Marie Colvin, the celebrated American war reporter who died in Homs on Wednesday, together with the young French photographer Rémi Ochlik, looked every bit the part of a war reporter.
She took to wearing a black patch over the eye she lost when shot in the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2001, and always seemed to have a notepad and a pen in her hand. She was inevitably in the midst of war’s chaos before the rest of us got there, proudly filing, as she did on Tuesday, as “the only British newspaper journalist” at the scene. She was a legend to all of us who cover conflict, and universally beloved for her inspiring courage and deep commitment to the work of reporting.
On Tuesday, after she filed her horror-filled account from Homs for her paper, The Sunday Times, she got in touch on Facebook to tell me just how horrific the situation in Homs was. We had worked closely together in Libya for the past year, strengthening an occasional friendship over the years into a deep and affectionate bond. As she was preparing to enter Syria last week, we compared notes several times, looking at the routes into the besieged city of Homs and assessing the risks she would face. Her drive and determination to report—to witness—overcame all of her fears, and she was absolutely determined to get in, somehow.
Our conversation reminded me of what a unique person Marie Colvin was—an amazing journalist for sure, always first on the scene, but also a deeply caring human being who was never overcome by the cynicism and egotism that plagues the world of war reporting.
Her story for The Times was behind a pay wall, so many could not read her powerful account of atrocities in Syria. She first encouraged our Facebook group of conflict journalists and rights reporters to post her latest story from Homs, saying she wasn’t technically competent enough to do it, and saying that she’d face “the firing squad” at her paper for the lost revenue, explaining “I don’t often do this, but it is sickening what is happening here.” Many of us commended her for her courage, and then a journalist, believing she had already left Homs, expressed his relief that she was safe. She responded in her usual funny fashion, relishing the dark humor of war correspondents:
“I think the reports of my survival may be exaggerated. I’m in Babo Amr. Sickening, trying to understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now. Watched a baby die today. Shrapnel, doctors could do nothing. His little tummy just heaved and heaved until it stopped. Feeling helpless. As well as cold! Will keep trying to get out the information.”
“I think the reports of my survival may be exaggerated. I’m in Babo Amr. Sickening, trying to understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now.”
It was just vintage Marie Colvin. I can see her now, happily chatting online and typing away with us as the shells fell around the building, and being completely in her element.
For Marie, covering war wasn't about doing a few quick interviews and writing up a quick story: she experienced war alongside those who suffered in war, and her writings had a particular vividness because of what she had dared to see and experience.
But despite everything she had seen and experienced, first and foremost she remained a wonderful human being, and it always put a smile on my face to run into her in one of the world's rough spots. She contacted me yesterday not because she wanted to boast about reaching Homs, but because she wanted to reach out to people she thought could make a difference to the people of Homs.
The story Marie risked her life to tell—the story that she paid with her life to tell—is one of the brutal, indiscriminate bombardment of a densely populated city, using some of the most powerful explosive weapons we know. Homs today is a city under siege where the daily civilian death toll frequently runs in the double figures.
For the people of Homs, there is nowhere to run—and no one to help them. For even the most courageous humanitarian organizations, groups like Médecins Sans Frontières (who were active in the Libyan city of Misrata during last year’s siege of that city, which Marie also reported on), the situation is too dangerous to put people on the ground to assist a population in desperate need.
Marie was a legendary reporter—she lived to report from war zones. The situation on the ground in Homs left her deeply shaken and feeling powerless, frustrated with the international politics that were paralyzing any coordinated international response to stop the horrific civilian casualties. On her last day of life, she watched a baby’s life slowly drift away, a casualty of the same shelling that would rob us of her just 24 hours later.
Not many of us have the courage and strength to experience war at such close range, and her powerful, loving voice is now forever silenced.