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War photographer wounded in Syria returns to region in medical aid convoy

War photographer Paul Conroy has joined a convoy carrying much-needed medical equipment to the Syrian border for a new hospital in Aleppo - marking his first return to the region since the blast which nearly killed him.

In 2012 the photojournalist from Liverpool was badly injured in the Syrian city of Homs, alongside acclaimed war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in the same blast, when the media centre they were in was shelled.

Departing from London's Chelsea and Westminster hospital on Saturday, a lorry carrying supplies headed for the war-torn country to build a new children's hospital in Aleppo - as the evacuation of thousands of civilians from east of the city continues.

Spending the years since the incident and death of his colleague recovering, of his first journey back, he said this is his "first opportunity" to show "solidarity" and remind the Syrian people that "they're not forgotten".

He said: "A few years ago I was in Homs lying in the rubble next to my dead partner Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.

"We were taken to a hospital field clinic and the treatment I had - I had a toothbrush, a bottle of iodine and an office stapler to put my leg back together.

"That hasn't changed. Doctors and medics are some of the most-hunted people in Syria."

Dubbed the People's Convoy it has been set up by CanDo, The Syria Campaign, Doctors Under Fire and The Phoenix Foundation - and it will take six to seven days to reach the border between Turkey and Syria.

Organisers say it was the bombing of the last children's hospital in east Aleppo in November, forcing it to close, which prompted their "emergency response".

Dr Rola Hallam, a consultant anaesthetist at the Royal Free Hospital in London and founder of the CanDo campaign said seeing images of the deliberate targeting of the medical facility was a "devastating blow" to her and what prompted the campaign idea.

The 37-year-old British Syrian added: "These are war crimes which have been allowed to continue with impunity and I felt it was time that we, the people, took action."

In the 10 days since the launch of the crowdfunding campaign more than £155,000 has been raised to cover the cost of kitting out the new children's hospital.

Dr Hallam said the amount raised has been like a "ray of light and hope". She added: "This is a display of the best of humanity - 3,000 people from around the world have clubbed together to not only raise the money needed to set up the hospital, but well over the target.

"I think this is such a strong message to Syrian civilians, their doctors and humanitarians, that they are not forgotten, they are seen, they are heard and people do care."

The convoy is set to travel through Europe, after meeting with another equipment-packed truck in Calais, France, before heading into Turkey, where, at the border the trucks will be handed over to the Syrian partners of the project - the Independent Doctors Association.

Quizzed on whether he is concerned about the dangers of the Syrian border, especially with an alleged million dollar bounty on his head, imposed by President Bashar Assad, Mr Conroy said he is not that worried.

"I look at what the people are going through (in Syria) - the risk I'm taking by going down there doesn't, it is far out weighed by their problems," he added.

Joining Dr Hallam and Mr Conroy for the journey will be emergency medicine doctor, Saleyha Ahsan, who is also a co-founder of Doctors Under Fire, as well as Dr Zaher Sahloul, a founder of the American Relief Coalition for Syria.

In 2012 rebel fighters took control of eastern Aleppo, but this week following a major offensive to take it back, waged by President Assad, most of the besieged city was recaptured.

Thousands of civilians have since been evacuated from east Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which has been left destroyed by four years of fighting and Russian airstrikes.

This latest hospital will be the sixth Dr Hallam has helped to set up in the country where she was raised.

It will be based in the countryside of Aleppo and will cater for more than 60,000 children living in the surrounding area. But over concerns the hospital will be targeted by air strikes, Dr Hallam said its location will not be revealed.

There are more than nine supporting partners of the convoy project, which includes the Syrian American Medical Society, Medecins Du Monde, Hand in Hand for Syria and Physicians for Human Rights.

Calling for greater Governmental action Mr Conroy said the deliberate bombing of hospitals in the middle east country has been "going on since day one".

"These places don't exist in secrecy, their locations are given out so they're not bombed. We have a thing called the Geneva Convention that has been broken more times than I can imagine," he added.

"Why these people are still allowed to be on the diplomatic stage and why we negotiate with them is beyond me - they're war criminals."

Dr Hallam said that as doctors the only protection they have in places like Aleppo against hospital air strikes is the Geneva Convention and International Humanitarian Law.

"When international governments and the UN does not uphold these, then we have no protection. So it is their responsibility, I hold them responsible as well as the perpetrators of these crimes, to protect medically neutrality," she added.

:: To make a donation or for more information visit PeoplesConvoy.com

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