A brave reporter and her passion for speaking the truth

Published in the Daily Mail (February 23rd, 2012)

The air was thick with tear gas, angry crowds confronted soldiers aiming bullets at their eyes, and motorcycle ambulances driven by young men in gas masks ferried the injured from the frontline to field hospitals. It was like a scene from a futuristic thriller, with the mood that unpredictable fusion of passion, bravery and fear that drove last year’s revolutions in north Africa.

As I left the pandemonium of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s capital, I was not surprised to bump into the familiar figure of a woman with an American accent and a distinctive eye-patch. Despite the lateness of the hour, Marie Colvin was out doing what she had done with such brilliance and bravery for so many years: Reporting from the frontline of the world’s hottest spots.

We went for a coffee, having not seen each other since the liberation of Tripoli four months earlier. I had just arrived that night, so she brought me up to speed with events in Egypt then, with typical generosity, let me sit in on an interview she had spent some time setting up with a leading human rights activist. 

Afterwards, I returned to the fray and we agreed to meet the following day. Somehow, we never did – and now that night in December was the last time I saw her. Yesterday brought the dreadful news that this gutsy and inspirational woman, one of the world’s great war reporters, was killed in the shelling of a media centre in Homs in Syria.

It was somehow symbolic that having dodged so many bullets in her lifetime, she finally met her end in the hell that is Homs. 

For there she was in the most dangerous city in the most volatile region of the world – a region she had reported on with such skill, dedication and determination for more than two decades – as it was pounded and pulverised day and night by the murderous forces of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad.

She was where she always wanted to be: In the heat of the action at the heart of the big global story.

Her last published story is a fitting tribute to her work: Under the headline ‘We live in fear of a massacre’, it is powerful, compassionate and colourful reportage that brings home vividly what it is like for those unfortunates trapped in the horror of Homs.

Her sympathies were always with the victims of violence. And at a time when journalism in Britain is under such assault, her tragic and untimely death at the age of 55 reminds us of its real role and irreplaceable value. ‘Our mission is to speak truth to power,’ she once said. ‘We send home that first rough draft of history.’Colvin risked her life to go to those places torn apart by chaos, destruction and depravity in order to bear witness to brutal events and try to establish through ‘the sandstorm of propaganda’ the causes of conflict. ‘We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and the atrocities that befall civilians,’ she said.
Now she has paid the ultimate price.Just like David Blundy, the man who recruited her to the Sunday Times (the same year that I joined the paper as a nervous young reporter) and who was killed two years later in El Salvador. Just like the photographer Tim Hetherington, blown to death in Libya last year. Just like ITN reporter Terry Lloyd, shot dead in the Iraq war. And just like at least 46 other journalists killed worldwide last year.

This roll-call of reporters slain for doing their job should be remembered amid the current furore over the future of the Press – not least since Marie Colvin was funded on her foreign news-gathering by the much-maligned Rupert Murdoch.

Reporting from the world’s most dangerous places does not come cheap with all those flights, fixers, flak jackets and satellite phones.

Sometimes journalists have gone too far in pursuit of trivia and tittle-tattle. But sometimes they go much further in pursuit of the biggest stories on the planet, taking the most extreme risks. This should be remembered by all those politicians who yesterday paid such fulsome tributes to Colvin’s courage from the sanctity of Westminster.

But Colvin should not be mythologised. She may have been unbelievably brave but she was far from fearless. She knew the savagery to which mankind can stoop, having seen too much blood spilt around the globe and having herself lost an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka while investigating government oppression of Tamil civilians in 2001. Indeed, she confided to friends doubts over what proved to be her final assignment.

She was a complex character, fiercely competitive and intensely driven in search of the story yet always friendly to rivals and helpful to young reporters. Like many in her game, underneath the New Yorker’s tough exterior was someone kind and caring. 

She once said the real difficulty was not going to places where people were shooting at you but having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people would care when your reports from such places were printed. 

As her editor and friend John Witherow said yesterday, she was a woman with wit and tremendous joie de vie, able to charm even the likes of Colonel Gaddafi – who once confessed to her his love for Madeline Albright, the U.S. secretary of state. 

She loved sailing on the Thames and had a wide circle of friends, who have spent years fearing the news that made headlines round the world yesterday. She liked to do things her own way: When a smoking ban came into force at the Sunday Times, she blithely turned up with three packets of cigarettes and puffed away at her desk; typically, no one dared stop her.

A technophobe, she would implore colleagues to help send copy back to her editors. She once ran up a bill of £25,000 when failing to switch off a satellite phone after making a call to London. Another time, she claimed on expenses for expensive underwear stolen in East Timor – later telling Vogue in an interview that such items were essential for a woman in a war zone.

With her in Homs was the photographer Paul Conroy, a tough ex-soldier injured in the attack. We became good friends sharing a hotel room for a fortnight with three others in Libya last year, laughing late into the night over cherished cups of coffee like a group of students in our increasingly squalid room.

Another member of the quintet was a young American photographer named Michael Brown. As we drove at high-speeds into Libya last summer, he showed me pictures on his iPhone of hideous holes in his body after he was strafed by shrapnel in the grenade attack that killed Hetherington a few months earlier.

That incident took place in Misrata in north-eastern Libya, until now the scene of probably the most savage fighting since the wave of uprisings began in the region last year. Two reporters died there and six more were injured. Such was the chaos, many journalists reported from a ship anchored off the shore or fled after a few days – but not Colvin and Conroy.

Their driver was killed and the duo narrowly escaped with their lives when an ambulance they were in was attacked on the way to the frontline. Demonstrating once again her courage, Colvin refused to leave with other journalists aboard the last ship sent in to rescue stranded foreigners and Libyan women and children. She stayed another six weeks.

Colvin would be the first to remind us she was just one among dozens of people killed yesterday in Homs. Poignantly, she once wrote how she was always awed by the ‘quiet bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will. They must stay where they are; I can come home to London’.

Even more poignant was one of the last messages she posted on Facebook. ‘I think reports of my survival may be exaggerated,’ she wrote. ‘In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now.’ 

Marie Colvin never stood by when ordinary people were being murdered and maimed. Her death is a terrible tragedy. But the ultimate tragedy would be if others failed to follow in her footsteps to report on the savagery of war with such an honest, unflinching gaze.

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