the Washington Post about working with Colvin and the day of the attack in Baba Amr:

The lawsuit states that the Syrian military had tracked and deliberately killed Marie [Colvin]. What evidence do you have that supports that? What were you seeing at the time?

We'd been warned when we were going into Syria there were a lot of regime spies. . . . So we were always careful how much we used the satellite phones, how much we used communications.

In Baba Amr, what we saw when we got there was artillery units surrounded the city; the full division had surrounded the city. And it was a pretty random bombardment. It was constant. It was 18 hours a day. But it didn't seem that targeted. . . . They were throwing as much heavy artillery and rockets into the place, killing anyone. . . .

I was an ex-artilleryman in the British artillery for six years, so I was kind of well-tuned in the fire patterns and methods of artillery fire. Nothing I'd seen to that point indicated that they were targeting anything in particular. The idea seemed to be doing as much damage, and it was random.

However, on the morning the attack started, the first two things I noticed were two shells landed maybe 100 to 150 yards [away]. Two rockets landed 150 yards on either side of the media centre, closely followed approximately 30 seconds later by two more shells, which landed even closer.

And at that point, that's when I first realised that the next rockets to land were about to hit the media centre because what they were in fact doing was working the shells in. So they'd fire two, it would be observed from a drone. They would then adjust the fire pattern to tighten on the target, which were the next two rounds we heard. No more than 30 seconds after that there were direct hits on the media centre on the small wing of it, on the roof to the left.

In many ways, it was perfect artillery work. That was my major response, even before they hit us, was that these were professional gunners who knew exactly what they were doing. There was nothing random about that attack.

Once they located the target, they continued to put shells into it, which means they were observing. They knew they had the coordinates. Then the shelling stopped. As soon as people were seen outside the building, I crawled out into the rubble, and then the shelling started again, directly targeting the street right outside the media centre. It was far too orchestrated, far too sophisticated, to be anything other than a deliberate attack.

As you were trying to escape, what were the other things you were seeing on the ground? What was the situation like after the fact?

It went from bad to worse. We were sent to a field hospital that was barely functioning. They didn't have enough basic resources - iodine, bandages to treat the injured. Obviously, Marie, Remi were beyond help. From that point on, it just degraded. The artillery bombardments increased in intensity, and that's saying a lot, given the level they were at prior to the attack.

We were visited at a certain point by the Syrian Red Crescent. We had been expecting the Red Cross to come in. We were told that if we had got into their ambulances that we would be executed, and our bodies thrown onto the battlefield as if we were killed in crossfire. But, you know, we were given a warning by a very senior member of the party who came in with the Red Crescent.

And all throughout our escape, there was a lot of indications that [Syrian forces] knew where we were and where we were headed to. They knew the way out. And it was touch and go for everybody for the whole escape. It was five, six days, seven days, I think, before I actually got out. And all through that period, I thought that we were very specifically being hunted.

- Washington Post

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