An astonishing and inspiring career on the frontlines of conflict is chronicled by a fellow reporter
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.
In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin