Tunnel into Hell

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment by Paul Conroy. Weinstein Books. 2013.

Image: Flickr 8210896317

I listened to the Audible edition.

Marie Colvin, war correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, was killed on February 22, 2012, in Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria. The Syrian Army had laid siege to the area after its residents resisted the Assad regime’s violent suppression of initially peaceful dissent. Colvin and the author of this account, photographer Paul Conroy, had been sent in on assignment to get the story on the impact on the civilian population.

To reach Baba Amr, the two had to enter Syria illegally from Lebanon, cross territory patrolled by the Syrian army and sneak into the besieged town through a storm drain several kilometers long, used by the rebel forces for resupply and to evacuate wounded fighters and civilians. The trip by car or pickup truck over rough roads or no roads at all, often under fire, as well as the foul, claustrophobic tunnel was the stuff of nightmares.

Once in, they found themselves at the “media center” where a few other journalists and a staff of activists for the resistance put out a stream of reports and YouTube videos to try to focus attention on the brutal assault by the government forces, especially the many civilian casualties. They reported from the makeshift hospital, which tried, with little equipment and few drugs, to treat the often horrifically wounded victims. After filing their first story, they were advised to get out before the army made its final assault. Having retraced the arduous route in, they were dismayed to learn that no assault had taken place.

Marie Colvin was determined to go back and Paul Conroy reluctantly agreed. When they returned to the media center in Baba Amr, the bombardment was even worse. Colvin filed another report and then gave live interviews to several broadcast outlets, including CNN. These, which were undoubtedly monitored by Syrian intelligence, probably had something to do with the next day’s tragedy.

On the 22nd, Colvin, Conroy and four French and Spanish journalists were about to leave for the hospital when Conroy, an artillery spotter in his days in the British army, became alarmed. He realized that the shells were falling in a pattern that meant the gunners were zeroing in on the media canter. Confusion followed as some fled the building, while others stayed put. It mattered little: multiple shells scored direct hits. Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the French photographer, died instantly. Conroy, the French reporter, Edith Bouvier, and the Syrian translator, Wa’el were all seriously wounded.

The survivors spent a further week trapped in the city under constant barrage, receiving minimal medical treatment. Conroy was evacuated through the tunnel, which had been blasted shut but was reopened. To escape he had to drag himself, with a horribly torn leg and other serious wounds, through a muddy passage barely wide enough for his body. The Syrian resistance managed to get him to comparative safety in Lebanon. Even there  agents of the Assad regime were looking for him. The British embassy arranged for his evacuation to London, where he spent a year in hospital. All the other journalists and the translator also eventually escaped and recovered.

As an account of Marie Colvin’s last assignment, this is a gripping read. It was the final gamble in decades of risk taking, from Chechnya to Sri Lanka to Lybia, for the sake of getting the story from places where governments were doing dirty work and trying to prevent the rest of the world from learning about it. In East Timor, she went beyond just reporting. Her refusal to leave the refugees whose plight she was covering probably saved fifteen hundred lives. In at least one case it was clear that government forces deliberately tried to kill her, despite knowing she was a journalist. In that incident in Sri Lanka, she lost an eye. She is deservedly a legend in a profession of many heroes.

What bothers me about this book is that it not only pictures the brutality of the Assad regime and the murder of innocent civilians, but it also makes the Syrian resistance fighters, particularly the Free Syrian Army into heroes. In a sense that is true: lightly armed forces defending their territory against a brutal aggressor. What Conroy doesn’t remind us of, however, is how the Syrian civil war began. Assad was faced with a peaceful uprising and, predictably, I would say, chose to use force to put it down. In response members of the army, police and security services defected and formed armed resistance groups, including FSA. Opposition to Assad was highly fractured, however, and there was never much chance of a unified opposition. The subsequent history of the conflict, in which the siege of Homs was an early episode, is one of calamity for Syria and its people.

My question is why resort to armed resistance? Was there an alternative? We see this again and again across the world, and the consequences are never anything but misery for most of the people caught up in the conflict. Marie Colvin’s dispatches could have just as easily come from Gaza, during one of the so-called “defensive” attacks by the Israeli army (which their generals refer to as “mowing the lawn,” according to The Guardian, 7 January 2019). They could come from the Saudi war in Yemen, to cite another current conflict.

Reports like those of Colvin and Conroy too often offer us easily identifiable villains. Someone in the book expressed the hope to see Assad and his government in the dock at the International Criminal Court. That at least would be justice, but graphic accounts of war crimes make us hope to see the villain blasted to bits or executed like Muammer Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. So long as those in power know this is how we feel, they will do everything to avoid having to give up. The one instance I can think of where a brutal regime gave way to a fairly stable democracy is South Africa, where somehow the white leadership was convinced that it was safe to yield to black majority rule.

What do the people of the Middle East have to do to become convinced that they can settle political, social and economic and break down barriers, without the other side trying to destroy them? The problem is that the United States, Russia and China continue to rely mainly on threats of violence and take sides in these regional conflicts. The solution has to begin with the most powerful players.

As I quoted in an earlier post about militarization of environmental conflict:

[militarized approaches to conflict lead to] “antagonistic interactions, of the kind that now plague the Middle East and parts of Africa. Small countries are led to play the game because of the fear, too often realized, that stronger powers, and especially, superpowers, will simply impose their will by threat or violence (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) It also encourages destructive insurgencies, leading ultimately to collapse of states (Somalia, Libya, Syria, Lebanon) …Without structures of genuine equity, supported by collective guarantees and a system of settling disputes that doesn’t rely primarily on crippling sanctions, threats and force, we will not see much progress towards protecting our earth’s life-support systems.”

and I would add the protecting lives of vulnerable human beings.