SHE GAVE HER LIFE TO REPORT ON WAR
The Washington Post n a short assignment in Libya in 2011, I caught a glimpse of foreign correspondent Marie Colvin at the Radisson hotel in Tripoli. I noticed the black patch on her left eye first.
But there was something more that made me pause. The previous month, rebels had seized the capital from the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and journalists had turned the hotel into a kind of media centre. In that adrenaline-charged atmosphere, Colvin seemed as if she belonged there.
After three decades of reporting on several major conflicts — Afghanistan, the Middle East, Iraq, Lebanon, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Libya, Chechnya — Colvin was at home in war zones, but she knew there was a price to pay in physical hardship and her personal relationships. Five months later, at age 56, she died in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria — deliberately targeted, her family and fellow journalists say, by the Syrian military.
In this moving biography, Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for
in Britain, captures the clashing extremes of Colvin's life — a disciplined journalist who often missed deadlines; a woman of extraordinary courage tortured by personal insecurity; a role model for aspiring journalists who, when the assignment was over, often drank herself into a stupor.
Hilsum, who has covered wars and conflicts in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and Africa, has her own experience in hot spots to give the book her perfect pitch. "I knew [Colvin] in that easy way you know someone with whom you share adventures and the exhilaration of survival," Hilsum writes, "when the bomb goes off just after you leave, or hits the empty building down the road, missing you by a few yards or minutes."
Hilsum drew on a variety of sources to create her portrait: Colvin's articles for the
of London, e-mails, faxes, interviews with her by other journalists, books by other journalists, her own interviews with more than 100 people who knew or encountered Colvin, and more than 300 journals Colvin kept from 1969, when she was 13, until January 2012, a month before she was killed.
Colvin was born in Queens and grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, one of five children. Her parents were socially conscious and pro-
Otested the Vietnam War. Her mother was trained as a teacher; her father, Bill, was a high school English teacher with an unfulfilled dream of becoming a journalist. He died of cancer at age 50. Colvin, then 21, was grief-stricken, but she had learned a lesson, she wrote in her journal: "LIFE IS TOO SHORT."
"There's so much I wanted to show him — prove myself to him," she wrote. "Somehow, he was and is still my standard. I did everything to make him proud."
After serving as UPI Paris bureau chief and then star correspondent for the Colvin reflected: "It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity ‘in extremis,' pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars."
Colvin's personal life was a war zone as well. She was married twice and had several long-term affairs. She suffered miscarriages and never was able to have a child. Her mother once told one of Colvin's suitors, "My daughter is
unmarriageable." painfully chronicles Colvin's spiral into depression. She eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and some treatment helped, but she was never treated for alcoholism. As Hilsum vividly explains, "She could not unsee what she had seen." She was wounded in Sri Lanka, covering the war of secession by the Tamil Tigers. Her report in the
quoted in this book, depicts that terrifying moment when a soldier opened fire straight at her: "We were running through the last dark field for the line of jungle ahead when the silence was broken by the thunder of automatic weapons fire about 100 yards to the right. I dived down and began crawling, belly on the ground, for some cover. For a few minutes, someone was crawling on top of me — protection or panic, I don't know. Then I was alone, behind weeds . ... Bursts of gunfire began across the road about half a mile away. The search and destroy patrols had come out. I heard soldiers on the road, talking and laughing. One fired a burst from an automatic weapon that scythed down the weeds in front of me and left me covered in green shoots. If I didn't yell now, they would stumble on me and shoot. I began to shout 'Journalist! Journalist! American! USA!'"
The rebels opened fire with a rocket-propelled grenade. A chest wound almost killed Colvin, and shrapnel hit her eye. The rebels rushed her to a local hospital where doctors saved her life, but they could not save her eye.
Reading this book is painful. I thought about her and about other war correspondents with whom I've worked. At the end of my brief assignments, I always went home. For them, something kept pulling them back.
Colvin saw it clearly: "War reporting is still essentially the same — someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people ... will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference."