WAR REPORTER: Marie Colvin covered all the main conflicts of our time, always with the same aim: not only to bear witness, but to bring action.

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Italian journalist and writer. She contributes regularly to Modern Times Review.
Published date: March 17, 2019

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin

Lindsey Hilsum

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

United States

Her choice had been journalism, not the front lines. She found herself in war quite by chance, and like all war reporters, she did not like such a label: «I write about humanity in extremis», she explained. «Nothing else.» However, as the American writer and war correspondent Michael Herr, once said: it’s an old story. You cover a war and, in the end, it is the war that covers you. The true war is not the one before you, but the one taking place inside of you.

With her irregular life, countless lovers – one more hurtful than the next – all night parties, alcohol, famously sharp answers, and above all, that black patch on her left eye, Marie Colvin, the star reporter of the Sunday Times until her death in Homs, Syria, on February 22, 2012, was doomed to be turned into the main character of a book.

From Libya and onwards, it’s not fortuity anymore: it’s talent and courage

She would have probably despised a lot of what has been written and said about her over the last years: the portrayal of a traumatised, adrenaline-junkie reporter who, in her men and successes, was still looking for her father, who died from a sudden cancer. But not this book. It does not omit anything, nor deny all her vulnerability. It says the only thing that makes sense to say: «She knew where the story was, and wouldn’t stop at nothing to get it». Marie Colvin knew where she had to be. She wanted to be there, but she also knew how to be there – and with what mind-set.

At Yale, she studied with John Hersey, the author of Hiroshima (1946). From him she learned, rather than being a matter of balance, journalism is a matter of truth. Her career started basically with a lucky shot: an interview with Colonel Qaddafi. At that time in 1986, he was a very controversial figure due to his support of terrorism, and speaks with her only because she is young and pretty.

Marie Colvin in a film “A Private War”

From Libya and onwards, it is not fortuity anymore: it is talent, courage, and much more. She is not only brave enough to move to Beirut, which in 1986 is the most dangerous city on earth, but gets smuggled into the besieged refugee camp of Bourj el-Barajneh. She is present amongst the civilians – drawing all international attention – until the Red Cross was finally allowed in. Same as in East Timor in 1999, when, like all other reporters, she was based in a UN compound turned makeshift shelter for hundreds of displaced families. In the face of imminent attack everyone left, including the UN staff. Yet, Marie stayed to broadcast the lead up to the assault live all the way until the militias gave up and withdrew. Colvin had covered all the main conflicts of our time – the Intifada, Kosovo, Chechnya, the Gulf Wars – always with the same aim: not only to be there, but to make a difference. Not only to bear witness, but to bring action.

New owners, new policies

Usually war reporters say: I am here so that someday no one will be able to pretend not to have known. Marie Colvin did not focus on the future. Rather, she focused on the present. She was not there for her readers, but for the victims. This was the strength with which she defied any hardship and, above all, any fear – staying on the frontline further than anybody else. The toughest part, she said, is to convince yourself that someone will care about what you write.

She wasn’t there for her readers, but for the victims

Because Marie Colvin never fooled herself, her Palestinians, her Chechens, her Kosovars, had no value, not even for the Sunday Times, where she was a legend. Especially when media mogul Robert Murdoch bought the newspaper and changed it accordingly. For the new editor, Marie Colvin did not make a difference: she made money. Significant stories, or stories that rivals did not get, did not matter. What mattered was risking your life – in the end, it is the life of the journalist. Not yours.

Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times war correspondent, interviewing villagers in Diyala Province, Iraq in 2007 MARIE COLVIN

And so, when she decided to challenge the siege, and again through underground tunnels, got back into Homs from where she had just filed what would be her last dispatch, written in a basement packed with women and children or, more exactly, widows and orphans, the reply from the London desk was: But that is pointless. You would get the same story. True, it is a story she has already told but it is a story that has yet to end. Actually, it is one that has just begun.

For the new editor, Marie Colvin doesn’t make a difference: she makes money

Marie Colvin knew that only from that basement, like in East Timor and Bourj el-Barajneh, broadcasting live under artillery fire, amongst the civilians, could she make a difference. Assad knew this too. He ordered her phone tracked, only to bomb her location.

It is easy now to say Colvin went to Homs only to forget another broken affair or because she was alcoholic, depressed, adrift  – that she needed a psychologist. But who is more in need of a psychologist? Someone who, in front of 500,000 dead bodies, is ready to do everything in order to speak about it, or those who keep on going as if nothing happened?

The life and work of Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin (1956 – 2012) was an American journalist and war correspondent who worked for The Sunday Times from 1986 until her death in 2012. Although Colvin specialized in the Middle East, she also covered conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and East Timor. By using her position as a journalist, Colvin has been credited with saving the lives of 1,500 women and children in a UN camp in East Timor 1999, beseiged by Indonesian-backed forces. As one of the few journalists who dared enter Syria in 2011, she was killed by a Syrian army shelling in the city of Homs in February 22, 2012.

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