‘They’re drugging the fucking journalists’
18 March 2003, Qamishli, Syria
The boat seemed ridiculously out of place in the tiny hotel room. I looked at the four large lorry inner tubes lying on the floor, lashed together with bits of rope and wood. I’d even added luggage straps for my camera kit. Now, after days spent slaving over it, my homemade raft was finally ready to be deflated and transported to its launch site – the west bank of Syria’s Tigris river. The boat’s mission: a one-way voyage from Syria to northern Iraq. I stared out of the window of the shabby hotel room and absorbed the empty vista – desert, miles of unbroken desert. I looked back at the boat. It seemed more incongruous than ever.
It was a boat born of desperation. As America and its allies prepared to invade Iraq, the world’s press corps, sensing a televisual bonanza, began to gather at strategic crossing points along the Iraqi border. I had chosen to cross into Saddam Hussein’s doomed state via northern Syria. Once inside, I planned to link up with a battle-hardened bunch of Kurdish rebels known as the Peshmerga and then follow them as they advanced south towards Baghdad from their mountainous stronghold in the north. There was, however, a slight hitch: I needed permission from the Syrian regime’s ruthless intelligence service to cross the river border into Iraq. As the drum roll of the Iraq war intensified, Syria’s secret police dug their heels in. Three weeks passed and still the Mukhabarat refused to give us permission to cross.
The wait would have been bearable if only the Syrian border town of Qamishli – the desert outpost that lies on the crossroads between Iraq, Turkey and Syria – hadn’t been one of the least salubrious places in which to be stuck. There were no bars, no restaurants and, by now, there was virtually no hope of receiving the fabled piece of paper that would permit a crossing into the Kurdish-held parts of northern Iraq.
To add to the boredom, everything had begun to grow depressingly familiar. Every day for weeks on end between twenty and thirty lethargic journalists would drag themselves out of bed and traipse over to the intelligence service headquarters five hundred metres down the road from the hotel. We would be ushered into an office, told to sit down and given glasses of hot tea. After an hour or so an expressionless officer would enter the room. He’d shake his head and announce with a hint of hostility that, once again, we’d been denied permission to enter Iraq. The group of increasingly crestfallen journalists would slowly shuffle back to the delightfully named Petroleum Hotel, where the facilities, rather sadly, lived up to the hotel’s name.
And so it was that we had become trapped, tantalisingly out of reach of the battle that we’d come to cover and stuck in what appeared to be an unfinished, downmarket version of a British Travelodge, built in the desert.
The intelligence headquarters had once been a family home, but all signs of cosiness and domesticity had long since been removed. In place of family portraits were the badly printed photographs of men wanted by the Syrian authorities. It now looked more like a committee room from Stalinist Russia. The boredom and nervous frustration of the past few weeks were visible on the faces of my fellow journalists, who sat and drank tea listlessly, waiting for something, anything to happen.
I remember one particularly tedious day when the small room was near full to bursting. Journalists who were unable to find a seat on the sofa or the armchairs sat on cushions on the floor, while others dribbled down their chins and struggled with wobbly-neck syndrome to stay conscious. Suddenly the door crashed open on this scene of total lassitude. A lone female appeared, wearing a battered brown suede jacket and with a black eyepatch covering her left eye. She stood stock still in the doorway and surveyed the room with a smooth, feline movement of her head. She paused as she absorbed the motley bunch of comatose journalists in front of her.
‘My God, they’re drugging the fucking journalists. They must be drugging the tea,’ she exclaimed in absolute disgust. And that was it. She never said anything else. She just turned on her heel and left the room.
Some of the journalists couldn’t even muster the energy to look up at her, so deep was their stupor. A few managed to turn their heads but only to blink in her general direction. That was my first sighting of the legendary Marie Colvin.
As the ritual disappointment of the Mukhabarat office began to take its toll, all my plans to cross into Iraq and link up with rebel fighters seemed doomed to fail. It was time to act. And so it was, as I watched the lifeblood begin to drain from the journalists gathered in the Petroleum Hotel, that the idea of the boat was born.
