ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Our next story is about a pair of journalists covering the war in Syria together. One of them lived. One did not. This story is harrowing, graphic and haunting. Our colleague Mary Louise Kelly takes it from here.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: The night Paul Conroy met Marie Colvin was in a bar in Syria, 2003. Colvin was already by then a famous war correspondent, instantly recognizable by the black eyepatch she wore after one eye was blinded by shrapnel. Conroy was a photographer who had been scheming how to cross the Tigris River into Iraq to cover the war about to get underway. The Syrian army had blocked journalists.
Long story short, Conroy built a raft in his hotel room, dropped it out the hotel window, got it to the river just as an army patrol came by. Cue a couple of days behind bars. Cue the fury of most of the other reporters on the scene convinced Conroy had delayed everyone's progress to the front.
PAUL CONROY: So I was on me own in the bar, a social outcast. And Marie just walked in. And she went, who and where is the boatman? Put me hand out. And she walked across. She goes, boatman, Marie Colvin. I like your style. Can I buy you a drink?
CONROY: (Laughter) And I was like, yes, yes.
KELLY: Thus was born a partnership which is the subject of a new documentary out this week. Marie Colvin wrote for The Sunday Times. Paul Conroy took the pictures. In 2012, they tried to get back into Syria. Bashar al-Assad's forces were reportedly shelling indiscriminately in the rebel stronghold of Homs.
CONROY: We had many friends who'd gone on other reports. And they were coming out, and they were saying, you know, it is really hell on Earth in that place. We kind of knew that was where - if we wanted to tell the story of what was happening in Syria and the Syrian revolution, that that was the place to be.
KELLY: They couldn't get visas. They went in anyway, a decision that cost Marie Colvin her life. Conroy told me about the last morning, when rockets rained down on the building they had been sleeping in. And he knew they'd been targeted.
CONROY: And then there was just one almighty explosion that just filled the building with, you know, burning gases, concrete dust. Everything came down on top of us. I didn't get knocked out, so I'm not unconscious. I just - I had felt an incredible pressure on me leg, put me hand down to check it. And me hand just went straight through me leg. It'd blown a big hole. You know, I could see I was bleeding a lot.
As I got the tourniquet on me leg, I started looking for Marie. And I took a few paces, but me leg collapsed, and I'd fallen next to Marie, who was kind of half-covered in rubble. And I just kind of put me hand on her chest. And, you know, I knew she was dead.
KELLY: Conroy writes about all this in a book called "Under The Wire," now made into this documentary using Conroy's actual video footage. He told me if there is one story that will stick with him, it was what he and Marie Colvin found in a cellar in Homs - the widows' basement.
CONROY: My heart froze when I saw what was in. We went down these steps, and there were just a good couple of hundred women and children in these incredibly squalid conditions. They had no food, very little water. And they were the people who'd lost their menfolk. So they'd lost husbands. They'd lost their brothers, their sons. And Marie, she knew that she could take that story, and she could give the world a firsthand account of what was happening in Homs.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNDER THE WIRE")
MARIE COLVIN: And why is no one stopping this murder in Homs that is happening every day?
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: The regime in Syria claims that...
KELLY: In those final hours, Marie Colvin was giving interviews via Skype because she didn't know if she'd be able to make it out to file a properly written, edited story.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNDER THE WIRE")
COLVIN: The Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.
KELLY: Did you and she talk about if everybody in the world could watch this on CNN, that the Syrian regime could be watching - that it might attract attention to where you were?
CONROY: First of all, we spoke between ourselves. And the situation had got that bad, you know, that it was a conversation we had that was like, Marie, we are not going to see Friday. We're not going to file because it's pretty much over. In order to make everything worthwhile - you know, we'd spent a lot of time and effort, and a lot of people had risked everything to get us in there. We kind of knew something bad, very bad, was going to happen just because of the situation. You know, most people who'd taken us in were dead. People were dropping like flies.
We spoke to the activists in the media center we were in. And we said, look, you know, we've got the opportunity to go live. If we go live, we may be able to shine a light into this, and the world may be able to stop it. But we did say, if we do this, then it really will bring not good things for us. And they didn't hesitate. They said, look, you're here to report. You know, report.
KELLY: But help me understand this. I mean, I'm a journalist. I've been in war zones, not in a situation remotely like what you are describing. But how do you make that calculation that you wouldn't spend every last set of - ounce of energy getting out, getting somewhere where you could file the story and tell the world?
CONROY: There was no in and out. The regime had intensified the attack to a point where just leaving the building was almost a death sentence. So if we tried to leave now and were cut down within five minutes of leaving, it's all been for nothing. You know, we may as well have one last shot at this.
KELLY: The thing is - I mean, these are decisions that, as you well know, have consequences for many people beyond you.
CONROY: Of course. Of course.
KELLY: Editor - back in the U.K., Lindsey Hilsum was trying to keep track of y'all's assignments. She was a friend of Marie Colvin's. And she has this to say in the movie as it's clear the walls are closing in around y'all in Homs.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNDER THE WIRE")
LINDSEY HILSUM: She was completely full up with the horror of the situation and what she had seen. And I said, Marie, what is your exit strategy? And there was a pause. And she said, that's just it. There isn't one. And that was when I really, really began to worry.
KELLY: Paul Conroy, let me just let you respond to that. And again, this question of what is risk, and what is just recklessness.
CONROY: Yeah. We did discuss reporting from the outside. But I think the further back you get from the actual center of what's happening, I - you know, I think the reports become more diluted. You know, it wasn't at that point that it was a suicide mission. But we also knew that if we mentioned this to the editors, they would just say no. So we rather discreetly turned our phones off.
KELLY: Conroy barely made it out of Syria alive. Opposition activists helped him escape, first on a truck, then the back of a motorbike and, at one point, crawling through a sewer drain. When we talked from his home in the English countryside, Conroy said he intends to honor the promise he made to the people he left behind in Syria to keep telling their story. As for him, he's endured multiple surgeries. He's now 54.
I mean, how does this career one day come to a close for you? Is it by design or by accident?
CONROY: You know, to be honest, I go through this a lot. You know, I think I said once, I'll rest on this story when them Syrians are safely home in bed. I never thought it would be seven years later. I don't think any of us who are - been involved in it would think that, seven years later, we'd still be doing this. I don't think I have full control over how this ends. And until that situation resolves, then I have to keep doing this out of, you know, that promise I made.
KELLY: Paul Conroy, war photographer. He's author of the book "Under The Wire," about his and Marie Colvin's last assignment together in Syria. It's now been made into a documentary, which comes out tomorrow. Paul Conroy, thank you.
CONROY: Been a pleasure. Thanks for having us. Cheers.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODINGTON BEAR'S "SOLEMN OATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.