Into the valley of the shadow of death
Photographer Mark Condren was smuggled into war-torn Syria to see the devastation first-hand
AN award winning photographer from Castletownroche has become one of the few people from the Western media to see at first hand the devastation caused by the Syrian civil war.
More than 70,000 people have died during the two-year conflict that has ripped the country apart, turning the historic and once-prosperous state into one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
Mark Condren admitted that he felt "sick with nerves" during the days leading up to his trip, which entailed sneaking across the Turkish border into Syria with his Irish Independent colleague, Jason O'Brien.
The pair were driven by tractor into Syria which is closed off to Western media, sneaking under the noses of Turkish border guards on watchtowers dotted along the border.
"That was quite a stressful experience, given that other reporters trying to get into the country have had warning shots fired over them and have been detained at the border," said Mark.
On arrival into Syria, the pair were greeted by rebels opposing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who took them on a five-day tour across the northern part of the country.
"We saw at first hand the devastation that the conflict wreaked on this wonderful country and the Syrian people. It was rough going at times. We saw some graphic scenes and, albeit for a short time, got a sense of the suffering that has gone on in Syria since the conflict started," said Mark.
"We met with and spoke to individuals and families who had gone through unbelievable trauma. You see this kind of thing on the TV, but nothing can really prepare you for the reality of it," he added.
Although he got no closer than two miles to the front-line, Mark was acutely aware that he was in a war zone, living under the constant threat of Syrian artillery and air strikes.
"The rebels treated us really well. They were glad to see that people from the outside world were taking an interest in their plight. Without them, it would have been easy to stumble across the front-line, with the obvious dangers that came with that," said Mark.
"I was sick with nerves in the days leading up to the trip, but once we were on the ground I was too busy taking photographs to worry about the dangers around me.
"It was an incredible feeling to think that you were in the middle of this conflict, in a place that is widely regarded as the most dangerous country in the world for a journalist to be in at the moment."
Happily, Mark, who has won the Press Photographer of the Year award three times (and a former Corkman photographer) arrived back safely in Ireland on Tuesday morning - but, of course, it was warm and sunny in Syria.