A woman shelters in the "Widow's Basement" in Baba Amr, Homs, Syria, in February 2012. It was one of the few underground shelters at the time.
Syria is the deadliest place in the world for journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday, with 29 killed in the country in 2013—more than the next five countries combined. Since March 2011, when a revolt to oust President Bashar al-Assad began, 69 journalists have been killed. One was legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died while on assignment for the UK's Sunday Times in February 2012 when Assad's forces shelled the building she had taken shelter in in Homs, Syria.
Photo journalist Paul Conroy was with Colvin and sustained a leg injury big enough to stick his fist through. In his new book, Under the Wire, he chronicles the days leading up to the deaths of Colvin and French photo journalist Remi Ochlik with vivid detail and sardonic British wit (he joked as much about crappy coffee in Baba Amr being the death of him as the Syrian government). I talked to Conroy about life in Syria, Colvin's death, and how gallows humor helps reporters survive hell on earth. He also shared some of his never-published photos from the assignment, which you can see below.
Syria has been out of the headlines since the chemical-weapons deal was reached earlier this year. What's going on inside the country?
The situation in Syria has descended to a level which ought to shame the world. For nearly three years now, Bashar al-Assad has used his vast arsenal of Russian-supplied weapons to unleash explosive hell on innocent civilians. More than 110,000 people have now died from the use of conventional weapons.
The window of opportunity for viable intervention, safe havens, no fly zones and humanitarian corridors, passed years ago. Syria was left in a vacuum, and that vacuum was filled by the jihadists, extremists who exploited the world's unwillingness to consider any form of intervention. A heavy price is now being paid for this collective error of judgment.
Britain, along with the USA, is war weary and, after the travesty of Iraq and Afghanistan, has grave misgivings in any future involvement in the Middle East. The ghost of Tony Blair and his single minded determination to attack Iraq, at any cost, has cast a long shadow over British politics. The British public have a long collective memory. The fact that our Prime Minister lied over WMD has deteriorated further our trust in the political class. The people who have suffered most from this political mistrust are the helpless civilians in Syria who reached for a helping hand, yet found only a fist.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that perhaps it was the rebels who staged a chemical weapons attack. What do you think of that?
The polite answer to that is ‘complete rubbish,’ my heartfelt answer is, ‘utter bollocks.’ I spent time with these people; they are fighting for their lives, for survival. They showed Marie and I warmth that went beyond the need to get western journalists in and out of the country. People died on our behalf, they died in an effort to show the world the horrors of what was happening to their own people and families. The concept that they gassed their own families to garner Western support is an anathema to me.
Doctors in a field clinic struggled to move the dead to make way for the living. Baba Amr, Homs, Syria, February 2012. Paul Conroy
The reality is that although Assad claims they are chemical weapons that can be made in a kitchen, the delivery systems are not something the rebels posses. These people are using medieval catapults to deliver homemade bombs.
In the book you talk about how Assad's forces knew they were shelling a media center. Why do you think he was targeting journalists?
The night before Marie and Remi’s murder, Marie had given three interviews, to CNN, C4 in the UK, and the BBC World Service. The next morning I could clearly define the firing pattern of the regime gunners. They were bracketing in on us, which is adjusting fire with the use of a drone, until they had precisely targeted the building. They then fired four rockets directly into the media center.
Why? What was happening in Baba Amr was wholesale slaughter, Marie had the audacity to report live from the scene. We had witnessed the butchery and that crossed the boundaries as to what the regime would tolerate. We rattled too many cages in Damascus.
One of the last images of Marie Colvin alive, on Feb. 18, 2012 in Homs, Syria Paul Conroy
How is your leg doing after all these operations?
Given the state of my leg after the attack on the media centre I can’t complain! I was shocked, but amused, to learn that the medical team were taking bets to see who could put their hands furthest through my leg. My surgeon, Dr. Parri Mohana, succeeded, getting her arm through to the elbow.
I don’t think I will ever play for England but, after 20 operations, I can now walk in straight lines and am pretty mobile again.
You and Colvin got out of Syria and then went back in. Does that decision haunt you? Would you do it again?
I made it clear to Marie that I had a funny feeling about this one. I don’t regret saying that at all. I was speaking my mind, we discussed it and we both went back. It was the right thing to do. It’s what we do and Marie died doing what she did best in life.
You've said you wrote the book in four to five-hour sessions where you were balancing between morphine and pain. What was that like?
