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
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.
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.
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.
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