My partners in crime for the boat project were Norwegian filmmaker Paul Refsdal, a young New York Times stringer called Liz and a Kurdish cab driver called Ali. I put Ali in charge of procuring the necessary boat-building materials. He would also act as chief smuggler to get us through the Syrian military positions strung out along the river. We needed the inner tubes of lorry tyres, rope, wood, netting and handpumps, all of which Ali acquired with amazing speed from the backstreet workshops of Qamishli.
Ali was a superstar. Clad at all times in a bright mustard-coloured tracksuit – made from synthetic fibres visible from the moon – his eyes lit up and sparkled like a little boy’s when I told him about the boat plan. Kurds like Ali in the Qamishli region had suffered heavily at the hands of the Syrian regime. I guess Ali saw the smuggling operation as a small way of hitting back, of getting one over on Syrian intelligence.
The plan was to waterproof all our kit in plastic bags and then paddle across the roughly mile-wide stretch of river into Iraq, steering with our feet. We constructed life jackets from plastic Coca-Cola bottles, complete with safety ropes to connect us to the raft. The construction was pretty straightforward. I simply inflated the tyres in the room and lashed them together with rope before attaching the floor, which was made up of planks of wood tied together with baling twine and then lashed to the inner tubes. It was designed so we could deflate it, carry it outside the hotel to a waiting car and then reinflate it once on the banks of the river.
We tried to keep our plans secret. Among the stranded journalists lurked their security advisors – ex-military personnel who, if you believed what they said, were all ex-SAS troopers. Now call me cynical but, after nearly twenty years in war zones, I seem to have met more ex-SAS personnel than the SAS could possibly have trained in that time. There were exceptions (the BBC’s security team are fantastic), Kevin Sisson and Kevin Sweeny being prime examples of guys I would trust my life to, but many I’m sure promoted themselves from the logistics or catering corps to the role of special forces commando or Royal Marine elite in a frenzy of Tippex blotting and document scanning. They were there to provide security advice for the broadcast media – the likes of Sky News. Their real job, however, was to stop journalists being naughty – by building boats, for example. But they had no control over the freelance element of the Qamishli press corps. And so, when they did finally get a whiff of what we were planning to do, we were told in no uncertain terms that we would spoil it for everyone if we went rogue and attempted an illegal crossing.
On the day of departure we disposed of everything other than the bare necessities. Liz got rid of her body armour, helmet and a surprising amount of silk underwear and Paul abandoned a whole suitcase of clothes. I had no excess baggage or body armour, so I added a few cartons of Marlborough cigarettes to my kit. We double-wrapped everything in bin bags to keep electrical kit safe and to ensure that we had dry clothes on the other side.
I had sent Ali out earlier with $500 to make sure the Syrian army looked the other way when we passed through the checkpoints. He arrived back from his mission on time at eight o’clock.
We’d spent long hours discussing how to smuggle the boat through the hotel without being too conspicuous but in the end we’d decided that this couldn’t be done. So instead we ended up lowering it out of the hotel window on a towrope to Ali’s cab, which was parked below. We then trooped nonchalantly through the hotel under the suspicious gaze of the security teams in the lobby.
We drove in silence to the border. The invasion of Iraq had already begun and we knew we were taking a serious risk by travelling illegally into a fully-fledged war zone on a home-made boat. It was a preposterously silly plan, but we were now fully committed. The desert night was clear and star filled, punctuated only at times by a bright flash on the horizon as a coalition bomb exploded somewhere inside Iraq.
Luckily, Ali, who was still clad in his discreet mustard tracksuit, had done a good job: we cruised past army checkpoints as the soldiers waved us through without even a second glance. It was $500 well spent. The journey to the river was tense but uneventful. We told Ali to stop at a prearranged position on the road. We said our goodbyes. Ali shuffled back to his car, laughing and tapping his head with his forefinger – the universal sign for ‘they’re crackers’.