Initially writing was physically impossible; I was on large doses of mind-numbing drugs. I opened a file on my laptop and titled it ‘The Book,’ but, no matter when I tried to write, I could not get into the mythical rhythm of which other authors spoke. ‘The Book’ remained a white, blank and rather worrying document—I had a deadline to meet.
I woke one morning, it was 4 a.m. and the world was still sleeping. I rolled a cigarette, made some coffee and had a bright idea; maybe I should try writing now. The pain in my leg wasn’t too bad and, more importantly, my head felt as clear as it had in a long time.
It worked like magic. The writing fairy, my chosen name for whatever it was made me sit and write for five hours a day, visited the next night and the next. Eventually, I had a book. My only fear was, that with all the morphine and other drugs, I had written a wartime version of Fear And Loathing.
The book is quite funny, which I found surprising.
I can honestly say, from my perspective at least, without humor you could not do this job. It’s a vent, by which some of the ghastly and traumatic scenes we witness can be made a little less real and a touch more surreal, which helps more than you would expect.
In Misrata, Libya, Marie and I used to travel daily up and down the front line. As the rebels pushed government troops further from the centre where we were based, the journey got longer. One day, when having a laugh and joke with commander Ali, whom we visited regularly, I asked him to help me to convince Marie we should cut out the travel and stay on the frontline. We agreed that a small concrete building, which was pummeled by rockets and mortars every day, should be our mythical home.
The next day when we visited, I started to complain about the length of the journey back and forth to Misrata. Commander Ali, with perfect comic timing, said he had a place we could crash for the night, Marie looked slightly worried. When she asked Ali where it was, he simply nodded towards the concrete block. As he did so, a mortar landed on the roof. We couldn’t keep up the pretense, both Ali and I were laughing so hard, Marie cottoned on to us and the language she used is unprintable.
It sounds like Marie was a close friend. How are you dealing with her passing?
I never got to say goodbye to Marie, her death was instant. But I think writing the book gave me the opportunity to say a proper goodbye. That’s not to say I don’t wake, almost every day, and hope I get a call from her with a crazy plan to get into somewhere we shouldn’t be going.
Why was it important to share this story?
Marie was the archetype war correspondent. She was brave, tenacious and devoted, not only to her job, but also to the real victims of war, the civilians who bore the brunt of corrupt and vicious dictators. She genuinely believed she could make a difference.
The book is part tribute to Marie, but also to the many nameless heroes who helped us to get into Syria and Baba Amr to tell the story. Marie and Remi died telling a story of brutality that continues to this day. I sincerely hope that I have done justice to the bravery of my friends, but also have recorded a small part of history, the death of Baba Amr and its citizens, for those in the future to read an honest account, often lost in the fog of war.
What should journalists take away from the work you and Marie have done?
The tenacity with which we approached our subjects. We both instinctively knew that if we pushed further, harder and asked the questions many would shy away from, we would end up with as near to we could get to the truth. That’s what our job is about, cutting through the myriad layers of half-truths, the smoke and mirrors of war, corruption, deception and sheer bloody horror.
Conroy: "A young girl, still smiling after 18 days of horrendous rocket and shell attacks." Baba Amr, Homs, Syria. February 2012. Paul Conroy
Officially, the Great Recession of 2007 ended in June 2009. Yet the economic downturn remains in full effect for millions of Americans, particularly the nearly 40 percent of the unemployed who have been looking for work for six months or more.
In less than a week, emergency federal unemployment benefits for 1.3 million of these jobless Americans are set to run out. Proponents of ending the benefits argue that the economy is expanding and that the benefits prevent people from finding work. "You get out of a recession by encouraging employment not encouraging unemployment," according to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposes extending benefits. However, the data shows that while corporate America has bounced back, it is not restoring all the jobs it shed when the economy tanked five years ago.
Currently, nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed. The unemployment rate stands at 7 percent. Both of those stats are improvements from a little more than four years ago, when the post-recession jobless rate peaked at 10 percent and more than 15 million people were out of work.
However, there currently are more than 4 million Americans who have been unemployed for six months or longer. Not since the Great Depression has the United States experienced such massive and persistent long-term unemployment.
Overall, the long-term unemployed (those with out a job for six months or longer) make up nearly 40 percent of all the jobless.
