POIGNANT MEM­O­RIES

It’s the time of year when we re­call times spent with those dear to us. Jour­nal­ist Lindsey Hil­sum’s thoughts have turned to her friend, leg­endary for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Marie Colvin, who was trag­i­cally killed in Syria

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Jour­nal­ist Lindsey Hil­sum re­mem­bers her brave friend, Marie Colvin

It’s strange to get to know your friend bet­ter in death than in life, yet that’s what has hap­pened to me since Marie was killed in Syria in Fe­bru­ary 2012. If she had lived, I would never have read the jour­nals she kept from the age of 13 un­til just be­fore she died. I wouldn’t have found out about the teenager who re­belled against her par­ents when they made her go to Mass ev­ery Sun­day in the con­ser­va­tive Long Is­land town where she grew up. ‘To church. Wore mini. The mother and the father no like,’ she wrote in her di­ary, and in­stantly I could see a tri­umphantly de­fi­ant younger ver­sion of the wo­man I had known. Marie got her big break in 1986, then aged 30, when she in­ter­viewed Colonel Gaddafi as the US was pre­par­ing to bomb Libya. I was re­port­ing from Africa at the time, and found my­self the only English­s­peak­ing for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in Rwanda in 1994 when the geno­cide started. I al­ready knew Marie by rep­u­ta­tion but we met prop­erly in 1998 in the tiny coun­try of Dji­bouti in the Horn of Africa – the hottest place on earth. War had bro­ken out be­tween neigh­bour­ing Ethiopia and Eritrea, and we found our­selves next to each other as a rick­ety Ukrainian air­craft

head­ing for the Eritrean cap­i­tal, As­mara, tax­ied down the run­way. Two ob­jects whipped past the win­dow – our pi­lots’ sweaty shirts, which they had hung on the wings to dry out and for­got­ten to put back on. We peered through the open cock­pit door – yes, they were fly­ing bare-chested. As we lurched up, the TV gear they had piled up, un­se­cured at the front, grad­u­ally slid down the aisle. Con­vinced we were go­ing to die, Marie and I laughed so much we nearly fell out of our seats. We were like school­girls with the gig­gles in class, stop­ping briefly, catch­ing the other’s eye and start­ing up again. That was when we be­came friends, the time we thought we would plunge to our deaths from the skies above the Red Sea.

HID­DEN EMO­TIONS

It wasn’t un­til I be­gan to re­search Marie’s bi­og­ra­phy that I re­alised the laugh­ter hid so much pain. Her per­sonal life was as much of a war zone as her pro­fes­sional one.

‘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,’ she wrote. She lived her own life in ex­tremis too, drink­ing and smok­ing to ex­cess and al­ways caught up in some tu­mul­tuous ro­mance. Her mar­riage to Pa­trick, a fel­low for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, foundered on his in­fi­delity. Her sec­ond mar­riage, to a Bo­li­vian jour­nal­ist, was pas­sion­ate while they were liv­ing in a war zone – where the prox­im­ity of death made love more intense – but af­ter they moved to Lon­don, the ex­cite­ment fiz­zled out.

[con­tin­ued from pre­vi­ous page] She and Pa­trick got back to­gether in 1999, dur­ing the war in Kosovo, when they met in a bar in Al­ba­nia af­ter Marie had just sur­vived sev­eral days un­der fire with the Kosovo Lib­er­a­tion Army. ‘It was like a scene from a B movie,’ he told me. They os­cil­lated be­tween Paris and Lon­don and Marie fre­quently told peo­ple they had re­mar­ried, even though they hadn’t.

HER DE­TER­MI­NA­TION

Marie dis­tin­guished her­self from the pack by al­ways go­ing in fur­ther and stay­ing longer. In the win­ter of 1999, I cov­ered the war in Chech­nya from the bor­der but she went in with rebels fight­ing the Rus­sian govern­ment and got pinned down in a snow-cov­ered field for 12 hours un­der Rus­sian bom­bard­ment. ‘The planes – evil ma­chines with the sun glint­ing off their sleek sil­ver bod­ies, cir­cled again and again,’ she wrote in that week’s Sun­day Times. ‘It takes no imag­i­na­tion to un­der­stand the fear of civil­ians who have to en­dure this day af­ter day.’ The bomb­ing cut the road back to the Ge­or­gian bor­der and the only way out was to trek across the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains. Marie, a pho­tog­ra­pher and a cou­ple of weapons smug­glers who acted as guides, ended up spend­ing Christ­mas Eve in a shepherd’s hut with just bread ends and mouldy gar­lic to eat.

‘Should be in Paris cook­ing Christ­mas din­ner,’ she wrote. ‘Does make me think who cares – Mom if she knows will have a ter­ri­ble Xmas. Pa­trick will be wor­ried and fu­ri­ous; I can’t tell what he will feel – I think he does love me, but it’s a love where he wants his own life and me to fit into it…’

Even­tu­ally Marie and Pa­trick split up again. Marie’s friends were her main sup­port sys­tem. The friend­ship she and I shared was less in­ti­mate and grew from the ca­ma­raderie of the road. One evening when we were shar­ing a plat­form in front of an au­di­ence of hu­man rights ac­tivists, a wo­man asked how we coped with the trauma of cov­er­ing war. ‘Lindsey and I, we go to bars and we drink,’ re­sponded Marie. We got the gig­gles, but in the end it wasn’t so funny. I loved the par­ties Marie gave first in her flat in Not­ting Hill and later at her house in Ham­mer­smith, but I used to slip away when she be­came in­co­her­ent. I didn’t feel I knew her well enough to con­front her about her drink­ing.