Prior to becoming a journalist, I had spent six years in the British army. Although I never reached the dizzy heights of Field Marshal Montgomery and can lay no claim to a role in Britain’s special forces (mainly because I really hate running), I was still a pretty competent soldier. I spent four years in Germany as a forward observer in the Royal Artillery so I knew a little about the importance of reconnaissance work. And I could have sworn that I had properly reconnoitred the river we were about to cross. In fact, I had even done so in the company of one of the ‘ex-Royal Marines’. But the gently meandering river that we had observed only days before bore no similarity to the torrent that now raged in front of us.
For all my military experience, I had failed to factor in the warm weather preceding our D-Day-style invasion of Iraq. The snows had melted from the surrounding mountains, turning the once peaceful river into the black and churning stretch of pure misery that now lay before us.
‘By the time we paddle across that we’ll be floating through Baghdad,’ I announced to Paul and Liz, only half joking. The silence that followed indicated that they both fully believed we could indeed be in Baghdad by morning.
We began to assemble the raft in anxious silence. First, we had to inflate the inner tubes. Almost immediately the hand pump failed on us. Huddled in a small wadi next to the river, we froze in disbelief as the sound of voices drifted down from the hilltop above. Syrian army, I thought. Although Ali had spent our $500 wisely, we knew it didn’t apply to random border patrols like the one now rapidly approaching our position.
We huffed and puffed with renewed urgency to inflate the boat. More voices drifted down from the hill. This time they were louder. We quickly tethered the raft to a small tree and slipped it into the turbulent water. Suddenly a volley of automatic gunfire cracked over our heads. The bullets were close: not life-threateningly so, but our position had clearly been compromised.
We abandoned the boat and moved swiftly along the river’s edge towards a small town where we thought we might be able to steal a more traditional boat. We moved silently. Eventually we came across a narrow path that hugged the edge of the meandering river. To our left was a small cluster of dark, apparently unoccupied buildings. Best to go around them, I told the others. But, as we started to skirt the buildings, a unit of soldiers screamed at us in Arabic and I heard the awful sound of rifles being cocked, stopping us dead in our tracks.
A soldier rushed out from the doorway of one of the abandoned homes. He was shouting frantically and pointing a Kalashnikov in our direction. More soldiers loomed out of the other doorways, sprinting through the darkness towards us. For a minute it looked like we were going to be shot.
The proper response when confronted by ten soldiers all cocking their weapons and screaming at you is to pop your hands up, assume the air of a lost tourist and say, ‘Good evening,’ as politely as possible in the local language, if known. But this standard response failed to have the desired effect. The soldier who’d originally spotted us must have been in shock. He continued to shout and scream and seemed rather intent on killing us on the spot.
In situations like this it’s often nice to find someone in control. On this occasion, however, the soldiers appeared to be a group of conscripts who were young and trigger-happy – a bad combination.
They hustled us into a small room illuminated by a single 10-watt light bulb. A few office chairs and an upturned ammunition crate that served as a table were the only items of furniture inside the room. We were promptly tied to the chairs and left in the company of two young and nervous guards, their Kalashnikovs cocked and at the ready.
For the next hour or two someone would enter the room, shout at us in Arabic, get more frustrated, shout louder and leave. I guess it’s the same with the English abroad: if at first someone doesn’t understand, then simply increase the volume and shout a little louder, because they’re obviously deaf. And so it was with our Arabic captors: they just kept getting louder. It was a relief when a soldier finally entered the room, smiled at us and said in perfect English, ‘So, where are you from?’
‘Liverpool,’ I replied.
He beamed back at me. ‘Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen. Liverpool – such a great team. I love Steven Gerrard!’ Perfect, I thought. A kindred spirit. ‘Manchester United are shite,’ I said, smiling as ingratiatingly as I could.
The solider agreed with this analysis and a long discussion about the pros and cons of two of England’s fiercest football rivals followed. He untied my hands, made me coffee and handed me a cigarette.
At this point a voice from the corner of the room said rather churlishly, ‘I don’t suppose you could get your new friend to untie us too.’ It was Paul the film-maker. I had completely forgotten about them during my conversation with the soldier. My new best friend obliged and untied Liz and Paul. I got the feeling we were safe so I ventured a question.
