An as­ton­ish­ing and in­spir­ing ca­reer on the front­lines of con­flict is chron­i­cled by a fel­low re­porter

The Guardian - Review - - Nonfiction - Lara Feigel

Dur­ing the Le­banese civil war in 1987, Marie Colvin was the first jour­nal­ist on the scene at a Pales­tinian refugee camp in Beirut. The camp was un­der siege by Shia mili­tia, backed by Syria’s Pres­i­dent Hafez al-As­sad, which made it haz­ardous for jour­nal­ists to en­ter and for in­mates to leave to buy food. Colvin risked her life by en­ter­ing, hav­ing bribed the soldiers not to shoot her. Once there, she watched as a group of women ran across the “Path of Death” to buy pro­vi­sions. One was shot straight away in the head and ab­domen. Colvin’s story on the front page of the Sun­day Times had the head­line War on Women: “She lay where she had fallen, face down on the dirt path lead­ing out of Bourj al-Bara­jneh.” Three days later Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties or­dered the mili­tia to stop snip­ing. The 163-day siege was over.

This was Colvin’s break­through, aged 31. It was the first time she found that jour­nal­ism could save lives. And it val­i­dated her ten­dency to­wards reck­less­ness, em­bold­en­ing her to go fur­ther into war zones than other re­porters. Ar­guably, it was this brav­ery and reck­less­ness that led to her death in Syria in 2012. Now Colvin’s friend and fel­low war cor­re­spon­dent Lind­sey Hil­sum has writ­ten her biog­ra­phy, tak­ing Colvin from her subur­ban Amer­i­can child­hood into her as­ton­ish­ing and in­spir­ing ca­reer as a re­porter cov­er­ing one hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter af­ter an­other in Iraq, Kosovo, East Ti­mor, Chech­nya, Sri Lanka and Libya. Along the way there are love af­fairs, friend­ships and end­less par­ties.

Colvin’s en­ergy and pas­sion by Lind­sey Hil­sum, Chatto, £20 Colvin in 2011, a year be­fore she died were ir­re­sistible and ev­ery­one who en­coun­tered her wanted to be her friend, in­clud­ing Yasser Arafat and Muam­mar Gaddafi.

Her hero­ine was Martha Gell­horn and the two women had a lot in com­mon, from their back­grounds to their de­sire to change the world. Colvin shared Gell­horn’s dis­trust of “all that ob­jec­tiv­ity shit”. Af­ter get­ting trapped in Kosovo, she de­clared that: “When you’re phys­i­cally un­cov­er­ing graves in Kosovo, I don’t think there are two sides to the story. To me there is a right and a wrong, a mo­ral­ity, and if I don’t re­port that, I don’t see the rea­son for be­ing there.”

Colvin’s need for war, like her drink­ing, seems to have be­come in­creas­ingly des­per­ate. There are times when the book risks be­com­ing a ha­giog­ra­phy, but Hil­sum avoids this by com­bin­ing sto­ry­telling with ask­ing im­por­tant ques­tions about what kind of ser­vice war cor­re­spon­dents per­form and what eth­i­cal codes they should ad­here to. It be­comes clear that the en­twined mo­tives to get the best story and to change the world don’t al­ways in­spire the same ac­tion.

War re­porters are em­ployed by the news­pa­per or broad­caster that has sent them, so the first ne­ces­sity is to get the story. Dur­ing Colvin’s 27 years at the Sun­day Times, its cul­ture changed so that the cor­re­spon­dents were com­pet­ing to bring back the best sto­ries and to take the great­est risks. Colvin said in 2010: “We al­ways have to ask our­selves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is brav­ery, what is bravado?” She seems to have strug­gled to dis­tin­guish be­tween them, partly be­cause her ed­i­tors en­cour­aged her to pur­sue greater feats and partly be­cause of a com­pli­cated per­sonal com­bi­na­tion of com­pet­i­tive­ness, self-de­struc­tive­ness and pas­sion­ate sym­pa­thy with the un­der­dog. At ev­ery point when she drove her­self and her col­lab­o­ra­tors fur­ther, she be­lieved that she was al­le­vi­at­ing suf­fer­ing. Some­times she was, but she was also look­ing for a good story and flee­ing the most re­cent chaos she had left be­hind at home.

These fac­tors came to­gether painfully in the days lead­ing to her death. She’d been in­jured be­fore, los­ing sight in one eye in Sri Lanka in 2001. Since then, Colvin had suf­fered from PTSD and was of­ten more anx­ious than she was pre­pared to ad­mit. Hil­sum tells the story of her fi­nal week mas­ter­fully in a way that makes the end seem both in­evitable and un­nec­es­sary. At a point when her bosses were call­ing her back, she re­mained in a press camp in the most dan­ger­ous part of Homs, broad­cast­ing from a trace­able satel­lite while know­ing that she was a tar­get for the Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties. At Colvin’s funeral, her friend Jane Welles­ley read some lines from St Paul’s se­cond epis­tle to Ti­mothy that may have been con­sol­ing as well as wrench­ing for those present. “As for me, my life is al­ready be­ing poured as a li­ba­tion, and the time has come for me to be gone.”

Lara Feigel is the au­thor of Free Woman: Life, Lib­er­a­tion and Doris Less­ing. To buy In Ex­tremis for £14.99 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

War zone

In Ex­tremis: The Life of War Cor­re­spon­dent Marie Colvin

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