Douglas Hamilton in Sarajevo.
Douglas Hamilton in Sarajevo. Photo by Reuters
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A writer with millions of readers died in the waters off Tel Aviv this Christmas Eve. For more than three decades, his prose brought landmark events to life for an audience the world over. He was, to colleagues, an extraordinary, established star. But his name, to those millions of readers, was all but unknown.

Douglas Hamilton was a standout in a field which rivals espionage for anonymity, to say nothing of occupational hazard and ferocity of competition. He was a senior correspondent for a premier international news agency, and he was one of their best.

A master at spotlighting the quietest and most profound of ironies, there was a certain tragic poetry to the circumstance of his death. Here was a man who had survived danger zone after danger zone, a broken back in the Gulf, the wounds of a bomb attack in Algeria, and, in recent years, cancer. Last week, though, taking his daily swim in the Mediterranean, he drowned.

"He was one of the finest foreign correspondents of his generation, a man who wrote with enormous verve and passion, covering innumerable stories, mentoring an incredible number of young reporters," Crispian Balmer, Reuters bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, said this week.

Born in Scotland, Douglas Hamilton's home was where the news was. Five years ago, already at an age when others in the field are happy to retire, Hamilton asked for assignment to one of the most demanding postings in journalism, the Holy Land.

“Whether in the Balkans, in the Middle East or in Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Doug captured the sweep of history and the ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man in raw prose," colleague Paul Taylor remarked in a tribute after Hamilton's death last week. "He was a false cynic with a real heart of gold.”

During the recent Libyan civil war, armed with little more than cigars and a gruff exterior, Hamilton growled to associates that he was out of money. "What he didn't tell people, was that he had given away all his money to refugees who, he felt, needed it more than he did," Balmer recalled.

In an arena where fierce pressures may serve to promote interchangeability, Hamilton's stories were often astonishingly personal, immediate, even conversational.

“Some Croatians will be lying on beaches this weekend," he began a frontline eyewitness 1995 story touching on the horrors of the Balkan civil war. "Others may be lying in unmarked graves. It depends where you go.”

He had an unerring eye for the detail that would bring  historic events into sudden perspective. "It was a flimsy piece of paper that swept away the Berlin Wall," began a story on the beginning of the end of Communism in East Germany, a "night of little wonders" that began with a bureaucratic announcement "as matter-of-fact as some Post Office advisory."

Everywhere he went, addressing polarized, over-exposed conflicts, he wrote with compassion and an arrestingly fresh sense of wonder.

In November, reporting on Israel's war with Hamas and the effects of missile strikes on Tel Aviv, Hamilton focused on an octogenarian sea captain-turned sculptor, slowly making his way to shelter as a missile and an anti-projectile missile duel overhead. With a balanced and broad grasp of history and remarkable attention to the captain's point of view, Hamilton sent a dispatch that was a novel in 400 words.

Barely a month later, not far from the old dockside railroad car that is the old sculptor's workshop, Douglas Hamilton met his death. He was 65.

He was somehow young to the end. "When the Israeli police first reported his death, they said that they had found a 40-year-old man," Balmer wrote to Reuters colleagues, past and present, at the weekend.
 
"Doug would have loved that, but then have demanded a correction."