‘I don’t suppose you could call us a cab to get back to Qamishli, could you? We appear to have got a little lost tonight,’ I said tentatively.
His smile disappeared. ‘I’m sorry, my friend: you must first speak to some other people before you can go home.’
What followed over the next forty-eight hours was a bizarre and confusing journey through the unfathomable, labyrinthine command structure of Syria’s intelligence service. First, we were taken under armed guard to buildings in the middle of the mountains where we were searched and then interrogated. Then they moved us to another building where the same process took place all over again. This happened over and over for two days.
The three of us had already agreed on a cover story: we were journalists who had got lost looking for war refugees near the border. Admittedly, it was a weak and flimsy excuse but we stuck to the story like a mantra, repeating it so often that we almost began to believe it ourselves. But I couldn’t shake the fear that the intelligence agents might discover a video cassette of me actually building the boat, which I’d concealed earlier in my jacket. So, on one of the car journeys between buildings, I pulled the tape out and threw it from the moving vehicle.
Our guards woke us up at dawn on the second day. They were polite and friendly: they had come to accept that we posed no obvious threat to them and that we appeared not to be the American invasion as they’d initially imagined or feared. They remained sombre though.
‘You must see General Omar today,’ one of the guards said, almost apologetically.
‘Not good?’ I asked, shaking my head.
‘Not good,’ the guard replied ominously.
We drove down from the mountains for an hour, stopping at what appeared to be a solid concrete wall in the middle of the desert. Bristling with barbed wire, the walls formed a huge, impenetrable and menacing military base. Its location in the middle of the desert and fortifications gave me the impression that many people entered this place – but few left. The guards fell silent. To my surprise, what seemed like an immovable slab of reinforced concrete in the wall opened, and we drove through the gap.
Once inside the grounds of the military base, the driver stopped the car by a set of heavy steel, reinforced, doors which seemed to lead to nowhere, no building was visible. We stepped out of the 4×4 vehicle and followed a soldier down into what appeared to be a secret bunker. It had Bond villain written all over it.
I told Paul that I wouldn’t be able to contain my laughter if we found General Omar inside stroking a fluffy white cat.
‘Don’t you dare fucking laugh,’ muttered Paul, as we descended deeper into the bunker.
We stopped outside two massive steel doors with guards flanking us on either side and waited for the signal to enter. I stood there desperately fighting back the images of Bond villains and white cats. When the signal finally came to enter, I had to bite my lip, just in case.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I muttered as we entered.
What greeted us may not have been the white cat that I had imagined but it wasn’t far off. On the wall opposite hung a huge poster of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. A large mahogany desk – out of place in this spartan bunker but worthy of any self-respecting Bond villain – stood beneath the portrait.
I was suffering horribly. Behind the mahogany desk General Omar sat in a high-backed leather chair facing the wall with the picture of Assad on it, his back turned to us. I was trembling with the urge to laugh. He played it perfectly. In a slow and practised motion, the general swivelled effortlessly in his chair to face us. He stopped, appraised the three shabby journalists in front of him and smiled.
Oh no, I thought. He had a gold tooth, he was dressed in an immaculately tailored suit and he had slick, oiled-back hair. I was on the edge of cracking. I could feel the other two willing me not to laugh. General Omar continued to smile as he spoke.
‘So, you want to go to Iraq?’ he asked.
We all smiled obsequiously back at him and explained how we had become lost looking for refugees at night near the river.
‘But we found your boat,’ he said, without breaking his gold-toothed smile.
Silence. The word ‘boat’ hung in the air like a solid object. I tried to form a sentence. The only word that popped out was a very quiet ‘boat’. The general smiled again.
‘Yes, we found your boat,’ he repeated, clearly relishing this sentence.
I was beginning to smile again. ‘Oh, that boat. You mean the boat,’ I said involuntarily.
‘Yes, the boat,’ he said, mimicking my emphasis.
The game was up and to make matters worse I was now smirking at General Omar.
‘Oh, yes. Sorry about that. We were a little bit desperate,’ I said.
