Farewell to the queen of war correspondents
Marie Colvin, who was on the front lines of groundbreaking events such as the 2005 Gaza disengagement, the civil war in Sri Lanka and the Arab Spring, was killed by Bashar Assad's forces while covering the uprising in Syria.
"What a wonderful time to be a journalist," shouted to me Marie Colvin as we took cover in a Tunis alleyway with a group of protestors, while the police outside tried to clear a path through the thousands thronging Habib Bourguiba Avenue, demanding the downfall of the dictatorial government of President Zein Ben Ali. Tears of gas streamed from her one eye but on her face was spread a wide smile. She lived for those moments and this morning, at the age of 55 died in one of them, together with French photographer Remi Ochlik. As in every conflict, revolution and war of the last 25 years, she was over the last week on the front-line, in Homs, under bombardment by Bashar el-Assad's army. So far, eight journalists have been killed covering the Syrian revolution.
I met Marie first in 2005, on the last day of the Disengagement, during the evacuation of the Homesh settlement in northern Samaria. A tall, no longer young woman, with a black patch on her left eye, carrying a heavy suitcase, jumping between the young settlers who had barricaded themselves in the homes and on the roofs and the equally young IDF officers and policemen. A journalist of her seniority did not have to run around on the hills, sleep the previous night on the ground at the settlement's gates with her suitcase. She could have reported the events from a slightly further away and much more comfortable perspective, but that wasn't journalism to her.
She loved people and incessantly hung out drinking with other journalists but she often found herself the only foreign reporter in places no-one else reached. In an age when media organizations prefer to base their reports on local sources, the internet and social networks, she continued to travel to the war-zones, taking risks, to bring the stories of those whose lives were torn by conflict. From Chechnya to Sri Lanka, from Afghanistan to Kosovo, the list of wars and revolutions she covered was never-ending. The height of frustration for her was writing about events from her safe London base.
A native of New York State, she chose journalism after as an English literature student at Yale University, she attended a workshop with John Hersey, who was the first reporter to write on the results of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima and lives of the Japanese survivors. Her first job was a New York police reporter on the night-shift at the UPI news agency. In 1984 she was sent to head UPI's Paris Bureau but she was fed up with the "just the facts, ma'am" style of American journalism and happily accepted an offer to become The Sunday Times Middle East correspondent. The more personal and less restrained style of British reporting appealed to her. She spent nine years in the region, much of it based in Jerusalem, before returning to London as the Sunday Time's foreign affairs correspondent, her remit extending around the globe. Over quarter of a century, she established herself as the queen of war correspondents.
She acquired her trademark black eye-patch in 2001, when she infiltrated Northern Sri Lanka, then under control of the Tamil rebels. After two weeks among the rebels and Tamil civilians, she tried to take advantage of a cease-fire to return to the area under government rule but while crossing the lines, an army position opened fire and she was hit in her chest, shoulder and eyes by shrapnel from a grenade. From her hospital bed, she filed a 3,000 word report.
The wound and losing her eye did not slow her down, and she returned quickly to the world's hotspots. Her private and personal lives were stormy. A mix of senior journalists, diplomats and celebrities came to the parties she held at her house by the Thames, in the breaks between foreign trips, she stood in the center always holding court with a glass of wine or a vodka martini in one hand and a Marlboro light in the other. She never presented herself as an expert on a certain area or international relations, she just loving going out in the field and touching the story. He writing was not judgmental but she did not try and keep herself at a remove from the events and characters.
In a memorial ceremony two years ago for journalists who died in the field, she said "our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado? Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price."