On the last full day of her life, Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times of London posted a note to a colleague on a Facebook page for war correspondents and humanitarian workers:
"I think the reports of my survival may be exaggerated. [I am] in Baba Amr,” she wrote. That neighborhood of Homs has become the focal point of resistance to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and in retribution its people and their lightly armed defenders have been subjected to more than two weeks of relentless pounding by government artillery. “Sickening,” wrote Marie. “[I] cannot 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 he stopped. Feeling helpless. As well as cold! Will keep trying to get out the information.”
This morning at least two of the shells that rained down on Baba Amr landed on the building where Marie and a handful of other journalists were holed up. She did not survive. Nor did a younger French colleague, photographer Rémi Ochlik.
Perhaps I should say at this point that I have known Marie as a good friend since we first met in Libya in 1986 around the time President Ronald Reagan bombed Tripoli and Benghazi to punish the dictator Muammar Gaddafi for supporting terrorists. Never mind that she was an Ivy League American; she was absolutely at home in the company of the great British rogue correspondents, of whom there were many in those days, and she had a peculiar knack for getting tyrants to talk.
We crossed paths in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where Marie had found the only bohemian bar for artists and intellectuals in the savagely repressed city of Baghdad. We met in East Jerusalem during the first Intifada, where a thrown rock broke her nose. In 1993, after a crazed Jewish settler massacred Palestinians in Hebron, Marie and I drove all night across the Sinai from Cairo to be in the Occupied Territories before dawn, and see what trouble might lie in store. Then years would pass. We would see each other in Kosovo in 1999, and then nothing for awhile, and then in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion, by which time Marie was wearing a patch over the eye that was blinded by shrapnel a couple of years earlier in Sri Lanka. We were together again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year as the so-called Arab Spring began.
I am not sure when, exactly, in the last 10 years—perhaps as I started to pull back from combat myself, and she did not—I realized that Marie really was the greatest war correspondent of our generation. She took extraordinary risks and got extraordinary stories year after year, decade after bloody decade. I think nobody can match her record for pushing herself into the middle of the action to witness what war is and what war does and “get the information out.” Because if you really want people to understand, really want them to care—and Marie wanted that very much—then press releases and human-rights reports and anonymous cellphone video vaguely attributed is not going to cut it. There is no substitute for the correspondent who goes and sees for herself what is happening, and tells the world in exact, dispassionate, irrefutable detail.
Last night, probably about the same time she posted that little item on Facebook, Marie also talked to the BBC, and when I heard her voice played back on the air this morning I had to smile. She was so cool—so very cool and exact—describing in measured phrases the terror all around her.
And for some reason, probably because we have to believe this of our friends in this business, I thought that she would never die, no matter what. At least, not this morning. Not now.
And then she did. She was 56 years old.
For those of us who were her friends, and there are many, there will be long talks on the phone about Marie’s life and loves, which were often tempestuous and sometimes tragic. There will be a great wake somewhere to send her off, raising a glass or two, or many, to her memory, which I am sure she would appreciate. Marie wrote so much about death, but she did love to live. I am still a little surprised and amused when I think back on her decision to strip down to her panties and go swimming in the pool of the Hamra Hotel in Baghdad one night in 2003 as a bunch of Bush-league Baghdad bureaucrats on the far side pretended not to notice.
But, as with any good journalist, it will be Marie’s work that should endure: the stories that she told, not the anecdotes that are told about her. And in her last hours, she wanted very much for her reporting from Homs to be read by the widest possible audience, noting, with some discomfort, that The Sunday Times’s pay wall made that difficult for many readers. (After Colvin's death, the Times took down its pay wall on her last dispatch.)
Her story last Sunday was built around many interviews with many victims, especially with widows hiding out in the basement of one of the buildings under constant fire. But it is this straightforward description of the scene that stayed with me after I read it:
“The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random.
“Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.
“Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.
“It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.
“Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.”
Marie got the information out.