Marie was a true be­liever in war re­porters’ re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­pose the hypocrisy of politi­cians and the suf­fer­ing of civil­ians and

con­scripts. No risk, it seemed, was too great. She lost the sight in her left eye in 2001, af­ter a Sri Lankan govern­ment sol­dier shot her as she was cross­ing the front line from ter­ri­tory held by the Tamil Tiger guer­ril­las. She had an oper­a­tion that saved the eye it­self but failed to re­move a 6mm sliver of shrap­nel lodged against the op­tic nerve. ‘I can’t cry,’ she told me, ‘And I need to be­cause I keep get­ting mes­sages from Tamils want­ing to donate their eye to me.’ They saw her as their hero­ine be­cause of the sac­ri­fice she had made to re­port their story. From then on she wore an eye patch, which be­came her trade­mark.

PER­SONAL STRUG­GLES

She had al­ways loved clothes and among her pa­pers I found an un­pub­lished ar­ti­cle about how pack­ing for a hol­i­day made her un­der­stand that some­thing ir­rev­o­ca­ble had hap­pened to her. ‘As I tried on the lacyedged cardi­gans, the flimsy sun­dress, the clothes of other sum­mers, I re­alised that noth­ing in my wardrobe worked,’ she wrote. ‘The black eye patch some­how un­bal­anced and dom­i­nated ev­ery­thing. I looked like I was in some­one else’s clothes.’ Think­ing about su­per­fi­cial things also dis­tracted her from deeper wor­ries. ‘Af­ter sur­viv­ing the trauma, I found there were dark places that were too dif­fi­cult to go for a while. It was eas­ier to think about the sur­face un­til the night­mares be­come just mem­o­ries.’

But it took years for the night­mares to re­cede. The mo­ment be­fore she was shot re­peated in her dreams and she was haunted

by scenes she had wit­nessed in war. For a while she just kept go­ing. We bumped into each other in April 2002 when the Is­raelis were be­sieg­ing the Pales­tinian town of Jenin, in the oc­cu­pied West Bank. The pic­tures of us in front of the rub­ble of a de­stroyed house are the only ones I have of us to­gether. We look tired, dusty and happy, which is what we were, united in a jour­nal­is­tic urge to get to the bot­tom of the story. But un­der­neath, Marie was start­ing to feel numb. For the first time, she found it hard to mo­ti­vate her­self. In 2004 she was treated for post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Sail­ing, a pas­time she en­joyed as a child, also pro­vided ther­apy. She be­gan to sail with a new man, and it seemed that he might pro­vide the sta­bil­ity she craved, but the re­la­tion­ship was tem­pes­tu­ous and fraught.

In Fe­bru­ary 2012 we had din­ner in Beirut. I told her that sneak­ing il­le­gally across the bor­der into Syria, where rev­o­lu­tion was turn­ing into war, was too dan­ger­ous for me but she was de­ter­mined to go. I re­turned to Lon­don while she and the pho­tog­ra­pher Paul Con­roy set out on a har­row­ing two-day jour­ney into the be­sieged sub­urb of Baba Amr, in Homs. ‘Not sure it’s my best move but so anger-mak­ing it’s worth it,’ she wrote to me in an email. Her re­port on the wid­ows’ base­ment, where women and chil­dren hid from the re­lent­less bom­bard­ment, was one of the best she ever wrote. Af­ter she left Baba Amr she felt guilty for aban­don­ing them, so she re­turned. When I heard, I was fu­ri­ous with her. Why run the risk a sec­ond time?

‘Lindsey, it’s the worst we’ve ever seen,’ she said in a Skype call. ‘What’s your exit strat­egy?’ I asked. She paused. ‘That’s just it. I don’t have one. I’m work­ing on it now.’ A few hours later she was killed by a Syr­ian govern­ment mor­tar tar­geted on the rebel me­dia cen­tre where she was stay­ing.

Much has been writ­ten about Marie’s fi­nal, fate­ful trip. Her killing was ev­i­dence of her com­mit­ment to the story, and showed the lengths to which the Syr­ian govern­ment would go to si­lence voices con­tra­dict­ing its nar­ra­tive that there were no civil­ians, only ter­ror­ists in Baba Amr. Yet I don’t want Marie to be re­mem­bered just for her vi­o­lent, tragic death at the age of 56. I wrote the bi­og­ra­phy to bring her back to life, so oth­ers could know Marie Colvin in all her flawed glory. ◆ Lindsey Hil­sum is Chan­nel 4 News’ in­ter­na­tional ed­i­tor. Her book In Ex­tremis: the Life of War Cor­re­spon­dent Marie Colvin (Chatto & Win­dus) is out now

Lindsey (left) and Marie, in Jenin, Pales­tine

Marie lost the sight in her left eye af­ter be­ing shot in Sri Lanka

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