Long-term unemployment has not affected all Americans evenly. African-Americans and the poor make up 23 percent and 34 percent of the ranks of the long-term unemployed, respectively.
For many people, going without work for more than six months can kick off a vicious cycle or financial and personal crises that may take years to break out of.
While the unemployment rate is steadily falling, hiring has not recovered as quickly as it did during the three most recent previous recessions.
Currently, there are about three people looking for work for every job opening. Compare this to 2007, when "job seekers ratio" was nearly half that. The ratio varies widely across industries, but even in the most applicant-friendly industry, insurance and finance, has 30 percent more seekers than positions.
Meanwhile, corporate America has regained the financial ground it lost during the Great Recession. Real corporate profits after taxes have grown 30 percent since 2007, while the number of jobs is still below its pre-recession level.
An Afghan policeman stands guard at a border checkpoint.
The United States and Afghanistan are close to finalizing a deal that would set guidelines for the two countries' relationship after 2014, when the bulk of American forces are supposed to leave the country—more than a dozen years and hundreds of billions of dollars later.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had reached tentative agreement on one of the last remaining holdups preventing a long-term deal: whether American forces could continue to raid Afghan homes during security operations. The new agreement would prevent American-led raids except under "extraordinary circumstances," but it's not yet clear that the deal will pass the Loya Jirga, a body of Afghan elders. The raids, among other issues, have created deep mistrust between American forces and the Afghan people.
If a deal is reached, US forces could remain in the country at least another 10 years in some fashion, committing taxpayers to spending millions more on security and nation-building projects. So far, many of those projects have been undermined by corruption and dysfunction. Here are a few examples of US investments in Afghanistan that have already either fallen apart or show little signs of lasting success:
At least 19 of the hospitals built by the international community—including two US-funded facilities that cost nearly $20 million—may be too expensive for the Afghan government to run.
The Pentagon has invested $770 million for nearly 50 planes to patrol the countryside for opium poppy and hashish fields. But the Afghan government can't afford the $100 million annual overhead—nor does it have enough qualified pilots to fly the aircraft.
With two-thirds of Afghans lacking regular access to electricity, the United States has spent more than a billion dollars beefing up the country's power grid. But according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the state-run power company may not be able to pay its bills after 2014, when US funding expires. Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development recently gave the utility control of the construction of a hydroelectric dam in a restive section of Helmand province—a project 29 Marines died to make possible. As the Los Angeles Times reported, there are doubts about the "utility's competence and experience, as well as the government's commitment to a project that insurgents have violently opposed."
The United States spent $1.7 billion on road and bridge building from 2002 to 2007, but some of the projects have already started to fall apart, "mainly because of the poor quality of initial construction, poor maintenance, and overloading," according to SIGAR.
More Afghan children are being educated than ever before, thanks to international development efforts. But the Afghan government won't be able to operate all the new schools, especially as international personnel and aid trickle out of the country. "Of course we built too much," one British official told the Guardian. "We didn't think about how the Afghans would pay for it…We wanted to show them what we could do for them, but without regard for sustainability."
All in all, military operations in Afghanistan have cost nearly $700 billion. That's still less than the United States spent fighting in Vietnam, but it's still a major chunk of the more than $1.6 trillion spent on the Afghan and Iraq conflicts since September 11.
The Pebble Mine would be the largest of its kind in North America. Former Mother Jones staff writer Kate Sheppard put it into perspective in May: "[The mine] would be as much as two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 1,700 feet deep ... [sitting] at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which feed into the Bristol Bay, producing as much as 11 billion tons of toxic mine waste over a span of decades."
"Despite our belief that Pebble is a deposit of rare magnitude and quality, we have taken the decision to withdraw," said Mark Cutifani, Anglo's CEO. "Our focus has been to prioritise (sic) capital to projects with the highest value and lowest risks within our portfolio, and reduce the capital required to sustain such projects."
In other words, Anglo would rather focus on projects that might actually move forward. After sinking $541 million into the project, the company likely took a cold look at the significant regulatory hurdles and political opposition. Joel Reynolds, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal Protection and Southern California Ecosystem projects, made the case in May 2012 that the Pebble Mine would have a hard time overcoming its negative baggage and was ultimately a bad investment in every way. "The Pebble Mine makes no sense environmentally, economically, culturally, or legally, and it ought to be abandoned," he wrote.
The mine's only remaining funder is Northern Dynasty, an organization created in 2001 to conceptualize and develop the massive project. Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen said that the company has the "expertise and resources necessary to advance" the project, but that advancement likely would only carry it to finding another deep-pocketed partner.
Recent news reports exposed how the National Security Agency has been collecting millions of Americans' phone data and online communications. Here's how we got from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the massive domestic spying operations of today:
September 11: Nearly 3,000 people are killed when terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and crash another in Pennsylvania. Soon afterward, the NSA begins a "special collection program" to track the communications of Al Qaeda leaders and suspected terrorists.
George W. Bush speaks at the NSA in 2002. NSA
October: Six weeks after 9/11, President Bush signs the USA Patriot Act, which lowers protections against government collection of Americans' communications and personal records.
TIA logo WikiMedia Commons
February: The New York Timesreveals that the Pentagon is "developing technologies to give federal officials instant access to vast new surveillance and information analysis systems" under a new agency called the Information Awareness Office, which later gave way to the Total Information Awareness program.
March: White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card visit Attorney General John Ashcroft in the hospital seeking to persuade him to reauthorize the NSA's domestic warrantless wiretapping program. The program will be revealed to the public a year and a half later by the New York Times.
May: USA Today reports the NSA has been tracking millions of Americans' phone calls with the help of major telecom companies. A few weeks later a former AT&T technician reveals that the company let the NSA tap into its fiber-optic lines in 2002, enabling it to monitor a majority of internet and phone traffic in the United States.
September: Microsoft becomes the first major internet firm to cooperate with the NSA's PRISM program, giving the NSA the ability to collect data on search history, email, file transfers and live chats. Over the next few years, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and other companies become part of the program, which won't be revealed to the public until 2013.
July: Bush signs the FISA Amendments Act, which retroactively codifies the warrantless wiretapping program and compels telecoms and internet firms to give the government access to private communications if one party is "reasonably believed" to be outside the United States. It also gives telecoms retroactive immunity for handing over customers' private data without a warrant.
June: A federal judge upholds immunity for telecoms that handed over private information. The same day, Facebook starts participating in the NSA's PRISM program.
March 10: A federal judge rules that the NSA warrantless wiretapping program started during the Bush administration is illegal. The ruling, based on a 2006 lawsuit, will be overturned on a technicality in 2012.
April 15: Federal authorities charge Thomas Drake, an NSA employee who passed information about the agency's activities to reporters, under the Espionage Act. He accepts a plea deal on a lesser charge in 2011.
January: The NSA begins construction of a massive, 1 million square foot, $2 billion data center in Utah. "Just as we defend our lands, America also needs to also defend our cyberspace," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says at the groundbreaking ceremony. It is scheduled to be completed in September 2013.
May: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee has access to classified materials, warns: "When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry."
April-May 2012: As part of a leak investigation, the Department of Justice secretly obtained two months worth of phone records from multiple offices and individual reporters at the Associated Press. It's top executive calls the DOJ's actions a "massive and unprecedented intrusion into the newsgathering process."
June: The inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence says it "would itself violate the privacy of US persons" to reveal how many people the NSA had tracked inside the country.
July: In a letter to Wyden, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) acknowledges that some NSA activities have "circumvented the spirit of the law" and that on one occasion a FISA judge found that some of NSA's activities violated the Fourth Amendment.
December: Obama signs a five-year extension of the FISA Act. Amendments to provide more oversight of mass surveillance are defeated in the Senate.
PRISM documents NSA/The Guardian
March: Wyden asks DNI chief James Clapper in a congressional hearing if the NSA collects information on millions of Americans.
June: "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about," Obama says at a speech in Silicon Valley. "But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism." He adds, ""You can't have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."
August 15: Based on more Snowden documents, the Postreports that the NSA had "broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year" since 2008. Sens. Wyden and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) say the reported violations represent "just the tip of a larger iceberg."
September 5: The New York Times,Guardian, and ProPublica report that the NSA has engineered ways to foil virtually all encryption protecting the average person's "everyday communications in the Internet age."
September 9: Der Spiegel reports that the NSA has the capability to bypass security features of iPhones, Android devices, and BlackBerrys, allowing it to access contacts, location data, photos and perhaps credit card numbers and passwords.
November 14: The New York Times reports that the CIA is covertly collecting bulk records of international financial transactions under the same laws that allow for the NSA's bulk data collection, suggesting that the full scope of the US government's bulk data collection efforts are unkown.