‘You try to go to Iraq?’
We nodded sheepishly like naughty kids in front of the headmaster.
‘Well, you are journalists and have to do your job. Here in Syria we believe in free speech and so I am going to let you go,’ the general announced.
I was stunned. Here we were, in the lion’s den, caught red-handed by the Syrian regime’s most dreaded security service and all General Omar, who appeared to be head of the north-eastern secret police, was going to do was let us go.
‘You must, however, leave Syria. Immediately,’ he said, still smiling.
All three of us nodded sincerely. ‘Of course, of course.’
He gave us back our confiscated kit and equipment and his men drove us back to the Petroleum Hotel, where we were greeted by a rather nervous-looking Ali. Paul and Liz left the same day for the Syrian capital Damascus. Paul eventually got into Iraq on a human-shield visa. Liz was mugged in Damascus and I haven’t heard from her since.
I laid low in the Petroleum Hotel to wait for the fuss to die down and to work out a Plan B. As expected, the rest of the press pack shunned me for ‘ruining things for the rest of us’. I skulked in my room, smoked and read the instruction manuals for my camera because I had no books with me and all the television stations were in Arabic. After two nights I made a rare foray into the restaurant in search of anyone willing to talk to a pariah journalist. No luck. My presence was met with icy stares of hostility. I was studiously avoided as if simply associating with me would render a crossing into Iraq impossible.
Suddenly, the restaurant door burst open and there stood Marie Colvin. She cast her head around the room and shouted to the gathered journalists, ‘Who and where is the boatbuilder?’
Silence ensued as everyone in the room turned to stare at me.
‘I am,’ I replied meekly.
Marie strode over to my table and stuck out her hand. ‘Marie Colvin,’ she said in her inimitable American accent. ‘Good to finally meet someone with some balls round here. You like boats then, eh?’
That night, over a bottle of whisky, a friendship was born. Marie’s reputation as a hard-arsed war reporter – one of the toughest, best and bravest of our time – preceded her. The terrifying courage she had displayed after losing her eye in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack in Sri Lanka was the stuff of legend.
I had heard other stories: her stubborn refusal in East Timor to abandon refugees who were being hunted by the Indonesian army, a decision that ultimately saved hundreds of lives; her eight-day march across a mountain pass in Chechnya, braving hunger, exposure and altitude sickness to escape Russian forces; how she smuggled herself in disguise into the closed-off Iraqi city of Basra during the Iran–Iraq war; how she refused to leave Baghdad during the allied bombing of the city in 1991. These were the tales that explained why Marie had gained a reputation for being one of the last journalists to leave the world’s most dangerous places at their most dangerous times.
As the whisky flowed between us and the layers of her personality were peeled back, the legend became human. Her rebellious nature was immediately apparent: she clearly admired my attempt to cross into Iraq illegally on a home-made raft and she thought the other journalists ridiculous for shunning me. But she also revealed a gentler, calmer side as we drank our way through the bottle of Glen Diesel, the cheapest Scotch available. She spoke at length about sailing, a shared passion that offered both of us an antidote to the mayhem of war. And despite her reputation as one of the world’s greatest war correspondents, she found it easy to laugh at herself. She had a superb sense of the absurd.
Eight years passed before I saw Marie again, this time in a hotel in Egypt. We were en route to Libya, where we’d been sent by our newspaper to cover the final months of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule together. Over the following year, as the Libyan conflict intensified around us, we formed a bond unique to people who repeatedly share the horrors of the front line. We witnessed the brutal killing of innocent civilians, the fierce gun battles between rebel and Gaddafi forces, NATO’s bombing campaign and the eventual fall of the capital Tripoli. It was a professional relationship and a true friendship that both of us knew would last for years and years.
But our friendship and Marie’s life would end in tragedy. A year after the start of our first assignment together, Marie lay dead beside me in the bombed-out ruins of a house in Syria, the country where we first met each other over a bottle of whisky, amid impassioned talk of boats.
Excerpted from Under the Wire by Paul Conroy. Copyright © 2013 by Paul Conroy.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.